Category Archives: Pastoral Ministry

Book Review: Zeal Without Burnout

Zeal Without Burnout

Zeal Without Burnout: Seven keys to a lifelong ministry of sustainable sacrifice.  Christopher Ash, Epsom, UK: the Good Book Company, 2016.  Hardcover, 125 pages, $17.99 AUD.

This book includes several stories of pastors and other Christian workers who’ve experienced burnout.  One of them, Dennis, tells of how he was preaching one evening and had his life suddenly turned upside down.  He just packed up his notes and walked away in the middle of his sermon:

I had just had it, and I wasn’t going to take it anymore.

I drove home thinking, “I’m not going back.  I’m finished with ministry.  In fact, I may even be finished with church.”

By the time I got home I couldn’t stop crying.  I shut myself in our bedroom and didn’t leave the room for three days.  My wife came in and prayed, but I knew I was done with ministry.  (90)

Many others have had similar experiences.  According to the author, “it is estimated that some 1500 people leave pastoral ministry each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure.”  That figure is in the United States alone!  Sadly, we know that our Reformed churches are not immune to this phenomenon.

Zeal Without Burnout is about addressing this phenomenon with a basic, biblical, constructive approach.  The author aims to help prevent burnout amongst those involved in Christian ministry.  The intended audience includes not only pastors, but also other Christian workers.  For a Reformed readership, this book could also be very helpful for our elders.  After all, they often have to juggle responsibilities in the church with regular full-time work and family priorities.  We should not think that burnout only threatens to sideline pastors.

The heart of Ash’s approach is found with his “seven keys.”  These are seven basic biblical teachings which, when taken seriously, will help readers to avoid burnout.  I’m not going to share all of them — I want you to read this book for yourself! – but let me just mention the first:  We need sleep.  While it is good to work hard for the Lord, a lack of attention to adequate sleep will soon catch up to us.  Moreover, because our service is from and for the Lord, we can sleep.  Says Ash, “You and I sleep because we do not believe that the project of building the people of God rests upon us; we sleep because we know that God never slumbers or sleeps” (49).

This is a small, but well-written book.  The author writes out of his own personal experiences getting near burnout, but also out of the experiences of others.  The author has also included an appendix, “What Exactly is Burnout?” written by a trained psychiatrist, Dr. Steve Midgley.    This appendix helpfully explains the precise nature of what is commonly termed “burnout,” as well as the warning signs and practical steps that can be taken to avoid it.

Who should read Zeal Without Burnout?  For starters, definitely my colleagues in pastoral ministry.  Brothers, for the sake of the gospel you love and preach, you need to read this little book.  Elders should also read it, not only for themselves, but also for the sake of the pastors they work with and oversee.  In some instances, perhaps also deacons would benefit from this volume.  In fact, I could see consistories profitably reading and discussing this book together.  Though a small book, it punches well above its weight.  Highly recommended!

What Separates the Sheep from the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46?

Sheep and Goats

Matthew 25:31-46 contains words that are often used to support general works of charity.  In this parable, the King is quoted as saying, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”  So, the argument goes, when you feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit prisoners, you are doing good towards Christ himself.  But what if we’re getting this text all wrong?  If you’re open to considering a better explanation, I would urge you to carefully read an article by the New Testament professor at CRTS, Dr. Gerhard Visscher.  The article is entitled, “So What Does Separate the Sheep from the Goats? A Closer Look at a Misunderstood Parable (Matthew 25:31-46).”  It was published in the October 11, 2002 issue of Clarion and it can be found online here.  It begins on page 501.

This was Dr. Visscher’s inugural address when he became NT professor in 2002.  I remember hearing it and finding it quite persuasive.  I still do.

How to Consider a Call

Confused man

If you haven’t heard, I have another call.  In addition to the existing call to the Providence CanRC in Hamilton, I have received a call to the Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania.  One of my friends from the Philippines asked me to write about this mysterious process of considering calls.  I’ve only gone through this five times, so I’m not an expert.  Moreover, I’m quite positive that there is not just one way to go about it.  Other pastors probably have different approaches and I’m not judging them.  So here I’m just going to outline my basic approach.  It may give some ideas to other pastors in a similar situation and it may also give parishioners some idea of how (some) pastors reach a decision.

The first and most important element of considering a call is prayer.  Throughout the process you have to regularly bring this before the Lord and ask him for wisdom and insight.  The importance of this needs to be stressed.  While I have a process that I follow, it is not a mechanical process where I leave the Lord out of it.  No, if I’m going to honour him with this process, he needs to be involved from the beginning to the end.  We have to acknowledge him in all our ways and that means proceeding in prayerful dependence, even while we use the mind he gave us to discern the direction to go.

