Friday, June 17, 2016
Last month I finished reading a book entitled, Zeal Without Burnout by Christopher Ash. As a new (and young) pastor I think I have lots of ideas and opinions about how to do Christian ministry, and lots of energy and yes, zeal, to carry out those ideas. Despite my enthusiasm for the ministry that God called Hannah and me to, I also move forward with some degree of trepidation. I have personally known a few (and heard of others) missionaries and pastors who entered the ministry full of zeal and enthusiasm only to burn out and become discouraged. Sometimes this has led to a need for a prolonged break, or even in some cases, they have left the ministry altogether. In a study done by George Barna in 2014 on Today's Pastors he noted that almost half of pastors and their wives in the US say that they have experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry.
I take these as warnings as I enter pastoral ministry. Zeal, energy, and enthusiasm are good things as long as they are directed in the correct way. Christopher Ash said that he wrote Zeal Without Burnout in order to help "many of my brothers and sisters to maintain their zeal without knowing the bitterness of burnout." So Ash definitely wrote this book with those in full time Christian ministry in mind. But just because you may not be a pastor or a missionary, doesn't mean this book would not benefit you. We are all called to the work of the ministry, even to the extent that we may suffer for it: For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him but also suffer for His sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (Phil. 1:29-30)
What is burnout? Ash described burnout as when pressure builds up in our lives which can cause us to "become exhausted and demotivated; we struggle to concentrate and to perform." At this point, we have a choice: we can either take a break and recover our energy, or we can continue to push ourselves for such a long time that "eventually the system simply begins to shut down. We burn out." (pg. 119) This was an important reminder for me because I tend to just keep pressing when I get tired for fear that taking a break will make me look weak. Sometimes our Christian circles can glorify those "ministry workaholics" among us. But this book did a good job of pointing out that working ourselves "into the ground" and at the expense of our own personal relationship with Christ and our families is not heroic, but foolish.
Ash offered seven suggestions that he believed are key to a long ministry of faithful and sustainable sacrifice: sleep, Sabbath rest, friends, inward renewal, remember that our work in the ministry does not define who we are, and delight in grace not in gifts. He writes all of this in a very short (123 pages), easy to read format with lots of stories and personal testimonies. This is not a very deep book, and if you are looking for a "theology of rest" or a deep exploration of what the Bible has to say about each of the above issues, this is not what you're looking for. But I think that this book does serve as a warning of the dangers of "burning out" as well as a practical reminder to make sure that we take care of ourselves mentally, emotionally, physically, and especially spiritually as we do the work of the ministry. Just because we "do ministry" doesn't mean that we are growing spiritually.
The most useful part of the book for me was the chapter entitled: "A Delight: Rejoice in Grace but not Gifts." In this chapter I was reminded that joy is a powerful motivator. As a pastor, what will give me joy: the gifts that God gives us in this life or God's grace in my life that gives me salvation? Ash wrote: "When our joy comes from our gifts and our success, we will always be under pressure. For we are only as good as the last sermon, the last youth talk, the last spiritual conversation, the last few months of Christian service, the last success." (pg. 105) Rather I must find joy in the grace that God has given to me: "It is a privilege to be used in ministry, but it is a much greater privilege to be recipients of grace." (pg. 106)
Press on in His service and His grace,