Ash, Christopher. Zeal Without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice. Purcellville VA: The Good Book Company, 2016. 128 pages. $12.99. Purchase at Westminster books for less. Or, you can purchase on Kindle.
Note: This review is by Dr. Gary Shultz
God calls every Christian into ministry. Every believer in Christ is called and equipped to serve their local church. God calls some to serve in vocational ministry as a way to make a living, but he calls most to serve him in addition to working at a job. Our entire lives are meant to be lives of ministry; our specific responsibilities or locations might change, but our calling to please God as “living sacrifices” (Rom 12:1) never does. God expects us to serve him in ways that only we can from the moment we are saved until the moment he calls us home.
We all know that it is possible for Christians to neglect this calling. Some Christians refuse to serve at all, while others only serve if and when it suits them, never making ministry a priority. While there are several reasons for this, one of the most pressing reasons is burnout. Many Christians who start off strong in their spiritual lives, zealous for God and the things of God, have gotten to a point where they no longer want to serve or feel capable of serving. Some wear themselves out so completely they are unable to serve. Ministry is never-ending, serving others can be hard, and balancing different responsibilities at church, work, and home can be stressful. Unfortunately, serving God is often the first thing to go when this happens.
Christopher Ash, who has served as a pastor and ministry administrator, believes there is a sustainable path for believers that “combines passionate zeal for Jesus with plodding faithfully on year after year” (14). Ash is not unsympathetic or unfamiliar with burnout, and throughout the book he shares his own personal experience as well as the stories of several other faithful believers who “hit the wall” in their ministries. More than that, however, he goes to the Bible to share a neglected truth as well as several keys to avoiding burnout while continuing to live a life of sacrificial service.
The foundational truth for avoiding burnout that we too often neglect as followers of Christ is that we are embodied creatures. God made us out of dust (Gen 2:7), and one day he will turn us back into dust (Ps 90:3). Even in Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, the body is still dead because of sin (Rom 8:10). We must be diligent not to separate our spiritual lives from what is happening to our bodies. Even when healthy, we are no more than a few particles of dust into which God has breathed the breath of life.
This truth has several implications. Ash explores four of these: we need sleep, we need Sabbaths (or days off from work), we need friends, and we need inward renewal. God needs none of these things. We must intentionally make time for sufficient sleep, regular days off, relationships, and the hobbies and habits that renew us emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. These things do not keep us from ministry (and should never replace ministry), but are necessary for sustainable ministry.
Ash closes with a warning, an encouragement, and a delight. We must beware ministering for celebrity or notoriety, remember that serving God is always worth it, and delight above all in God’s grace in Christ and not our gifts. A chapter on burnout from a medical perspective, written by a doctor, concludes the book. No matter where we are in our walk with God, serving faithfully or struggling to serve at all, we need to “take heed, lest we fall” (1 Cor 10:12). Burnout is a possibility, but God’s grace can and does sustain us, even for a lifetime, when we depend on him and not our own strength.
Gary L. Shultz Jr. (Ph.D. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Fulton, MO. He also serves as Assistant Professor of Religion at Liberty University and Adjunct Professor of Theology and Church History at Baptist Bible Theological Seminary. He writes a monthly book review column for The Pathway and is the author of A Multi-Intentioned View of the Extent of the Atonement (Wipf & Stock).