You are dust. I am dust. According to the Bible, we are made from dust (Genesis 2:7), and returning to dust (Psalm 90:3). In other words, we are mortal, embodied creatures—yet wonderfully indwelt by the Spirit of God if we are believers—who have come from dust and returning to dust. This truth forms the foundation of Christopher Ash’s new and helpful book on burnout: Zeal Without Burnout. The book, as helpful as it is brief, is essentially an extended reflection on this neglected truth: God is God, and we are dust.
Recognizing our creaturely mortality and finitude, Ash says, is what will help us develop the wisdom we need in order to pursue a lifelong ministry of sustainable sacrifice. Having laid this foundation, Ash then highlights seven keys which, when wisely applied, will enable one to go the distance in pastoral ministry.
The first four of the seven keys are implications of the foundational truth that we are mortal and dependent upon God. They are: sleep, Sabbaths (rest days), friendship, and food (by which Ash means spiritual renewal). These four brief chapters are extremely helpful as Ash points out some of the ways in which those in pastoral ministry can neglect the implications of our mortality (to our peril). He says, “To neglect sleep, Sabbaths, friendships and inward renewal is not heroism but hubris. It is to claim that I am a level or two above normal members of the human race.” The humble person recognizes their finitude.
Ash then moves on to the final three keys: a warning (beware the celebrity culture of ministry—seeking the approval of others), an encouragement (we can and should pray for lasting fruit; our labour is not in vain), and a delight (rejoicing that our names have been written in heaven). These final three keys have to do with motivation—and Ash rightly points us to God and His grace to challenge and motivate us. Ash concludes with asking the reader to perform a self-check, assessing how one is doing with these seven keys and offering a suggested prayer and resolution the reader may want to personally use. This was a wise and useful way to end, for one of the great problems with reading a book like this is that the reader doesn’t make any changes but simply acquires new insights! Needless to say, new insights alone don’t actually help you avoid burnout.
Finally, Dr Steve Midgely writes a fantastic epilogue, explaining what burnout is and providing both medical information and biblical insights.
Why write a review on this book? Well, burnout is a major problem in the church. In the USA, Ash writes, “it is estimated that some 1500 people leave pastoral ministry each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure.” I don’t know what the statistics are in my own country, South Africa, but I do know that it is also a significant problem for our churches here as well. And surely a major element of the problem is that we have indeed neglected this crucial truth—that those in ministry are embodied creatures. Made from dust, and in need of sleep, rest, friendship and inward renewal. Additionally, we are not only creatures but also sinners; thus we need to be aware of our motives—and our tendency to seek the glory of men rather than God, to give in to discouragement, or to rejoice in our gifting rather than in God’s grace.
What I found especially beneficial were the personal stories at the end of each chapter—a sobering reminder that many godly folk have, for one reason or another, found themselves burnt out and simply unable to go on. Those stories serve to illustrate the importance of each chapter’s biblical teaching.
This is a wonderfully helpful book. Not complicated or comprehensive, but wise, personal, and based soundly on Scripture. I would highly recommend it to both pastors and biblical counselors, as well as busy church members who use their leisure time to serve in the local church. However, in addition to reading it I would encourage them to seek to practically apply its message and—if necessary—make the needed adjustments to how they are living and doing ministry. If you’re feeling stressed out, burnt out, or discouraged in your ministry—God may well use this book to correct and encourage you to stay the course. Warmly recommended.