Living in the Cycle of Grace: The Confession of a Burned-Out Missionary

30 Aug

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It was an intense season of ministry—a season where I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to “get results” and impact people around me for Christ—and also a season where it wasn’t really working. Depression, discouragement, and burnout were lurking. And underpinning it all was confusion. Hadn’t God called me to ministry? Why weren’t things going differently? I felt defeated.

Perhaps you’ve been there too—trying so hard to accomplish and live into the things you feel called to, but losing your sense of life in the process.

After about a year of this, I went on a prayer retreat—just me and God in the mountains to talk things over. I was at a point of transition with no next steps. It was a time to get real and get real honest. I poured out my frustrations and questions at length. God, why haven’t you made my path to the mission field more clear? Why would you call me to something I’m no good at? Can I even trust you? Truth be told, I felt a bit betrayed.

But then God interrupted my angry monologue with these words, spoken powerfully into my troubled mind: “If I let you go to the mission field like you are now, it would destroy you, and I love you too much to let that happen to you.”

There was a firmness and compassion in this message that couldn’t be argued with. I started listening to the voice of love, redirecting my steps, quieting my spirit.

This message that I was doing ministry in a way that would destroy me really got my attention. In the end it moved me into a spiritual formation track, where for two years I met with a spiritual director, studied books, and began to learn a different paradigm for ministry.

The most impactful paradigm shift was the Cycle of Grace. This model was developed years ago by a psychologist and a theologian who witnessed the high burnout and attrition rates of missionaries in India. They also observed the marked difference between how those missionaries lived under the stress of ministry and how Jesus lived his life.

There’s nothing new under the sun, and my personal battle in ministry was a common problem: basing worth and acceptance on what is accomplished, striving for results in order to feel validated. This never works long-term, and burnout is the end result.

So I submit to you the Cycle of Grace. May the Voice of Love lead you to do ministry the right way around—the way that brings life and peace, not burnout and defeat.


The Cycle of Grace vs. the Cycle of Works


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Diagram Source: Soul Keeping Study Guide by John Ortberg

1. Acceptance

In the Cycle of Grace, which we see modeled in the life of Jesus, the starting point is acceptance. Jesus heard the voice of acceptance from his Father before he did anything in ministry (demonstrated at Jesus’s baptism, Matthew 3:13–17). Jesus knew that God loved him and was pleased with him, apart from anything he accomplished.

2. Sustained for the Work

In the Cycle of Grace, after acceptance comes sustenance—those things God provides us that nourish us and keep us healthy. What examples of this do we see in the life of Jesus? He ate. He slept. He celebrated. He spent time with people (especially those people he called friends). He went into nature to be alone and pray. These are just a few examples of the rhythms of life that kept Jesus going.

3. The Significance of Who You Are

Jesus’s life wasn’t significant primarily because of what he did, but because of who he was. His very presence carried the life and love of the Father. Before he ever did a miracle or gathered a crowd for teaching, Jesus was making an impact because of that built-in significance. Jesus knew who he was and what he came to do. He didn’t have to strive more and do more in order to be significant. In fact, sometimes he avoided doing things people wanted him to do, because it was most important to be obedient to his Father (Mark 1:35–39).

4. Achievement

Rooted in love and acceptance from God, nourished and filled up by those things that gave life to his soul, and knowing who he was and what he came to do, Jesus stepped into active ministry. He preached the good news, he healed, he raised the dead, he cast out demons, and he discipled. Jesus had incredible fruit! But his acceptance wasn’t tied to his achievements. His achievements flowed out of his acceptance and unity with the Father. He continuously lived out the other three parts of the cycle, connecting with his Father, engaging in sustaining activities, and acknowledging the significance of who he was, not just what he did.

It’s important to note that the Cycle of Grace is just that—a cycle. As we do the work of ministry, we become depleted and need to be filled up again. We have to continually make our way around the whole cycle, being filled up by God before we pour out for others.

This is what it looks like to have a balanced life in ministry.

Contrast this with the Cycle of Works.

In the Cycle of Works, we work our way through the same circle, but the wrong way ‘round. Many of us have things backwards. That’s because it’s our natural tendency.

1. Achievement

It feels natural to most people to make achievement the starting point. This is where we put our time and energy. We work hard to make something of our lives. In ministry, this looks like focusing on our activities, outcomes, and “fruit.”

2. Significance

In the Cycle of Works, we depend on our achievements to make us significant in the world. We may find ourselves attaching our identity to what we do and how good we are at it. Our ministry or achievements can become idols—things that we build our life and worth upon. Without them, we are nothing. We are unworthy.

3. Sustenance

In the Cycle of Works, if we achieve and are therefore significant, we are worthy of being sustained. A missionary will feel they have “earned their support” if they are providing a good return on the donor’s investment—in other words, if they are getting results. If there is a lack of fruit, they may question their worthiness and struggle to request help for their needs. In addition, they may feel guilty for spending money on things that will bring life and rest to their souls, believing it’s wasteful. (Being a good steward of our resources is important, but we also need to be good stewards of our souls! The key word here is balance!)

4. Acceptance

After all this straining and striving through the Cycle of Works, we finally reach acceptance. This acceptance is based on the job well done, the fruitfulness, and consequent significance. Apart from this good work, there is no real sense of acceptance or being “ok.” Our natural tendency is to strive for acceptance, to do enough to be acceptable. But this Cycle of Works is not a path to life; it leads to soul death. It’s not good theology or praxis.

That year of burnout, I was unknowingly running around the Cycle of Works like a hamster on a hamster wheel. And it is so easy for me to fall back into this way of life.

The Cycle of Works will chew missionaries up and spit them out broken and battered, leading them to give up—on their ministry, on themselves, and sometimes even on God.

But God has given us a different path.

That path doesn’t begin with achievement, but with the deep, transforming love of God for us—a love not based on anything we do. It’s out of that life-giving place of knowing and delighting in God’s love, accepting the grace, gifts, and goodness of God, that our significance, and finally our ministry, flows.

The Cycle of Grace is like a spring of living water, welling up to eternal life (John 4:14)—a life we experience for ourselves, and can’t help but pass on to others.

If my continuing story is any indication, this Cycle of Grace is not natural, nor easy to learn and apply. It takes great intentionality and work to grasp that the love and acceptance of God is not tied to our work and fruitfulness. But it is so needed, and so worth it.


Take Action

  1. Examine your own life in light of the Cycle of Works and the Cycle of Grace. Where do you find yourself? Are there specific ways you tend to live “the wrong way ‘round”?
  2. Make some intentional time to focus on God’s love and acceptance of you. One exercise you could try is to pray through Ephesians 3:16–19. Read the passage in a few different versions and meditate on it. Just sit with it for awhile, express your thoughts in prayer or in a journal, or write it out in your own words as a prayer over your life.
  3. Dig deeper into the Cycle of Grace. I learned about it from South African pastor Trevor Hudson, who has a series of Youtube videos about it as well as a workbook.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Megan Reynolds has been with CRM since 2014. She and her husband Dean currently live in Aurora, CO. After her ministry “crisis” and encounter with God, Megan took two years to study spiritual formation with the Renovaré Institute for Spiritual Formation, and desires to help others in ministry build a strong foundation for healthy connection to God in all the ups and downs of life and ministry. Megan works with CRM’s Communications team and recently finished an InnerCHANGE internship in Denver, CO.


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