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The Weight of Perfectionism for Missionaries

by Beth Davis

Beth Davis serves as director for HealthCare Ministries, the international medical evangelism outreach of the Assemblies of God. Her missionary career has included assignments in Vietnam, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Belgium. Beth is an ordained minister and board certified health care chaplain. She graduated from North Central University and completed a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. She and her husband, Nathan, are the parents of three children.

Have you ever awakened from a dream totally exhausted from trying to get either packed or prepared for some event that seems just beyond your reach? In missionary life, this dream often becomes reality. Early in my missionary career, I remember the challenges of studying Chinese, shaping a new ministry, parenting a toddler, managing the field fellowship finances, keeping the family visas and immunizations up-to-date, entertaining guests from other countries, writing newsletters, developing cross-cultural friendships, and all the while trying to keep my walk with God current and fresh. It was as though I would never learn to dance this difficult new dance, let alone perform it with perfection.

Personality inventories easily pick up on perfectionism. In fact, the personality characteristic conscientiousness - one aspect of perfectionism - represents a very positive attribute. Employers, church boards, and certainly missionary agencies regard this quality as very desirable. Individuals with high conscientiousness on their personality scores will organize their work, perform diligently, stay on task, and finish projects on time.

Conscientiousness presents a problem, however, when it coexists with anxiety. This combination produces the impossible drive toward perfectionism. And the longer the anxiety continues, the more energy it requires to fuel perfect performances.

At some point, almost every hard-working missionary experiences anxiety that leads to unhealthy perfectionism.

Do missionaries ever suffer from this dangerous combination? Their attention to detail gets them through seminary with flying colors. After a successful track record in either pastoring or teaching, they sail through the rigorous exams and interviews required by the missions board. If these candidates are prone to anxiety, it will show up at least by the time they face the challenge of raising funds to support their missionary calling. Fast forward to language school (another opportunity for stress), and follow these young missionaries to their first assignment. Their many responsibilities now include sending positive testimonies of their "success" to their financial donors.

Early in a missionary's career, she discovers the challenge of multiple allegiances. First, she feels accountable to her friends, family, and supporters. Many of these folks sacrifice so that she can fulfill her missions call. Meanwhile, the missions agency also requires reports, forms, statistics, and testimonies of what is taking place through missionary endeavors. And finally, in her country of assignment, she is responsible to new colleagues, local leadership, area directors, national church leaders and, in many cases, government officials.

At some point, almost every hard-working missionary experiences anxiety that leads to unhealthy perfectionism. If this scenario describes where you are right now, I invite you to take inventory of your thought life. Stress and anxiety show up in thinking patterns, and stress leads to distorted thoughts. Many of us grew up in households and churches where words like should, ought, must, and why were used regularly. These words worked themselves into the fabric of our self-esteem. It is interesting to note that the word "should" derives from the old English word scouelde, and it continues to carry shades of its original intent, "to scold."

When our quest for excellence leads to stress and anxiety, it may be time to realign our priorities.

Our thought lives as missionaries often become a broken recording of what I refer to as harsh imperative statements: I should prepare a newsletter; I have to raise more funds; I must do better in language study; I need to spend more time with my family; and why can't I catch up on all these reports and forms? These negative thoughts are forms of scolding. To move away from this expression of self-abuse, begin to be more gentle with yourself and use phrases such as these: I would like to get a newsletter out this week; I'm going to try to find ways to raise funds; I want to do better in language study; I plan to spend more time with my family; and I hope to get caught up on my reports soon.

Recognizing self-scolding vocabulary is the first step. Selecting better words to replace the self-scolding words helps too. But you can't get rid of these life-long habits by yourself. When conscientiousness combines with anxiety, God invites His children to spend time in His presence. Instructions from the book of Philippians state: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (Philippians 4:6, NIV).

Living up to our perfectionistic tendencies requires a lot of time and energy. When our quest for excellence leads to stress and anxiety, it may be time to realign our priorities. It seems so simple, but unless we carve out time from our already full schedule to quietly meditate, we will never rid ourselves of the problem of perfectionism. Jesus challenges His followers to live without anxiety. He gets very specific in Matthew 11:28-30: "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly" (The Message).

I would guess that as a woman called into ministry you are often asked to describe the condition of your ministry - what do you do? How often does anyone check on the condition of your interior life - what are you becoming? As you sanctify regular time - away from "doing" - to quietly sit alone in God's presence, He will transform your thought life. It is in these moments with God that He convicts, forgives, heals, and renews. He helps us with the problem of perfectionism, an endless dance that will eventually drain us of all desire to minister. Instead, He inspires a dance that will be beautiful, focused, and performed to an audience of One.