How Missionaries Can Identify Signs of Spiritual Depletion

A Biblical Counselor On How Missionaries Can Identify Signs of Spiritual Depletion

The reality of missionary stress shows up as early as the Old Testament. When the prophet Elijah thought his ministry was a failure, he was disheartened and disillusioned. Afraid, exhausted, and hopeless, he withdrew from everyone—including God—and hoped for death. 

Ministry is hard in all eras of church history. Some modern-day missionaries experience stresses similar to the ones endured by Old Testament prophets: They often find they are cultural anomalies and sometimes become targets of persecution. Some missionaries face traumatic experiences like illness or violence. And most missionaries endure the acute stress of adapting to a completely different culture, often while learning a new language

A diagnostic tool called the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory Scale measures the health effects of significant stress. A score above 300 indicates a person has an 80 percent chance of a health breakdown within two years of assessment. A 1999 study using the tool found that veteran missionaries scored 600 year after year. Some first-term missionaries hit 900. 

Is it possible to persevere in the field under this kind of stress? 

Church history tells us the answer is yes: William Carey spent over 40 years in India under tremendous pressures and trials. Adoniram Judson spent close to 40 years in Burma, enduring imprisonment and severe illness. Hudson Taylor served over 50 years in China. 

If missionaries want to endure effectively, ongoing missionary soul care is vital.

All believers can become weary and fainthearted (Hebrews 12:3), but it’s possible to persevere. If missionaries want to endure effectively, ongoing missionary soul care is vital. Part of good soul care is identifying signs of spiritual depletion. 

How to Recognize When You Are Spiritually Depleted

Recognizing depletion in the field is essential, and it will be most obvious when you detect a growing absence of hope, humility, and engagement in grace-filled relationships.

To flip that around, spiritual depletion is evident when a missionary experiences increased hopelessness, arrogance, and isolation.

How severe is a missionary’s depletion? Below is a list of 10 symptoms associated with each category of depletion. The more symptoms a person is experiencing, the closer he or she is to experiencing dangerous levels of spiritual depletion.


Hopelessness is the loss of Spirit-empowered confidence in God and his word, evidenced by:

  • Limited communion with God
  • Increasing doubt about God and his promises
  • Unverbalized shame about experiencing doubt
  • Abandonment of helpful routines (spiritual and physical)  
  • Lack of pleasure in daily activities and weariness in doing good
  • Dwelling on weaknesses, mistakes, or failures 
  • Feeling powerless to resist sinful lusts
  • Growing feelings of worthlessness and purposelessness 
  • A regular effort to distract oneself from the inner turmoil 
  • An inability to experience joy and peace in the gospel


Arrogance is the loss of spirit-empowered watchfulness, leading to increased self-dependence, evidenced by:

  • Increased complaints about unfair treatment  
  • Increasing cynicism and anger, even toward God
  • Daily irritability and snapping at others
  • Blaming others in most conflicts 
  • Increased bitterness and unforgiveness 
  • Justifying sinful pleasures and patterns of sin
  • Considering projects more important than people 
  • Increased use of manipulation to accomplish ministry goals
  • Diminishing the priority of family health and family worship
  • Disregarding the need for accountability 


Isolation is the loss of interest or capacity to engage in vulnerable, joy-producing, grace-filled relationships.

  • Disregarding the need for gospel partnership or local church connection 
  • Dismissing the perspectives of others
  • Seeing connection with others as a burden
  • No relational spaces for regular confession
  • Feeling abandoned 
  • Avoiding accountability
  • Loneliness, even in the presence of family
  • Limited family worship
  • No mentor or mentee relationships
  • Hiding things from others

What Resources Do Missionaries Need Most?

The opposite of spiritual depletion is spiritual fullness. That fullness is especially apparent when a missionary experiences ongoing growth in hope, humility, and community. These are some of the most important resources for the depleted missionary to pursue in prayer and communion with other believers. 


All believers need to be full of hope, especially missionaries. Hope is the Spirit-empowered confidence in the promises of God. This Spirit-empowered confidence fills us with joy and peace in believing (Romans 15:13). It protects us from disillusionment, enabling us to rightly perceive God’s love for us, even under distress (Romans 5:3–5). When under severe affliction and temptation, we need Spirit-empowered confidence in God and his word. 


Humility is the indispensable sober judgment (Romans 12:3) that drives us to the bosom of our heavenly father (James 4:6). Only there are we protected from Satan’s efforts to devour our faith (1 Peter 5:6–9). Being full of humility protects our minds and hearts (Philippians 4:4–7). It allows us to have an accurate view of our weaknesses, granting us spirit-empowered dependence on the power of God, and freeing us to remain content in all situations (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).  


Deep, transparent, and joy-producing relationships with the saints is a gift from God to his people (Psalm 16:3). These grace-filled relationships with local church members are necessary for encouragement and endurance (Romans 15:5–7). God has granted all believers spiritual gifts to build up his church, which includes the building up of missionaries. An isolated missionary is missing out on much of what the Spirit has intended for their good (Ephesians 4:11–16). 

Learning from Elijah

God humbled the depleted Elijah by helping him analyze the response of his heart. He then provided hope and community, helping Elijah effectively persevere in ministry. 

Knowing the warning signs of dangerous depletion can help us respond appropriately and prevent the hardening of the heart that leads to falling away. The Puritan author John Flavel wrote: “The greatest difficulty in conversion is to win the heart to God; the greatest difficulty after conversion is to keep the heart with God.”  Keeping the heart with God is especially important for missionaries so that the testing of their faith produces Christlikeness (James 1:2–4), resulting in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:7).

Patricio Peñaherrera

Patricio Peñaherrera is the Director of Counseling for Frontlines Ministries and founder of Lilies and Birds Biblical Counseling. He has over 10 years of experience providing professional counseling services.


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