Take Care of Yourself: Survive and Thrive in Christian Ministry, Pablo Martinez, Lausanne Library / Hendrickson, 2018, 100 pages, ISBN: 9781683071785, List price: £4.99
In recent years there has been a welcome increase in interest in the wellbeing of Christian leaders. The spiritual health of pastors and other Christian workers, and their spouses too, is at the core of our mission in Living Leadership and we welcome this fresh attention to the needs of those who serve others. Pablo Martinez, an experienced psychiatrist and leader among evangelicals in his native Spain, has made a valuable contribution in this succinct and accessible book which, as the self-explanatory title suggests, aims to help people in Christian ministry to survive and thrive by taking care of themselves. It is packed with warmth and wisdom gleaned from the experience of supporting many leaders who have come close to the edge or crashed over it into burnout. Martinez makes judicious use of insights from the world of psychology, but grounds everything he says in Scripture first and foremost.
The book comprises five brief chapters followed by a two-page Epilogue and an Appendix. The first chapter reminds us of the biblical principle that we are ‘Jars of Clay’ and describes God’s intention for us to live quiet lives in terms of ensuring that we are not living under constant stress on the verge of exhaustion. In Chapter 2, Martinez introduces his key image of a pool of water which must constantly receive fresh filling as water flows out, establishing the principle of resting daily (in sleep), weekly (Sabbath) and yearly (holiday) and outlining some of the signs that signal a pool that is close to empty. This image is carried into the following chapter as he urges us to avoid self-inflicted mistakes that empty the pool: perfectionism, activism, self-ambition and haste. Chapter 4 introduces a new metaphor, of life as a vineyard to be tended under God, while the final chapter explores the central importance of resting and trusting in God for our personal renewal. The Epilogue is really a conclusion to Chapter 5 and the Appendix contains additional material about dealing with our pasts that, whilst relevant to burdened leaders, is not clearly related to the main body of the book.
This book is suitably brief – an important quality for anything that people may need to read when they are exhausted and concentration is limited – but it is rich in wisdom. Martinez’s imagery – from the rhythms of the heart moving between relaxed diastole and active systole (p.16) to the well-watered vineyard that bears much fruit – and memorable aphorisms – “The word ‘yes’ is very powerful, but the word ‘no’ is very healthy” (p.33) or “God wants our ministries to be like oaks, not mushrooms” (p.60) – help to embed his wisdom into the reader’s mind. I was also challenged and helped by his reminder that both “Moses and Elijah, giants of the faith, the symbols of the Law and the Prophets who accompanied Jesus in the Transfiguration” (p.20) experienced points of near-collapse in ministry. Most helpful, however, was his constant reminders, brought to the fore in the final chapter, that our strength is only renewed by God as we are still and acknowledge him, remaining in Christ and being constantly renewed in our love for him and for others.
The main weakness of Take Care of Yourself is its lack of interconnectedness. It is less a coherent thesis and more a collection of vignettes of wisdom for anyone in Christian ministry. With its lack of flow of ideas between chapters, its occasional repetition of concepts, and a detached Appendix, it could have benefited from a clear introductory statement of what makes for healthy life in ministry which could be developed through the chapters and restated in a conclusion. Its use as a tool in mentoring others and in group study is somewhat limited by the brevity of the ‘Questions for Study and Reflection’ section, which comprises seven questions that seem to be an afterthought. It would have been more helpful to have a more detailed study guide after each chapter along with some tools for self-assessment. Whilst the book’s dependence on Scripture is a strength, there are a few points where verses are used as prooftexts to bear more weight than they may have been intended to. Importantly, however, in his integration of biblical truth with ideas from psychology, Martinez never strays into the pitfall of using Scripture as a pretext for psychological theories.
Martinez is at his strongest, as we might expect from an experienced psychiatrist, when challenging unhealthy patterns of thinking and feeling. Each of his suggestions could benefit from more concrete, practical advice about how to work the right attitudes he encourages out in practice. A few practical tips emerge in Chapter 4, but important ideas like the habit of weekly Sabbath, finding supportive relationships within the church we lead, and prioritising family time could do with more development for readers who may have distorted understandings or who have good intentions but are uncertain where to start. A surprising omission from the set of relationships Martinez recommends (family, church, close friends, nature and books) is the need to have accountability to a more senior leader or a group of peers (fellow-elders). The book could be enriched by marrying Martinez’s experience as someone who cares for pastors with reflections from someone who has experienced life in paid church ministry.
In conclusion, Martinez proves to be a trustworthy guide on the first steps in self-care for those in ministry. His central emphasis on intentionality in keeping life centred on Christ and ensuring habitual enjoyment of God is refreshing and thoroughly biblical. A book of this length will never be the final word on any of the issues it touches on, but this is certainly a useful addition to the libraries of pastors and those who care for them. The chapters are short enough for a mentor and mentee to read between meetings and rich enough to provoke helpful discussion.