Disordered Work Ethics in Ministry

 

I struggle with rest. More accurately, I battle the guilt I associate with rest. And I know it comes from two significant pieces of my identity: the MK part and the missionary part. Perhaps this is why the story of Loïc Leferme struck me as a wake-up call when I first saw a documentary about his life.

Loïc Leferme is a French world-record holder in freediving. To be more precise, he’s a dead world-record holder. Leferme passed away in 2007 while trying to beat his own 561-feet depth record with no respiration devices . He had only the air in his lungs as he was propelled downward by a motorized pulley system.

I was instantly fascinated by Loïc’s story — not so much by his underwater exploits as by the sheer obsession this man had with finding the limits of his physical and mental capacities, then surpassing them over and over. Each dive was Loïc’s death-defying statement that nothing was too much for him and that he would not let the universe determine what he could and couldn’t withstand.

One of the last questions asked of him in the documentary was a perplexed, “Why do you do it?” Loïc’s answer was sobering. With a soft, awe-filled smile, he said: “I cannot stop until I’ve found how far I can go.”

No one knows exactly what happened the day Loïc died. After eight minutes under water, he was found unconscious by his best friend and trainer, slowly floating back to the surface where his wife and children waited in inflatable crafts.

He had found his body’s limits. And finding them had destroyed him.

Extreme Ministry
There have been times in my life when I’ve wondered how deep my own Loïc Leferme tendencies go. Back in 2017, fresh off major surgery, I mentioned in a newsletter that I was dealing with an unexpected setback in my recovery.

The next day, I received an email from a friend: “I am not your counselor, your mentor or your doctor — but perhaps your body is trying to slow you down just a little so you can give yourself appropriate time to recover.”

That email brought an uncomfortable epiphany. It had felt good to get back in the saddle after being sidelined by illness. To return to my pre-surgery routines. To say “Yes!” as often as possible, defying the “Nos” that had been imposed on me by my diagnosis. But as I read her words, I realized that I’d actually been drill-sergeanting myself into something I call “extreme ministry.” And it wasn’t a new thing.

For the majority of my years serving Missionaries’ Kids, I’ve given in to a compulsion to keep pushing the limits of my human endurance in an attempt to earn the approval of the God who called me and the communities that watched me, and to appease the fear of failure—the fear of lessness—that haunted me.

There was no verse I could point to that said, “You will be rewarded for working yourself so hard that your body and spirit give out.” There was no written or spoken message that told me that burnout is a measure of true faith. But somehow, I’d absorbed that subliminal, toxic messaging so much in my youth that it was permeating my adulthood.

What are some of the unhelpful messages that get whispered in missionary communities and unwittingly passed down in missionary families? I asked the 1,200 adult MKs of a group I moderate to chime in, and these are some of their answers:

      • People don’t give for us to sit around doing nothing
      • The appearance of slothfulness is bad for our ‘brand’
      • We should always be available, no matter the hour or day
      • “Newsletter pressure” – proving to supporters that something is being accomplished with their funds
      • We must work hard for Jesus in order to appease Him, minimize His wrath, and improve our chances of having prayers answered
      • “I’d rather burn out than rust out!”
      • Folks back home are sacrificing and working extra to support us, so how can we do any less?
      • Things such as time off for recovery, setting personal boundaries, taking a break/vacation, and focusing on family needs are seen as secondary to “kingdom work”

Essentially, the motivating message is this: pour yourself out until you have nothing left to give. This is the mark of a faithful believer. This elevates you in the eyes of your creator. Your conscious self-destruction is good and noble.

The mission field is littered with the remains of Loïc Leferme types who found limitation-shattering to be an exhilarating “sport”…right up until it became a devastating curse. And the victims aren’t just the missionaries who devote themselves to a quest for superhuman achievement and are willing to sacrifice their physical, mental, and spiritual health to their efforts. Among the MKs I work with today, I see a spectrum of work-ethic-dysfunction that bleeds into their adult years and sometimes gets passed down to their own children.

People who live under a constant barrage of pressure to do more and be better will tend to respond in one of two extremes. They will either do all they can to perform beyond their capacity—no matter the cost—or they’ll choose to divest themselves entirely of any obligation or inclination to succeed. I’ve seen both archetypes in the population I serve.

They become either broken overachievers or deliberate underachievers. Both responses represent seriously disordered thinking.

Crushing Depths
When I arrived in Germany in 1991 to work as a writer for Black Forest Academy’s communications department, I came with the full understanding that BFA also stood for “Be Flexible Always.” So when the director dramatically changed the plan on my first day, I took it all in stride.

Looking back, the conversation is mostly a blur. I was told, in essence, “We need you to teach two levels of high school English, two levels of middle school French, direct the school play and the high school ensemble, and commute every day from France while attending all of BFA’s events and developing relationships with the students… Oh, and you’ll volunteer in the dorms too. You can do all that, right?

The missionary neophyte in me nodded dumbly and considered the assignment an honor. What followed was a two-year spiral that started with exhilaration and ended in something close to abject despair. 

Having grown up watching adults sacrificing health, relationships and longevity to their ministry, I didn’t question the wisdom of throwing myself headlong into the insurmountable job description I’d been assigned.

I was the Loïc Leferme of the mission world for those two first years at BFA, pushing past my boundaries over and over again, allowing into my life the kind of stress and over-commitment that absolutely crushed me. By the time I realized what was happening, I was utterly spent.

Fighting the compulsion to overdo it is hard, particularly when it has spiritual overtones. Saying, “I can’t do that” feels like a shameful admission of weakness or ineptitude—of insufficient faith. And in an environment where everything we do is supposed to be for others, it also feels self-absorbed and unworthy.

