“Amy, what resources do you have for this question?” A friend forwarded an email she received from a co-worker in her organization:
I have noticed patterns in workers and myself who have been overseas roughly 5-10 years. I have asked our member care folks about this as well. The bulk of resources for cross-cultural workers are related to cultural adjustment or stress stuff that is focused on beginning or re-entry—not the “in between” or “middle space” where you are supposedly thriving and rockin’ it! I am beginning to see people leave after 7+ years of service, but not related to any of the issues that are normally talked about…and I think I am beginning to understand why. But I don’t want to be in that category!
Like the questioner, in year two or three, I was thriving and “rocking it” and declared that I would never leave my city; and even added punch “and certainly never move to Beijing.” You probably have your own Beijing, the place that is too loud, crowded, or boring. Guess where I moved after five years in my original city?
At the time I chalked it up to angelic laughter and the hubris of youth. Looking back with a broader range of history to reflect on, it was more than angelic laughter going on.
Part of the broader context is that in my third year, due to my “I will never move” sentiments, I was allowed to stay in my city while taking on additional responsibilities for my organization. I became in charge of training all incoming teachers how to teach in Asia.
So, when I moved to Beijing several years later, I was ready for the new challenge of working with others on the national staff. Additionally, I thought the relocation would scratch my growing boredom itch. In part it did.
But my first year in Beijing, my sixth year on the field, I was surprised to find a hint of boredom creep in again.
How could I be bored?
I was using my training on a scale I never imagined when I earned my MA, I was working with fascinating and capable people, and hello, I was living in CHINA. China! How could I be bored?
I don’t think any of my teammates knew how deep this growing restlessness was. Truth be told, I don’t think I knew how deep it went. The head of member care had asked me to visit a couple of our teams and, much to my surprise, I loved working with them. When the head of member care announced that he and his wife were returning to the States, the organization posted the job.
With prayer and discernment I applied, knowing that if I got the job God was opening the door for me to stay in China and if I didn’t get the job the following year (year seven) would be my last. I got the job. But, no surprise, it wasn’t my “final” job in the organization. Every couple of years what I did morphed or changed in some way that reengaged me.
Lots has been written about missionaries and burnout, and rightly so. But what about the other extreme: rusting out? As the questioner above mused, after getting over the initial transition and adjusted to life on the field, shouldn’t you be set up to thrive? What about still wanting to be a part of God’s call, yet finding boredom creeping in?
What to do about the 7 year itch (really the 5-10 year itch)?
1. Acknowledge rusting out can happen.Wouldn’t it be great if organizations are as preventative oriented about personnel rusting out as they are about burnout? They can be and discussions like this help. Bottom line, know that in year five or so people are ready for a new challenge.
2. Plan for it. Life is not going to be all thrillsville and sometimes God asks us to do something that though necessary, becomes “meh” to us. But throughout the Bible we see the development of people—Joseph, David, Moses, Hannah, Paul, or John. Each of them experienced a change in their work as they grew, experienced suffering, made mistakes, and felt abandoned. For you, take an online course or a Global Trellis workshop. Learn a new skill. Find ways to serve others. (Consider facilitating a Velvet Ashes Connection Group or The Retreat this spring.) If your organization does not have “rust avoidance” plans, be proactive and invest in your own growth and development.
3. Get creative. You might be too close to see what could work in your town or organization or stage of life. If you find yourself thinking, “That would never work here,” talk to others in your organization or consider meeting with a life coach with missionary experience. He or she is trained to help you think through what could work where you are. Sometimes God uses boredom as a sign to move on. But sometimes boredom is an invitation to become more involved. (Check out the “coaches” listed in these resources.)
4. Budget for it. While this might seem to be a part of plan to avoid rusting out, “plan for it” is more in your head, and “budget for it” is more in your wallet and calendar. You will not drift into growth and development . . . as we can see from the number of people leaving the field because they are not as challenged as they used to be.
5. Pray and Trust God’s Heart. My biggest concern in writing this post is to avoid the message that “You need to be fulfilled at all times.” Sometimes you are in a season that feels claustrophobic or boring and God is using it for your good and growth. But sometimes you have more freedom to explore ways to mitigate boredom or feeling less engaged than you might realize.
What about you? If you have been on the field for a while, have you experienced a “7 year ministry itch?” What has been instrumental in continuing to grow?