I wasn’t prepared for the email I received from a friend yesterday, after I’d written about a minor health setback in my recovery from the surgery and cancer diagnosis that turned my world upside down.
The email said, “I am not your counselor, your mentor or your doctor — but perhaps God is trying to slow you down just a little so that you give yourself appropriate time to recover.”
I balked at the message. Then I gave it some thought. The irony of the timing wasn’t lost on me: I’ve been working for weeks on an article about the ministry burnout that too often forces missionaries from the field before they feel their time is up—all the while coaxing my body back into an exercise routine, filling my days with as much work as I did before the medical drama and planning for future international travel.
It has felt good—fulfilling the pledge I made 25 years ago to devote my life to serving and helping MKs.
But I realized as I processed my friend’s message that I am no less foolhardy than Loïc Leferme.
Who is Loïc Leferme? He’s a French world-record holder in freediving. A dead world-record holder. He passed away in 2007, while trying to beat his own 561-feet depth record with no respiration devices — just the air in his lungs as he was propelled downward by a motorized pulley system.
I was instantly fascinated by Loïc’s story when I heard it several years ago — 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, that he would not succumb to banal human limitations and that the universe would not determine what he could and couldn’t withstand.
In the documentary that introduced me to him, the interviewer concluded by asking Loïc a final question: Why do you do it? His 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.
I’m not new to the sport of “extreme ministering.” I’ve written a cautionary novel on exactly that topic, but am no less immune to its lure.
When I arrived in Germany in 1991, ostensibly 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, on my first day, upended my expectations, 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 English, two levels of French, direct the school play and the high school ensemble, and commute every day from France while attending BFA’s events and developing relationships with the students… You can do 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.
I dove in with a happy heart and great expectations, determined to push back the boundaries of what I thought I was capable of achieving. I was the Loïc Leferme of the mission world for those two first years at BFA, pushing past my boundaries over and over again, sinking to depths of stress and over-commitment that crushed relentlessly until I nearly imploded. By the time I realized what was happening, I was spent. I had nothing left.
In my quest to meet everyone’s needs without any concern for my own — in my attempt to extend the restrictions of my humanity — I had found my limits and, finding them, collapsed.
Oh, I still loved BFA and my students. I managed to do my job and direct plays and concerts and be a good soldier… But I knew that the repeated impulse to steer my car into a tree on my drive home was a sign that something was severely wrong.
The mission field can also be a battle field, and it is littered with Loïc-Leferme-types who found limitation-shattering to be an exhilarating “sport”…right up until it became devastating.
The victims aren’t just the missionaries who dive headlong into a quest for superhuman achievement, sacrificing their physical and spiritual health to their efforts. The victims can also be the spouses, children and friends entrusted into their care.
Fighting the compulsion to overdo it is hard, particularly when it has spiritual overtones.
Saying, “I can’t do that” is tantamount to treason in ministry. It feels like a shameful admission of weakness or ineptitude, of insufficient faith. And in an environment where everything we do is supposed to be done for others, it also feels self-absorbed and unworthy.
I know you’ve met them. Maybe you’re one of them — the good, dedicated, “called” people who push themselves so hard for so long that they can’t survive the strain. The humble servants who have left the mission field broken and shamed by their “weakness.” The committed Christ-followers who sacrificed their family’s wellbeing to the poison of absence and overwork.
We’re all susceptible to it. We buy into Loïc’s compulsion to find and exceed our limitations in God’s name. We do it out of conviction and devotion. Leave it all on the court, right? It’s all for the Lord and He demands everything from us.
We also do it because, rightfully or not, we feel the scrutiny of ministry partners who support us with funds and prayers, and we fear their condemnation if we fail to live up to their concept of how busy and overwhelmed a “good” missionary should be.
For people who are meant to live as Jesus did, we’re awfully quick to overlook the example he left 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 if he hadn’t taken the initiative to go off alone…
Yet he did. He gave himself the permission to take a step back, instructing us by example to do the same when it is wise and necessary.
We’re 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 the message when it demands restraint and rest — when it feels self-protective and not others-focused enough.
I should know — I’m fighting exactly that battle as I try to find balance and wisdom in the pacing of my post-surgery life. I know it would be easier in a more traditional career, where the pressure to exceed isn’t so wrapped up in the nebulous concept of servanthood and self-sacrifice.
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 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, chronic burnout is not heroic.
It’s mismanagement of the capacities and calling God gave us.
I am fortunate to be engaged in a ministry I love, in a community I cherish. But I have only one fragile body to commit to serving God. So I pledge anew — despite the voices of guilt trying to dissuade me — to respect the boundaries He reveals to me through stress and pain. To monitor the spiritual and emotional signs through which he speaks to me of lack of wisdom. To bow my compulsion for “doing” and “surpassing” to his whispered assurance that He’s bigger than me and greater that my ambitions.
I must choose each moment to live above the guilt and rest in the certainty that God loves me more than he needs me. If I disable myself by recklessly overdoing, I do a disservice to Him and to those who love me.
Curbing “extreme ministry” is an act of worship that can begin with simple steps:
- Stopping long enough and often enough to listen to God’s voice
- Regularly assessing one’s priorities and needs
- Giving those who love us permission to point out our chronic excesses
- Surrendering a quest for ministry achievement to a hunger for authentic relationship with Christ
This is just the beginning. What would you add to the list?
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