Book Review: Zeal without Burnout

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Jesus said, “I’ve come to serve not to be served” (Mark 10:45). So how do we follow him, take up our cross, and do Christian-ministry without becoming bitter dry husks? Christopher Ash’s Zeal without Burnout makes a direct and practical case for “sustainable sacrifice“.[1]Christopher Ash, Zeal without Burnout (The Good Book Company, 2016), 26. His argument is peppered with the anecdotes of people in ministry who burned out or came close. Christian ministry: the business of making God’s love intelligible and widely known is both dangerous and delightful. Delightful because we’re connecting people with God’s great story, what can be more precious or exciting? But also dangerous, because we either over-estimate our own importance or forget the generosity of grace. Christians burn out, says Ash, when we forget the entropy of the Fall.  We are “creatures of dust[2]Ibid, 35., a phrase he uses to capture both our finite status as created beings and the way our bodies are broken by Original Sin. We either try to do what is beyond us or are inhibited by the weariness of our bodies. Ash surveys four ways we over-estimate our abilities, gives us a couple of warnings and encouragements and then closes with a checklist[3]Ibid, 112. and then a medical definition of burnout by a Christian Psychiatrist.[4]Ibid, 117.

Let go and let God” was the old slogan of the Keswick Conventions; conferences focused on deepening evangelical piety. It’s good to be inspired by stories from either sides of the tracks; stories of ordinary Christians toiling away unappreciated for the sake of the Kingdom and then stories of Christians taking dramatic risks for the sake of the Gospel. However unappreciated toil and dramatic sacrifice don’t define the heart of knowing God – knowing and trusting Jesus is the centre of knowing God. Ash shows how our need for sleep, Sabbath rests, spiritual renewal and friendship humble us and remind us of God’s grace and power. They are a reminder that “we can’t do the impossible[5]Ibid, 61., some opportunities will be missed and some tasks neglected. God is merciful, observes Ash, and so often Sabbath rests and our own spiritual self-care can be skipped with “impunity[6]Ibid, 59. while we do the laudable work of Christian ministry. However that, he says is the path to burnout. If we don’t acknowledge our creatureliness, says Ash, our need for spiritual refreshment, sleep and health, we start letting the end justify the means. Christian ministry is the privilege of carrying out God’s work, participating in his plans.

Christian ministry is rewarding. People turn from darkness to light, understand how the world really works and are introduced to God. But Ash warns us that these very rewards and our part in them can become the all-consuming focus of ministry. Additionally, the meritocracy of our Western culture is built on evaluating performance. So those rewards become something to be measured, which is problematic. “You and I cannot plan this fruit, and we cannot measure it. We cannot even strategise for it. It is the gift of God.[7]Ibid, 98.

In some ways Zeal without Burnout is a practical exploration of that old-evangelical-chestnut: ‘faithfulness versus fruitfulness’. A conundrum only if you see faithfulness as the direct cause of fruitfulness. Similarly, the same dilemma exists for Christian leaders. Ash says to watch out for “ministry machismo[8]Ibid, 77., the lure of Christian celebrity. Christian ministry often involves leadership and the demands and delights of leadership can become all consuming. Leadership like fruitfulness is a gift, a gift with responsibilities but a gift nonetheless. Whether we are leaders or ordinary Christians, the success of ministry is hazardous. We shouldn’t be measuring ourselves according to the potency of our most recent success, but on the goodness of God.  “Most of Christ’s labourers probably have as much success as their souls can bear.[9]Ibid, 105.

The central weakness of Zeal without Burnout is that it’s more Job than Peter. Everything Job had, all of God’s blessings were taken away, stripped away so he could focus on faith, and then everything is returned, almost as it was before. In contrast, Peter goes from fisherman to chief Apostle, from traitor to reinstated leader and then from grumpy anti-gentile holdout to second fiddle to Paul.  For a book about burnout, there weren’t many stories of failure, of collapse and despair[10]e.g. 68., most were about a temporary set-back followed by a successful resolution.[11]e.g. 17, 19, 83 or 93. I understand Ash wants to encourage readers who have had some sort of burn out to feel able to return to ministry, and I applaud that. However, for a Christian in the throws of burnout, or a Christian long broken by burnout there needed to be more encouragement. Missing, was what Timothy Keller calls the freedom of self-forgetfulness”, that all our failures are cast on Christ, that if we are in Christ we are no longer under human or divine judgement.

Sheep are the key to be zealous for Jesus without burning out. Peter uses shepherds caring for sheep as the main metaphor of Christian leadership in his epistles to the early church (1 Peter 5:1-4). Peter did this because knowing and loving Jesus is the basis and purpose of Christian ministry. When Jesus re-instated Peter, he asked Peter “if he loved him?” “Yes“, said Peter, “feed my sheep” said Jesus (John 21:15-24). Loving Jesus himself is both the motivation and the purpose of ministry, not the fruit or failure that comes from loving Jesus. Therefore we must remember that the power and purpose of our ministry is living in the presence of Christ; it is not based on our performance.

Zeal Without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice
Christopher Ash
The Good Book Company
Find it at The Wandering Bookseller

References   [ + ]

1.Christopher Ash, Zeal without Burnout (The Good Book Company, 2016), 26.
2.Ibid, 35.
3.Ibid, 112.
4.Ibid, 117.
5.Ibid, 61.
6.Ibid, 59.
7.Ibid, 98.
8.Ibid, 77.
9.Ibid, 105.
10.e.g. 68.
11.e.g. 17, 19, 83 or 93.