“Unaware of how tired I truly was,” confesses Ryan Keith, founder and president of Forgotten Voices, “I wept intensely when the clock struck midnight and my sabbatical began.” Heroism can lead to burnout. In our series Sustainable Work, Ryan tells how he found God’s grace the hard way.
In January of 2005, I held the frail hand of a dying mother and I could do nothing but pray. Her distant glances and hard-earned breaths did little to comfort her children as she slipped away from this side of heaven. I felt as inadequate as ever. Pressed by God in that moment to embrace the pain and listen to the local pastors sitting close by, my weaknesses created room—and urgency—to listen to their hopes.
Just months before at age twenty-five, I had never been to Africa, nor did I care to do so. God had other plans. I ended up in this rural Zimbabwean village—watching this woman suffer—after joining pastors and friends on a mission trip to see how our church could respond to the AIDS crisis.
This very real scene was repeating itself for nearly a thousand children every day. We wanted to do something.
I passed on grad school at Harvard to be part of the initial trip and began traveling to Africa quarterly. Each visit led me to these sacred bedside encounters where I was hopeless in my own ideas yet confident in the promises of God to care for the widows and the orphans (James 1:27). God led me there, ill-equipped beyond having an ear to hear and eye to see hope at work in the hearts of local African pastors.
Their stories would become my song for the next eight years.
God asked me to tell stories of what I had seen, and then I watched him work miracles on both sides of the ocean. As a young and ambitious leader, this calling became how I saw myself and how I encouraged others to see me too. Instead of trusting God, each story of a dying mother drove me to work harder, to sacrifice more, and to rest less.
This start-up journey would eventually help usher in hope for thousands of children across Zimbabwe and Zambia. But it also consistently "required" me to log eight- to one-hundred-hour work weeks, balance paid jobs with volunteerism, and spend three to four months a year on the road to advance the mission. The ministry became unintentionally dependent on me to the point where I couldn't quit because I feared it would fail, while at the same time I couldn't continue because I knew it would crush me, especially now as a husband and father.
After eight long years, losing over a hundred people I had grown to love, receiving a diagnosis of early stages of post-traumatic stress, and desiring to avoid burnout suffered by many of my peers doing similarly intense work, our Board decided I should take a break. Unaware of how tired I truly was, I wept intensely when the clock struck midnight and my sabbatical began.
August 2012: The heavens were filled with more stars than I had ever seen outside Africa’s sky. Taking deep, cold breaths far away from the noises of work, I listened to the rippling brook trickle through the beaver dam, just twenty yards from where my guide/friend and I had set up camp.
My somewhat forced six-week sabbatical would end in a few days. A mountain-top experience in Dolly Sods, West Virginia, promised space to reflect on what I had learned, as well as prepare my heart for the next leg of the journey. Embracing a last gasp of freedom, we camped under the stars, ate out of cans, shared our hearts for God around the fire at night, and spent time alone with God during the day. Armed with water and a whistle, I bravely wandered through fields of towering pines and wild flowers that made my heart leap for joy.
It had been a long time since I felt anything like this.
For three glorious days, I told myself that God equips the called. Like Jonah, I had contemplated quitting but still believed the ministry would fail without me. I returned, begrudgingly, yet prayed for God to keep this taste of joy alive.
Hardly three months passed when I found myself counting the ceiling tiles in the ER. Far from the stars in that wilderness sky, I wondered aloud to my wife: “How did this happen?" I grabbed her hand in fear, just as I had done hours before when I grabbed my chest in pain. Stressed by work, my brain had initiated all the symptoms of a heart attack instead of simply indicating I had pulled a muscle in my chest. I was thirty-three, too young to be here.
Somewhere between the stars and the ceiling tiles, my inner Jonah had blinded me to God’s redemptive, sustainable, and gracious work, a work God carved out for me.
That was 2012. Today, I’m learning a lot about grace. I’m also learning a lot about joyfully leading this ministry with a renewed calling. Every morning, I give my day to God, reciting these words from Anna Warner's Jesus Loves Me:
One more day’s work for Jesus; one less of life for me.
Every admission to others of my non-superhumanness is like grazing a finger across the scars of my perfectly intact heart. I never want to go back there, yet I need reminders that also double as guardrails if I hope to continue in this good work. Here are some that have helped:
- Remember that God is always at work.
- Don’t just pray for joy. Look for it and praise him for it.
- Build daily rhythms for your relationships: spend time with God before anyone else, love one stranger well, and call a friend or family member just to check in.
- Savor the right fruit and pass by the bad.
- Give permission to a spouse, close friend, or counselor to shut you down and hold you accountable. Give that person 24/7 access to every dimension of life. When they do, say “thank you.”
- Enjoy the grace. While I’m not proud of my warped history of work, beauty has come from it.
- Keep learning.
This season of life has proven that neither God nor anyone I meet here in the States or at a bedside in Zimbabwe needs another burned-out Christian. It’s simply not sustainable.