Zeal Without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice, Christopher Ash, Good Book Company, 2016, 123 pages, ISBN: 9781784980214, List price: £7.99
“Sacrifice is not the same as burnout” (p.23). That is the crucial distinction Christopher Ash seeks to make in this beautiful little book. Beautiful both in its presentation – the hardcover and attractive design give it a real feeling of quality and it is a delight to hold – and its content – it is well written and follows a clear and engaging order. Ash writes from experience as a pastor and a trainer of others for ministry and he understands the drive that many younger men feel to be sacrificial in ministry but how easily this can tip them onto a path of self-destruction that is far from honouring to the God they want to serve.
Ash opens Zeal Without Burnout with ‘Stories from the Edge’, recounting his own experience of coming close to burnout on at least two occasions and the serious burnout of one of his ministry heroes. Similar stories written in the first person are interspersed throughout the remaining chapters of the book. Having established that burnout is a serious threat to people in ministry, Ash proceeds to explain why it should not be confused with sacrifice and then lays out his foundational theological principle, that “We are creatures of dust” (p.35) – we are human and not God. The “seven keys” to lifelong ministry that occupy a chapter each, forming the bulk of the book, are outworkings of this principle. The first four describe four needs we have that God does not: sleep, Sabbath rest, friendship and inward renewal. The remaining three constitute a warning to beware celebrity, an encouragement that our labour for the Lord is not in vain, and a call to delight and rejoice in God’s grace rather than in gifts. The book concludes with a suggested four-step process of self-reflection, a chapter in which Steve Midgley explains what burnout is and then a short list of further recommended reading.
This little book is possibly the best single book I have read on the subject. It masterfully weaves together real stories with practical wisdom grounded in a clear theological conviction. It is coherent and engaging throughout and its greatest strength compared with other books with similar aims is its balance of dealing with heart issues and practical advice. Ash’s grasp of Scripture and his commitment to the glory of God and the centrality of the gospel are evident on every page and his concern for younger pastors emanates from every chapter. He is also sensitive to the diversity of his readership, putting advice specifically intended for married couples in a postscript to his chapter on friendship rather than assuming that it will be relevant to all. The inclusion of recommendations for further reading and questions for self-reflection enhance the usefulness of the book.
Judged by its intentions, Zeal Without Burnout is virtually flawless. It is hardly a criticism to say that it is not a detailed exploration of the themes it introduces – how could it be in so few small and well-spaced pages? It is also worth remembering that it approaches the issue of burnout from one specific theological premise, albeit an immensely helpful one, and that choice limits its focus. There are some areas Ash does not address, including healthy eating and exercise or accountability and teamwork (these last two are suggested by one of the contributors of personal stories, Dennis – p.93), and the addition of group discussion questions might make the book more useful for ministry teams. For readers who want a rounded perspective on this subject, this book should be read along with Pablo Martinez’s Take Care of Yourself and David Murray’s ReSET.
In conclusion, I highly recommend Zeal Without Burnout to every Christian minister. I agree with Ash that our failings often come from forgetting our humanity. That is inexcusable because at the root of this issue is the idolatry that says that I can be like God. I need that rebuke and the tender caring advice that Ash follows it with. I am sure I will need it many more times if I am to finish the race well and I intend to return to this book occasionally to be reminded and encouraged once again.
You can purchase a copy of Zeal Without Burnout from the publisher, or most other bookshops
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