The “Ministry 7 Year Itch” and What To Do About It

“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?

Photo by Bailey Gullo on Unsplash

So Much N O I S E! (and a Book Giveaway)

I grew up in rural America. We had neighbors, but you couldn’t see them. In fact, get this, you couldn’t even hear them. And I know this stretches the bounds of believability, but you couldn’t even smell the neighbors’ food. They were acres away.

We were closer to cows than people.

Now I live in a place where you can most definitely see your neighbors (because the kitchen and bedroom windows are less than 10 feet from their kitchen and bedroom windows.) Now I can hear the neighbors coughing (or fighting or playing marbles with bowling balls).

I can feel the neighbor’s music, and I can certainly smell the neighbors’ food.

Is this stressful for anyone else?

In the whole scheme of cross-cultural work, in the whole Story we’re excited to live out, noise and hyper-proximity is not a very big deal. You could even spiritualize it and call it incarnational. But you know, I’m a human, and the constant LOUDNESS is actually a thing. It’s actually a pretty stressful thing. So I thought I’d use the first part of this article to see if it’s stressful for anyone else?

You too? Really?

How do you deal with it?

I believe in a multi-disciplinary approach, ergo, I’ve tried pharmaceuticals (Benadryl), technology (apps), multiple physical barriers (mattresses and headphones), and of course, prayer (“please make hearing ears deaf”).

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with our living arrangements in Cambodia (or our neighbors, for that matter), and I’m in no way claiming any sort of moral superiority because I like quiet. It’s just that this is part of the cross-cultural thing that’s hard: it’s a lot louder here than where I came from, and eight years hasn’t changed that.

So here’s how I manage…

Diphenhydramine sort of helps with getting to sleep and staying that way. Consult with your doctor first, and word to the wise: don’t try parenting while on this stuff, ’cause that’s not good for no one.

Noise cancelling headphones = magic. My over usage, combined with the tropical climate, destroyed multiple sets of the earpieces on these things. But still, one of the best purchases of my cross-cultural life.

Nope. It’s not gum. You’re looking at my earplugs container. I’ve got one of these in my office, one in my backpack, and one on the nightstand. You NEVER want to be without earplugs. Just remember it’s not gum.

The Sleep Pillow app. (see below)

I heart white noise. So if you take the white noise that’s possible from Sleep Pillow, add in earplugs, then cover the whole thing with noise cancelling headphones, _______________________ is all you can hear.

Extreme circumstances call for extreme measures. When our neighbors decided that karaoke was the best way to spend evenings, we called in the Queens — two queen-size foam mattresses propped up outside of our bedroom windows. This might be confusing if you’re not sure how Cambodian row houses work, but if you get it, you totally get it. Basically, our bedroom windows open up into this room, which is the first level. I was standing in our front door when I took this photo.


If none of these measures are effective, then you should probably just go ahead and buy our book.

A Book Giveaway!
Elizabeth and I would love to gift a couple of folks with a free Kindle version of our new book, Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie, or Weary Cross-cultural Christian Worker.* If you live in the US, the UK, or Australia, we could send you a hard copy instead, if you’d like.

Ruth Van Reken (co-author of Third Culture Kids) had this to say about Serving Well:

“Recently I read a lovely book called Serving Well by Jonathan Trotter and Elizabeth Trotter. While it contains many great practical tips and strategies for success in cross-cultural living and working, it is not simply one more ‘how-to’ manual. Particularly for those in the faith-based communities, the authors continually emphasize the why of service, not simply the how. This is a soul-encouraging book. I highly recommend it.

Serving Well has over 100 chapters that cover everything from how to prepare for the field all the way to how to return well. It includes reflections and discussions on transitioning overseas, taking care of your heart, marriage, and children once you’re there, communicating with senders, common pitfalls, grief and loss, and what to do when things don’t go as planned.

To be entered into the drawing, think of someone who might like a copy of Serving Well and then tag them in the comments section of A Life Overseas’ Facebook share of this post. If you tag someone, we’ll enter your name and their name into a drawing that will happen on September 10th. You can tag up to three people and they will all be entered into the drawing.

If you are reading this via e-mail and you have limited access to Facebook, just reply to the message and put “book giveaway” in the subject line. That’ll get you entered.

Thanks so much for understanding that this cross-cultural gig is amazing, and LOUD, and rewarding, and hard, and wonderful, and so much more.

And may the Father’s grace and peace be with you and yours today.


All for ONE,


*affiliate link