Just How Stressed are Missionaries (and what can we do about it)?

Posted by:

First term missionaries were found to have scores peaking at 900, while veterans maintain 600+ year after year. According to the research, people with a score above 200 will likely have serious long-term health problems within two-years.

Shortly after we arrived in the States, some of our friends (both missionaries on their first term) started having somewhat mysterious major health issues that have brought them home to the US to get checked out. Doctors are mostly baffled by the ailments because there is no clear cause. It’s truly puzzling. Then I came across this post on another missionary’s blog which quantifies stress based on a modified version of the Holmes-Rahe Scale. After reading this, it’s no wonder missionaries are so weird!

Just for fun, I took the unmodified, original,  Holmes-Rahe test for Bailey and I and scored 532 points. My results were accompanied by this warning, “OVER 300 POINTS: This score indicates a major life crisis and is highly predictive (80%) of serious physical illness within the next 2 years.” 

The test I took didn’t include any of the bonus features we deal with like:

  • “Almost crashing into someone or something in the truck several times every day on the way to work”
  • “Cross-cultural living in a community where we don’t speak the language”
  • “Flying small planes onto jungle airstrips while Bailey flight follows”
  • “Knowing that every time I fly or work on the airplane I have the potential to make a bad and fatal decision”
  • “Instructing kids what to do if a cobra wanders into the yard while they’re playing”

The following article is from this blog and I feel it is right on point. Our hearts are heavy as we see so many missionaries suffer from strange illnesses that are impossible to diagnose. Not all are stress related, but it makes you wonder. It isn’t just missionaries either. We see many of our friends, family and supporters who are struggling with unimaginable stresses in the US as well but are pushing forward and walking with the Lord through it all. In the end, we all lean on the same God who’s reputation inspires us to blaze on with the assurance we get from Jesus’ words as he sent out the first round of missionaries, “And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Just how Stressed are Missionaries (and what can we do about it)?

by JIM on 7 MARCH 2012

I was just reading about stress levels in missionary life.  Now, you may have heard of the Holmes-Rahe Scale, which is one way health professionals measure stress in people’s lives.  The idea is that a certain number of life events can build up the level of stress until it gets dangerous.

Some of these might be the death of a family member, a child leaving home, trouble with the boss, change in social activities, a vacation, or marriage.

I’m not going to analyze the pros and cons of the scale, but it does say something about our lives and our ability to cope and react to change.

Back in 1999, Drs Lois and Larry Dodds (of Heartstream Resources) were studying the levels of stress on the mission field, using a modified version of the Holmes-Rahe Scale.

In Holmes and Rahe’s original study, they found that if you reached a level of 200 on the scale in a year, the cumulative stress would have consequences for some time to come.  In fact, they found that 50% of those who reached this level were hospitalized within two years.  The reasons included heart attack, diabetes, cancer, and other severe illness.

If ever the level reached 300, the person was almost certain to end up in the hospital within two years.

So frankly, you don’t want to have that much change and transition in your life.

So, the Dodds wanted to find out what the typical missionary went through.  As you might have guessed, the news wasn’t good.

The typical missionary had not just peaking levels above 300 – they hadsustained levels over 300 – – – year after year.

The typical missionary, in fact, had double that level – 600 on the scale!

Admittedly, the missionaries in the original study were Americans in Latin America, so we’re not in the category.  Well, not exactly.


The other bad news was that missionaries in their first term had levels that peaked at 900.

These numbers are truly mind-boggling.

The recommendations of the Dodds?  Here’s a summary.

  • First, be very serious about selection, training, and placement of missionaries.
  • Second, missions should think twice about sending first term missionaries into especially isolated situations.
  • Third, they should think twice about sending missionaries with young children into isolated situations.
  • Fourth, provide people trained in member care who can provide continuous support to missionaries.

What about those of us who are friends or supporters of missionaries?  (Yes, I know we’re missionaries ourselves – but we’re also friends of missionaries!)

Well, here are some ideas, just off the top of my head.

  • Pray for them:  Pray that they would find support and friendship on the field (coworkers, national believers – and even unbelievers).  Pray for God’s grace in their lives, for times of rest and refreshment, for wisdom.
  • Encourage them:  Letters, calls, surprises, financial support (not just normal support – but maybe a gift for the kids or a bit for a holiday/vacation), visits, help when they’re in your area…
  • Be informed:  What does the mission do to ensure missionaries are being taken care of?  How do they decide how missionaries are placed?
  • Show grace:  Missionaries need to be accountable to their supporters.  But this has to be done with grace.  Recognize that missionaries are not miracle workers who can transform the world on their own; they’re not super-humans (or Vulcans) who can never be disturbed by the realities of life.  When people say to us “I could never do what you do” we often reply,”neither can we”.  Missionaries will get frustrated, depressed, confused and they will fail.  Give them grace and support, and don’t be too shocked if they even take a week off now and then.
  • Don’t Pretend to Completely Understand:  We never know, really, what someone else is going through.  This applies to a death in the family, an illness, a divorce, a problem at work – no matter what it is, we can only understand to a point.  The same goes for cross cultural work.  If you want to offer help, advice, criticism, ideas, whatever it is – do it with grace and humility.  Hopefully the missionary will take it the same way.
  • Be a part of sending more missionaries:  Why in the world would I add this to the list?  Why would we want to send more people into such a stressful situation?  Because in the end, God has sent us into the world, and He has the grace to sustain us.  Suffering is a reality of life.  And Goduses it in our lives.  The work must continue.  If we can be excited about the work, support it, and encourage it, that will go a long way.  It’s wonderful to know that people believe in the Great Commission and that we’re working as a part of a worldwide team.
  • Realize it’s not hopeless:  No, not all missionaries need to burn out or be completely depressed all the time.  While we recognize that suffering is a part of the missionary life, it is still possible for missionaries to serve long term with joy.  We just need to allow God to use us to help one another.

In the end, it’s worth the stress.  This rescue-mission that we’re on is more important than personal comfort.

But that’s not to say that we should ignore the issue – instead, we should minimize the problem as much as we can, so that missionaries can be more effective in their ministries.

And we as missionaries – we should not be using some stress scale as an excuse.  But again, we should be aware of the challenges, and ask God for wisdom as we try to balance our lives.

As I look around at other people here, it’s hard to feel too hard done by.  Our friends have challenges that we can only imagine, and we are humbled by their faith (if they are believers).  Though there are challenges, and we must be careful to run the marathon with patience, we know that our sacrifice is really a small one when you look at the big picture.

Yes, the work must go on.