Book Review: "Zeal without Burnout" by Christopher Ash
Over the last several years, I have heard many people talking about the topic of ministerial burnout. Whether or not you are convinced this is a real phenomenon, it’s hard to deny the facts: many people leave the Christian ministry every month. For one reason or another, they are exhausted and simply cannot carry on. Therefore, it was good providence that Christopher Ash just published a book entitled Zeal without Burnout. The subtitle sums up the aim: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice. How can burnout be a problem in ministry when Christ himself encouraged his followers to give up everything for the sake of the Gospel? Christopher Ash explains that there is a vital difference between living sacrificially for Jesus and pursuing our calling in a way that leads to mental and physical exhaustion. When Christian leaders bear in mind that we are created by God from dust and that all of our endeavors are dependent on God for success, we are reminded that Gospel ministry is a humbling privilege and enabled to rejoice that we are recipients of God's grace in Christ Jesus.
Ash lays out a number of keys to sustainable sacrifice. Each of them is an implication of our mortality and our utter dependency upon God: We need sleep, we need sabbaths, we need friends, and we need food—the inward renewal of spiritual food. God needs none of these; we need all of these. We need inward renewal. We need to beware celebrity. We need all of these in proper proportions to live lives that are zealous but sustainable. If we neglect any or all of these we drastically increase the likelihood of burnout or breakdown. One might summarize all that Ash says under one heading: We are not God. Our mortal frames and our fallen existence make us weak—weak in the face of the temptation to turn even our service of God into something of an idol and ourselves into something indispensable for God’s kingdom. It is surely preferable to be reminded of that by Ash’s book rather than by having to experience burnout for ourselves.
It is very odd to read a book and see described the warning signs in one's own life. I was surprised in the sense that I love what I do as a preacher and can't imagine doing anything else. I love and am loved by my church, etc. But this does not obviate the fact that there are many demands placed upon me as a minister, father, husband, student, etc. People always need my time, and I have a mind and a body that need rest and relaxation. There are many competing priorities in my life. The reader can surely relate.
What is shocking about some of the testimonies in the book is how quickly burnout descended. One night a minister goes to bed feeling buoyant and strong. The next day he is mentally incapable of facing work again, a condition which lasts for months. That is sobering. It made me take notice. It showed me that damage can be indiscernible and incremental. I took stock of my own weeks of work while reading Ash's book and realized that I hadn't taken a full day off for about seven weeks. Why? I don't know actually. I guess I just hadn't been keeping track. Work can be a kind of self-righteousness, particularly for ministers. Ash is helpful because he is acutely aware of the problem, having suffered his own breakdown a few years ago.
As Ash moves through the seven "keys," much of what he says is common sense. Ash says he writes this book to help the reader “discern the difference between sacrifice and foolish heroism, and so to guard against needless burnout. We are to be living sacrifices until God takes us home to be with Jesus, we are to offer ourselves as those who have a life to offer, rather than a burned-out wreck.” Those who read this book and follow its counsel will find themselves equipped to serve the Lord with zeal, but also in a way that can be sustained over the long term. For that reason, this is a book not only for ministers but for every Christian, for the temptations and problems it highlights in pastoral ministry have their counterparts elsewhere and could be faced by any Christian at any time.
One of the most fascinating stories in the Bible involves Elijah. I have always been intrigued by the fact that, when Elijah scores his spectacular victory on Mount Carmel, he almost immediately plunges into depression. More fascinating, however, is the LORD’s response. The first thing God does is make sure that Elijah has food and rest. While Christians have a tendency to spiritualize anything that presents itself in terms of spiritual symptoms, it is clear that God understands that we are embodied creatures. Spiritual symptoms may actually be the result of physical causes such as exhaustion and hunger.
So take up Ash's book and learn how to lean into sustainable sacrifice. It is far better to be able to say and believe this:
I am—and will never, this side of the resurrection, be more than—a creature of dust. I will rest content in my creaturely weakness; I will use the means God has given me to keep going in this life while I can; I will allow myself time to sleep; I will trust him enough to take a day off each week; I will invest in friendships and not be a proud loner; I will take with gladness the inward refreshment he offers me. I will serve the Lord Jesus with a glad and restful zeal, with all the energy that he works within me; but not with anxious toil, selfish ambition, the desire for the praise of people, and all the other ugly motivations that will destroy my soul. So help me God. (From Zeal without Burnout, in the "Conclusion," Kindle location 931)