50 can be a challenging age for anybody. On reaching half a century, we have to start coming to terms with ageing, knowing that most of us are now over halfway through our lives.
Perhaps we are no longer able to play 5-a-side with the teenagers, or we are starting to have to make regular nocturnal visits to the toilet or coming to terms with the fact that our body tells us we can’t have children. We may need varifocal lenses or hearing aids. At the same time, we may be dealing with the drama of our children leaving home, or confronting the tragedy that we might never get married, and dealing with the pain of caring for elderly parents. So there is a lot for us to take on board.
At the same time, we are rising to the peak of our professional responsibility. We may be in senior management positions, elders in a church, pillars of our community, trustees of various organisations. We are expected to mentor younger people, act as consultants and advisors, and start ‘paying something back’ into the community. People expect our behaviour to be better than when we were teenagers (“You’re old enough to know better!”) and there is less tolerance of our mistakes as we are assumed to be more mature. But there’s also that nagging doubt that we’ve built on shifting sand. Will our life’s work last? Have we devoted our lives to something worthwhile? Will our children thrive? Or in others words:
The pressure of responsibility and expectation on us rises, just as our energy levels are starting to fall.
The crisis can take a number of forms: a stress-related health incident, ministry burnout and resignation, moral failure, crisis of faith, divorce – and all these hazards lurk out there waiting to trip up the unwary mission worker. For no obvious reason an apparently exemplary worker will suddenly crack under pressure and fall to pieces, injuring many others with the fallout. Lives are damaged, churches shattered, faith rocked. Broken and hurting people return to their sending countries haunted by words like failure and defeat.
So how can we prevent this happening?
Mission workers can:
- Ensure you maintain a vibrant relationship with God, taking time off work if necessary to devote time to God.
- Remember to say no to additional responsibilities if you do not feel called to take them on.
- Take time to reflect regularly on your identity. Are you a Martha or a Mary? Which way round is your dynamic triangle flowing?
- Have a frank relationship with an accountability partner or mentor.
- If you’re married, make sure you take regular steps to invest in your relationship. If you’re not married, make sure you learn to thrive in your singleness.
- Learn to delegate effectively so that you don’t have to cope with excessive busyness as well as excessive responsibility.
- Rejoice that though we are physically decaying we are growing more godly (2 Corinthians 4:16)
- Take a break at the first sign of stress-related illness.
Churches and agencies can:
- Take active steps to ensure their mission workers are not overworked and take regular holidays and study leave
- Use regular appraisals to ask challenging questions about spiritual, emotional and physical well-being
- Encourage mentoring
- Organise training to help mission workers understand what makes them tick and why they may be tempted to overwork.
- Ensure mission workers are sufficiently well-funded to be able to take holidays.
- Have a good member care team in place
- Send out family and friends to support and encourage.
- Ensure that mission workers take regular and sufficient home assignment and have regular healthchecks
- Recognise that cross-cultural living can take its toll on people’s health and spirituality
- Provide practical support to help reduce the pressure on mission workers