Burnt Out Ash
I have always been fascinated 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 He 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.
The Good Book Company (aptly named) has published a little book by my fellow countryman, Christopher Ash, on ministerial burn-out. I hate to agree with Todd Pruitt, but his rule of thumb on Ash is a sound one: If Ash has written it, it is worth reading. His works on marriage, on Job, on preaching and now this are all important in their different ways.
In this work, Ash addresses the frequency and the range of ministerial burn out. It has a range of causes: Sheer exhaustion, bitterness of soul, over-commitment. As with most problems, there are probably as many unique combinations of causes as there are instances in which burn-out occurs.
It is odd to read a book and see described the warning signs in one’s own life. I am very fortunate to love my work, to teach students I love teaching, to write for websites in whose missions I believe, to preach to a congregation that is appreciative and friendly to me, and to do a podcast with two individuals who are – well, bearable on the whole (hey, you have to work with what you can get these days….). The advantage is obvious: It makes work a delight. The disadvantage is more hard to discern: I have a wife who also needs my time, and I have a mind and a body that need rest and relaxation.
What shocked me about some of the testimonies of burn-out in this book was how suddenly it had descended. A pastor goes to bed one night 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. I keep fit, I love my work, I am not aware of being slowly ground down by it – but when my wife told me recently that I had been, to use her phrase ‘on the go for seventeen days without let up’ I needed to take notice. Damage can be indiscernible, incremental. Work can be a form of self-righteousness. And when one enojys it, it can also be a form of self-indulgence, feeding belief in one's indispensaibility and importance.
Ash is aware of all this -- acutely aware, having suffered his own breakdown a few years ago. He thus offers seven very simple and basic pointers for pastors and indeed for anybody who is in danger of overworking themselves. We need sleep. We need rest. We need friends. We need inward renewal. We need to beware celebrity, because this will distort our time priorities. We need to understand there can be recovery from burn-out. And we need to delight in grace and not in our own gifts.
One might summarize all that Ash says under one heading: We are not God. Our mortal frames and our fallen existence makes 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 than by having to experience burn-out for ourselves.
As Ash moves through these seven, much of what he says is common-sense. Thus, when you wake in the middle of the night worrying that you are going to forget to do something, simply make a note of it -- literally write it down in a notebook on yout nightstand -- and then forget about it and go back to sleep. It is not that Ash says anything profound in these pages. But he does tell us exactly what we need to do in order to get our priorities right.
I would recommend this book to each and every pastor out there. In fact, I would recommend it to each and 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.