I once heard a university president say that if he ever ran and won in the U.S. Presidential election, his first day in office he would arrange a meeting with the top presidential historians and biographers and simply go around the room and ask each of them what made the Presidents they studied either successes and failures. I took this advice to heart, it seemed wise and a worthy venture to consider and examine the paths of those who were ahead of me in my vocation and learn from their victories and missteps. In fact, for the last three months I have been pursuing this task as a church planter in Santa Cruz, CA. I have been setting up meetings with current pastors and church planters in the county and seeking their wisdom, partnership, and prayers as I prepare for ministry. One theme that has been clear in nearly all of my coffee shop conversations and lunches is the prevalence of ministry burnout and the need to find a balance between sacrificial service and sustainable lifestyle (home life, diet, rest/sleep, and finance management). This recurring theme in my conversations with experienced ministers lead me to the new book by Christopher Ash, Zeal without Burnout. Ash, a U.K. pastor himself, seeks to illuminate theological and practical truths about why ministers burnout and what we need to know to keep us from burnout.
Overall I am very appreciative of Ash’s little book and consider it a text to return to on occasion as a corrective that I consider an area I am prone to drift in, for as Ash writes, “It is worth remembering that none of us thinks we are on the past to burnout until we are nearly burnt out; it is precisely those of us who are sure we are safe, who are most in danger” (19). For Ash, it seems, the propensity for burnout finds it source in idolatry or more generously self-forgetfulness. We forget, as Ash notes, that we have human needs: sleep, sabbath (rest), friends, and food (41). God does not need these things. He needs no sleep, no rest, no friends outside of his sufficient triune community, and no source of sustenance. When we forget our needs we both fail to steward our bodies well and lapse into thinking of ourselves as we ought to think of God. This is not intentional and it is probably not even within our awareness, but as our sin is a sign of our usurpation of God’s right to declare right and wrong, so our ignoring of physical and spiritual needs is a claim to divine self-sufficiency.
Of the four needs that Ash articulates, the most surprising may be the need for friendship. This is a crucial point for ministers and runs contrary to the lone wolf status that seemed to spell the end of two well-known mega-church pastors. Both Mark Driscoll and, fellow Acts 29 pastor, Darrin Patrick commented on their belief that friendship on the elder board and in ministry was overrated and potentially ill-advised. While Driscoll ended up leaving the church that asked him to step down for an uncertain period of time, Darrin Patrick has remained at the church that he planter, the Journey, during his time of repentance and pursuit of humility. Friendship would be the answer if we played a game of which-one-is-not-like-the-others as it is the only non-biological need Ash covers, but it is clear friendship is critical to human teleology and remaining humble in leadership. Of friendship Ash writes, “While God has no need of friendship outside the fellowship of the Trinity, we do” (65). I have always been impressed by the social aspect of mankind’s creation. The divine declaration that it was not good for man to be alone, while man was in proper relationship with God and creation. Man, according to Genesis 2, requires fellowship outside the triune God, even without sin.
Zeal without Burnout is accessible and helpful, though it is brief, the basics are covered. If I were to level a criticism at it, it would be the same criticism that so many other Christian living and ministry books are guilty of. Specifically, books that only articulate a theologically accurate position, even books like Ash’s which includes personal anecdotes of burnout, can often give the impression of Hegelian idealism—the primary key is the right thoughts. Burnout, sexual sin, pride, depression—these and other issues often need more than theologically accurate exposition of the issue. I know men with a proper theology of sex and a deep desire for purity, yet they still struggle for purity of mind, eyes, and hands. Similarly, none of the burnt out pastors or planters I know believe themselves to be God, believe themselves to be immune to the human needs of food, relationship, and rest. The existential side of the equation is often more complicated than the theological. Zeal without Burnout acknowledges this, though provides practical guidance on only one issue. As a young planter desiring to keep himself from burnout, I wish more practical guidance was given. Overall, however, I would give Ash a 4 our of 5, and I am inclined to a 4.5 even, as I have not yet found another book of good quality on burnout.
Thanks for reading,