Why that book about ministry burn-out you’re reading may be doing more harm than good
There is an expanding section at your local Christian bookshop dedicated to helping pastors to avoid or recover from burn out. I have read a few of these myself, but with a growing sense of disquiet. I began to notice a certain pattern to these books: firstly, they were written by someone who had experienced burn-out themselves. We respond to this experience-based knowledge, and you’ll often find the opening chapters of the book tell the story. You get to hear about the wide-eyed ministry novice, brimming with confidence and ready to see the world changed for Jesus. But the story soon spirals downward and the crash at the bottom is terrible. And yet there is hope, because the author learns hard truths about themselves, they find the mistakes and miscalculations. The slow and determined work of repair and rebuilding then unfolds. They grow into a new phase of ministry: sharing what they have learned, to help others.
I am grateful for their honesty and vulnerability, in sharing their story and hoping to save others from the same pain and failure. However, it is at this point that I begin to feel the unease I mentioned earlier. It is here that the author turns their own personal path to recovery into a system for all of us to follow. All the things that helped them to experience restoration are explained, and often backed up with science, and finally put into dot-points (maybe in a box) at the end of the chapter. But it’s not just the universalizing of personal experience that bothers me. It’s the subtle move from hitting rock bottom, re-discovering the depths of God’s grace, to beginning to do better, do the right things and follow the self-help actions the author offers up. The better versions of the ministry burn-out book serve us well by leading us to the deep, deep well of God’s grace in the midst of failure, sin and burn-out. But they often serve us a refreshing drink and then urge us back into the fray of sorting out our priorities; doing more exercise; getting our rest right; observing the Sabbath; or whatever it was the author found renewed their energy and resource for serving Jesus. My niggling concern is that we fall so easily for the Galatian error each time we read one of these books. I hear the deep need of the author in their downward spiral, that leads them to a deeper understanding of grace. But having begun with grace, many of these books move onto the efforts I must make if I am going to avoid burn-out. Chapter after chapter guides me through the things I must do if I am going to succeed where the author had failed. But what if I needed to stay at that deep, deep well of God’s grace? Not just stay there longer (before moving onto the call to get my act together, have this day off, learn that ancient practice of the early church), but just stay there. Far too many of these burn-out-recovery books have the chapter on grace towards the front and leave it there to get on with my effort, and my improved activity.
The book The Imperfect Disciple, Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together, by Jared C. Wilson was a refreshing change. Not least because his exploration of the sufficiency of grace is taken up in the second last chapter (it’s not the first time he mentions it, but it is the place where he takes up the topic at length). Wilson riffs on the legend of the old lady verses the scientist. Versions of this story abound, in which the scientist finishes a lecture on how the earth is round and revolves around the sun. The old lady corrects the scientist, with her view that the earth is flat and rests on a turtle. The scientist asks what the turtle rests on, to which the old lady replies, ‘Another turtle.’ The scientist asks again: ‘And what does the second turtle rest on?’ And she replies: ‘It’s turtles all the way down!’ Wilson’s point is important and good to hear over and over again: ‘…when it comes to our dependence on God, it is all grace or no grace. If our standing with him rests even an ounce on our works, we are utterly and hopelessly lost. No, it must be grace all the way down.’ (p198)
I believe this is the kind of burn-out help we need. It was my effort; me trying to work harder, that led me into danger – how on earth could more of that be the way to recovery? I’d love to read a burn-out-recovery book, which led me to the deep, deep well of God’s grace and left me there. And in that place, drinking that refreshing water, I might stand a chance of finding a way to be in ministry, safe from dangers of burn-out.