I know you’ve met the people I’m describing. Maybe you’re one of them — the good, dedicated servant-hearts who push themselves so hard for so long that they can’t withstand the strain. The committed Christ-followers who sacrifice their family’s well-being to the poisons of absence and overwork. The missionaries and MKs who have floated back to the surface—fractured and ashamed—after failing to be indestructible.

We’re all susceptible to Loïc’s desperate drive to find and exceed our limitations “in God’s name. 

We do it out of conviction and devotion. Leave it all on the field, right? It’s all for the Lord, and He demands everything from us. We may also do it because, rightfully or not, we feel the scrutiny of others in our communities, and we fear their condemnation if we fail to live up to their conception of how busy and overwhelmed a “good” Christian should be.

For people who are meant to live as Jesus did, we’re awfully quick to overlook the example he gave us. Even the Son of God had to take breaks from a ministry in which he was literally saving lives during his time in a human body. If people were healed by simply touching the edge of his garment, think of how many more could have survived whatever was plaguing them if he hadn’t taken the initiative to go off alone.

Yet he did exactly that. He gave himself permission to take a step back, instructing us by example to do the same when it is wise and necessary.

We are so quick to quote verses about our bodies being “a temple” when it comes to managing our diet and exercising more, yet we too often forget to treat them as such when they demand restraint and rest .

Stepping back feels self-protective and not others-focused enough. Yet our self-monitoring and self-care need to be fully engaged at all times if we’re to escape the “benevolent decay” caused by unchecked busyness and damaging do-gooding.

It’s a tension I live in every day. As an MK. As a missionary. As a single woman. As a survivor. As a fragile human with finite strength. Yet I believe it’s out of obedience to God that we must make wise decisions about our investment in work and ministry. That we must protect ourselves from over-commitment and exhaustion. That we must acknowledge that it’s okay to slow down when necessary, to push less, to stop long enough to notice those who depend on us who are waiting on the surface of our calling—peering into the depths of our excesses, hoping we’ll swim back into their lives when we come to our senses.

Preventable burnout is not heroic. It is mismanagement of the capacities and calling God gave us. And having needs is not a flaw—it’s a feature of God’s design in us.

Essential Sabbath
In Wayne Muller’s excellent book, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in our Busy Lives, he wrote: “If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our Sabbath—our pneumonia, our cancer, our heart attack, our accidents create Sabbath for us.”

He’s not saying that God will cause illness to punish our excesses. He’s saying that the breaking of our endurance will force us to rest. And that rest is God ordained and God pleasing.

Loïc Leferme’s tragic example can be a cautionary tale that prompts us all to greater self-reflection and to dependence on God for wiser self-management. Our God is a God of love and kindness, one who made himself human and knows the limitations of bodies best fueled by sleep and silence and serenity and self-control–bodies for whom laughter and leisure are as important as passion and purpose. As important as details and deadlines and all the “doing” that is a good thing, but not the ultimate thing.

In The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Mark Comer makes this brilliant point: “Corrie ten Boom once said that if the devil can’t make you sin, he’ll make you busy. There’s truth in that. Both sin and busyness have the exact same effect—they cut off your connection to God, to other people, and even to your own soul.”

I can’t imagine a more grievous loss.

From Striving to Thriving
I have only one fragile body to rely on for the years of life God gives me. One heart to invest in the people with whom he’s entrusted me. One soul to commit to a flourishing relationship with him. That is a fact for every one of us.

Despite the compelling voice of guilt trying to dissuade us , we must find a way to love ourselves as Jesus loves us. We must recognize the necessary boundaries he reveals to us in times of stress and pain. We must monitor the spiritual and emotional fault-lines through which he speaks to us of lack of margin. 

We must surrender our compulsion for “doing” and “surpassing” to his whispered assurance that He’s greater than our best efforts and endlessly forgiving of our shortcomings. He delights in us whether we accomplish much or nothing.

We must choose and practice living both proactively and protectively, sacrificing for those we love, but not seeking significance in spiritualized self-harm. And we must rest in the certainty that God loves us so much more than he needs us.

If you’re the Loïc Leferme of whatever context you inhabit, might I suggest these five small considerations that have begun to help me? Until we curb our tendency toward extreme ministry, we will continue to teach disordered work—which is evidence of a disordered heart—to the impressionable souls watching us for guidance.

      1. Study the importance of rest as demonstrated and described in the Bible: the emphasis God places on the Sabbath and the way Jesus embodies wise boundaries.
      2. Pause regularly and for long enough to find stillness and listen to God’s voice.
      3. Assess your needs and health (physical, emotional, spiritual) at regular intervals, maybe even giving those who love and know you best the permission to speak of the harmful compulsions and idols they see in you.
      4. Experience the wisdom and blessing of saying wise “Nos” for all the right reasons.
      5. Surrender your drive for measurable achievement and enter instead into intimate relationship with the Creator who desires not only your faithfulness, but your flourishing.

As we negotiate the demands of complex lives in which obligations, relationships and time seem to compete with each other, my prayer is that we’ll discover that sweet spot where Jesus is our refuge and serving him our joy–where obedience yields health and striving yields thriving. That we will become, with focus and practice, a God-delighting, faith-cultivating and family-preserving testament to well-ordered living.

I pray this for myself.

For the families I serve.

And for the MKs I love.

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Michele Phoenix

Born in France to a Canadian father and an American mother, Michèle is a consultant, writer, and speaker motivated by a deep passion for Third Culture Kids. After teaching for twenty years at Black Forest Academy (Germany), she launched her own ministry—equipping MKs and TCKs for flourishing, while offering those who care for them the information they need to love them well. Her articles, novels, and podcast are available on her website. Michèle travels globally to consult and teach, drawing from her thirty-plus years of experience in TCK spaces. She loves good conversations, mischievous students, French pastries, and paths to healing.

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