Today is exactly three years to the day when Debby “stepped off the cliff” of burnout and adrenal fatigue. She has always been efficient and able to get a lot of things done. At that time she was involved in about five different jobs. She was the principal/administrator for our missionary kid school and was working to shut it down within six months. She was leading the Discipling for Development (D for D) ministry in our church, and was also the D for D team leader to the community of Karembure. She was also the legal representative for the Kumbya Center Association and was leading an intense work with the Kumbya Development Committee preparing a business plan for eco-tourism. She was also leading the Ubuzima Moringa business and was training a new manager and was trying to push our product through the Rwanda Bureau of Standards (FDA). Besides these things she was a wife and mother (which is also a full-time job). Also, we we’re leaving in six months to go to the US for a year. I remember at that time our house was “grande central station.” We had lots of visitors all the time. All the kids from the Africa Jungle Christian School next door had lunch in our dining room in two shifts (around 22 people for lunch every week day).
It was a Saturday evening, and we were having an intense coaching session with our D for D coaches. We had all eaten supper with our team and D for D coaches. Debby remembers at supper Joe Fry telling her, “Debby, I don’t know how you do this, cooking for all of us, holding all these meetings.” After supper we were in an intense conversation, and not aware of other needs. Debby was trying to do up the dishes and felt that she just couldn’t keep holding it all together. This was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” We held one of the coaching sessions up in Juru park the next day, and she remembers Alandra stayed home from school sick, and she lay down on the blanket next to her to rest. She felt so tired she felt she couldn’t sit up, and her back hurt. At first we thought it was the flu. Two weeks later the doctor thought it might be typhoid. Then he gave her a neck brace. Nothing seemed to be wrong with her medically, but she continued always exhausted and with debilitating back pain.
She soon started feeling a strong need to be alone, to not be with people all the time. She also often felt overwhelmed. Packing up the house and getting ready to go to the States could easily bring on feelings of panic. We found a physical therapist who kept Deb’s back pain barely manageable. We worked hard at bringing closure to her many tasks and reducing her responsibilities. We did wrap up everything and flew back to the States in August. The second week we were there we attended an MTI DAR (Missionary Training International Debriefing and Renewal) seminar for returning missionaries. The second day was on missionary stress, and when Deb leaned over and showed me she marked 75 percent of the symptoms on the burnout worksheet, we knew we had a name for her sickness.
When we got home to Oregon we found a doctor close by specializing in women’s energy and hormonal issues. Instead of the usual, “there is nothing wrong with you, its all in your head,” she said, “I’m so sorry you are feeling this way. There is an explanation, your test results show imbalances that we will straighten out and you will get better.” We also found a counselor who met with us each week. It was so helpful to talk through all our experiences and our adjustment to life in the States. We also found a chiropractor who helped set Deb’s back on a good (although long) path of healing.
That next January in the States was Deb’s lowest point. She experienced around five panic attacks and extremely low energy moments in that month. For the most part she could not get out of bed. I carried on the work of visiting churches and raising up our support level. We trusted that she would begin to feel better and that by August we could go back to Rwanda. By May her energy was up to about 40 percent, still not enough to travel back on, but by late July she was feeling around 60 percent. We felt we could travel back, and had the blessing of her doctor to continue her healing in Rwanda.
We did a lot to change our lifestyle in Rwanda. Debby had no outside responsibility except running the home and continuing to heal. Our home became a peaceful sanctuary. She took a phone number nobody knew, and I took all the calls. I also met people up at the church instead of at our house. We found a fellow missionary doctor, an endocrinologist, who made sure Debby was on a good path. We also found a chiropractor who came to our house twice a week that first year. We found an English speaking church across town where Debby and the kids could attend with minimal social pressure.
My body also reacted to the stress of this whole situation. We had heard from two men how they had suffered a burnout experience after their wives had begun to heal from their own burnout. My body reacted by a strong allergic reaction to eating anything with wheat in it. The first year back we made sure to monitor how I was doing and to give me sufficient rest. We put the whole family on the GAPS diet which aims to heal the intestines. We did this for almost a whole year. Now I can again eat wheat without any problem. I especially love Debby’s sour-dough whole wheat English muffins!
Now three years into this healing process, Debby is doing well, at about 95 percent of her pre-burnout energy levels. I also am feeling strong and healthy. We are so thankful for the gift of burnout. We have learned so much. Debby is no longer driven by a need to prove her excellence. Her motivation now comes from a strong sense of the Father’s love for her. She is still just as organized and disciplined as ever, but she is relaxed about it, and is more balanced. She is able to take time to rest. She doesn’t need to be in control, she has learned to rest in Christ. For my part, I have learned to be much more of a servant than I was before. I do breakfasts, help with the kids, and serve in many other ways, too.
Debby is still not up to a lot of “people” ministry, but she has energy and time. Three years ago she applied for a DMiss (Doctor of Missiology) degree, but that became impossible with the fatigue. We, along with our advisors and EFM, have felt this is the ideal time for her to pursue her studies. She is now three weeks into a PhD program through Regent, majoring in organizational leadership. This is a big new challenge, and it is the right time for it. Her pace is relaxed and restful. We are having so many insights into our leadership here. We often take time to discuss new ideas from scripture and new leadership theories. I’m really excited about the papers she is working on. These studies in only three weeks have already spoken truth and insight into our ministry and life here. These studies will help us be even more effective missionaries. As she continues we trust we will find insight that will bless our Rwandan Friends church and EFM as well. We don’t know where these studies will take Debby, but we do know that her primary gift is teaching, and these studies will prepare her for the future ministry God has in store for her.
In conclusion, today—our three year anniversary of Debby’s stepping off the cliff of burnout—is a day to celebrate God’s goodness and faithfulness. Our kids are all content and studying well. Debby is fulfilled and working/resting well. I am involved in meaningful ministry with our D for D work, and with serving the missionary community in trying to secure Kumbya for the future. As a missionary, I feel more effective now after 15 years than I have ever felt before. I am growing in Kinyarwanda language ability, cultural insight, sensitivity to the Spirit, and as a servant to my family. I imagine these next years of ministry in Rwanda will be our best. It is much less about our striving, and much more about entering into Christ’s rest, and operating out of his grace.
Thank you for all your prayers and support for us during this crisis, trial, and blessing of burnout in these last years. We appreciate you, and we sense your prayer support. Come, celebrate with us today!
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
His mercies never come to an end,
They are new every morning, new every morning,
Great is your faithfulness, oh Lord, Great is your faithfulness! (Lamentations 3:22-23)
Contributed by David Thomas (for all us six of their family), serving in Africa