By some accounts, pastors are flaming out on a regular basis. The weight of daily ministry, encroaching deadlines of next Sunday, loneliness, and the common temptations are enough to expose some and painfully humble others. The great apostle’s warning to “pay close attention to your life and doctrine” often goes unheeded resulting in needless burnout.
Longtime British pastor and author Christopher Ash gives us his latest offering in an all-too-brief look at the topic of ministry burnout. In his Zeal without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice, Ash’s stated aim “is to help us discern the difference between sacrifice and foolish heroism, and so to guard against needless burnout” (26).
Some enter ministry with a temporary zeal that is untethered to biblical depth and maturity. Possibly catering to shallow notions of “doing great things for God,” many pastors build numbers, venues, and events that become akin to the old circus act of spinning plates. When this happens, it’s only a matter of time before something crashes. Ash speaks pointedly to this tendency:
The problem is that we do not sacrifice alone. It may sound heroic, even romantic, to burn out for Jesus. The reality is that others are implicated in our crashes. A spouse, children, ministry colleagues, prayer partners and faithful friends, all are drawn in to supporting us and propping us up when we collapse (24).
A Brief Overview
In the introduction, Ash tips the reader to the fact this book is only making a start: “This is a very personal book; and I trust it is a biblical book. But it is far from being a comprehensive or expert treatment of the subject” (14). The author reveals his personal interest in that “[a]t least twice I have come to the edge of burnout. By the grace of God, I have been enabled to step back from the brink” (15). Ash writes for a potentially broad audience yet pastors seem to be the main focus. “I write for all zealous followers of Jesus. Perhaps especially for pastors and Christian leaders” (14).
The main thrust of the book is centered around what Ash believes is a neglected truth. “The foundation of all I have to say is that you and I are dust” (35). He then considers seven ideas or principles that flow from it. The first four are needs we have that God does not share. He says these needs are sleep, Sabbaths, friends, and food (41). He devotes a chapter to each of these. However, “food” becomes “Inward Renewal” in chapter 4 with no explanation for the change in terminology.
The final three keys are “A Warning: Beware Celebrity!; An Encouragement: It’s Worth It; and A Delight: Rejoice in Grace but Not Gifts.” At times, these points feel forced, but reading charitably I believe he offers a number of basic insights that will prove helpful to many. Also, scattered throughout the book are six testimonies, or what are called “Stories,” which follow the main chapters (Roy’s Story, Ben’s, Carrie’s, Allison’s, and Dennis’s). While these stories did offer some real-life insight, at times they introduced some confusing aspects to the author’s point which I detail below.
A Final Thought
There are a number of typographical mistakes, punctuation marks, and various fragmented thoughts that need additional polish. Most significantly, the table of contents pagination greatly departs from what the reader finds throughout most of the book.
There were numerous times I wanted Ash to flesh out in more detail his point, but one suspects the book’s brevity hindered such expansion. I would love to hear the author enlarge on many of these themes which were quite limited in a book of this size.
The most unsettled question of this book is ironically its main focus—what is burnout? How does one make sense of “burnout” if its definition remains elusive? There are numerous places where “burnout” is referenced as an “illness” (55, 82) or generally associated with “nervous disease” (58). The subjective nature of the term is evidenced in “Dennis’s Story” where he states, “Burnout can be defined in many ways, but that’s how it looked in my situation” (90).
Adding to this confusion is a final chapter by Dr. Steve Midgley, “What Exactly is Burnout?” He states, “Burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis” (117), yet throughout the book it is assumed to be marginally a medical issue since the language of “illness” is employed. Midgley walks the reader through a very brief explanation of burnout which he, wrongly I believe, associates with “the stress response curve” (119). There are numerous problems with introducing such confusing analysis at the end of this book. Mentioning one, Midgley’s evaluation is entirely couched in behavioral terms based on outward physical stimuli such as stress, lack of sleep, etc.
Midgley makes no attempt to engage biblical data or to consider that outward actions are responses of the heart. He’s right in saying that we should not immediately assume “some sort of spiritual weakness” (120), but does this mean we should assume the presence of a disease or another malady? Reading Midgley’s chapter does not resolve the issue or the question at the heart of this book. In fact, one still wonders after reading this final chapter, “What Exactly is Burnout?”
Despite these limitations, Ash does effectively place a flag in the ground calling for believers to give this more attention. To that end, I think his various pastoral insights on “burnout” open the way for others to address the subject with greater clarity. The ground is plowed here for future work on this subject. We still await a healthy treatment balancing Paul’s concern that we “take pains” with ministerial labors yet also “persevere in these things” (1 Tim 4:15–16). Until then, this little book from Christopher Ash will encourage many pastors walking the often-difficult trails of pastoral ministry.