There are two major steps in my approach.  Sometimes it happens that after the first step everything is clear and the second step can be either skipped or abbreviated.  Both steps involve serious and prayerful reflection on yourself, the existing call, and the call presenting itself.

First, I have what I call the “Obvious Red Flag” step.  There can be signs in your existing call that you’ve passed the “best before date” and  it’s time to move on.  Perhaps your ministry isn’t as fruitful as it once was.  Perhaps there are factors endangering the fruitfulness of your ministry in the future.  You have to listen to what’s being said by the office bearers and congregation members.  Sometimes the writing seems to be on the wall.  But there can also be red flags in the new call.  To detect them, I believe it’s very important to travel to that church and ask some very well-designed questions of the consistory and congregation.  You need to spend time with the people, not only to become familiar with their needs, but also to discern whether there would be anything that would stand in the way of you working fruitfully there.  Sometimes you’ll visit and afterwards it will be crystal clear that you’re the wrong man for that particular church.  Then the decision could be clear.  But it could also happen that the existing call has all the red flags and the new call has no red flags.  Again, the decision could be clear, so long as other factors are not at play.

But what if there are no red flags in the existing call and no red flags in the new call?  What if it seems that you could work fruitfully in either context?  That’s where the second step comes in to play.

I’ll call the second step,  the “Factor Weighing” step.  You draw up a list of pros and cons associated with both the existing call and the new call.  Not only do you have to list all the factors, they also have to be weighed and given priority.  I assign a numerical value of 1-10 to each of the factors, 10 being of highest importance and 1 the lowest.  The sub-total of the cons get subtracted from the sub-total of the pros.  You’ll get a value for each call and that gives you some quantitative idea of what you’re facing.  It’s not that this necessarily decides it in a final way, but it can help to give you some clarity.  This second step of the process should be reviewed regularly during the time of consideration.  New factors might present themselves and need to be weighed.

Throughout both steps, I would be in constant conversation with my wife and kids.  They’re also a very important part of the picture and their needs and situation need to be considered.

Even though it’s sometimes hard to discern the direction, an answer will usually start to form.  Once you’ve gotten there, it’s good to sit on it for a week or two in order to be sure you’re at peace with it.  Of course, you pray about it and ask the Lord to give you peace of mind with it.  Then it’s time to inform the churches.  That can be hard too, because most likely you’re going to disappoint someone somewhere.  It’s a gut-wrenching process, to be sure.    But we need to trust that the Lord will guide our decision-making and have us where we need to be.



Book Review: Rid of My Disgrace

Rid of My Disgrace

Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault, Justin S. Holcomb and Lindsey A. Holcomb,  Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 2011.  Softcover, 268 pages, $16.99.

This is not a fun book to read.  It’s not an enjoyable topic to think about.  I have read far too many books on this subject and have encountered far too many people impacted by it.  I pray it would go away.  The first article I had published in Clarion dealt with sexual abuse.  That was over 20 years ago.  I want to believe that things have changed since then.  I want to believe that sexual abuse no longer happens much and, in the rare case that it does, we deal with it in a biblical way – with compassion and grace.  I want to believe that people who have been sexually abused get the help they need from the church in order to find healing and peace.  But does wanting to believe something make it true?  This lingering question is why I decided to read one more book on this horrible subject.

Some readers may be familiar with Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Seattle, Washington.  The authors, husband and wife, work with Driscoll at Mars Hill.  Justin Holcomb is a pastor at the church and his wife Lindsey is a deacon.  Justin also teaches theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.  As part of her work at Mars Hill, Lindsey provides counselling services to victims of sexual assault.  Both authors are therefore well-qualified to address this difficult topic.

Definitions are crucially important here.  The Holcombs are not interested only in addressing past or present childhood sexual abuse.  They also address rape, spousal sexual assault, and other forms of sexual violence.  Their definition of sexual assault:  “any type of sexual behavior of contact where consent is not freely given or obtained and is accomplished through force, intimidation, violence, coercion, manipulation, threat, deception, or abuse of authority” (28).  The definition is comprehensive and the authors expand on each element.

The book has three parts.  The first speaks of the disgrace of sexual assault.  The authors define it and speak about its effects.  The second part goes into how grace can be applied to deal with the pain and trauma of sexual assault in the areas of denial, distorted self-image, shame, guilt, anger, and despair.  A personal story from a survivor of sexual assault is included between each of the chapters in this section.  The last part is entitled “Grace Accomplished.”  Here the authors trace themes of sin, violence, sexual assault, and grace through the pages of the Bible.

There are many commendable elements to Rid of My Disgrace.  The authors believe that the biblical gospel of grace is essential for healing.  They have a biblical understanding of the dynamics of human sinfulness.  Throughout the book, survivors of sexual assault are directed to the cross of Christ.  Their approach to forgiveness is sound.  They give a helpful analysis of why churches sometimes have a tendency to blame the victim, why we shoot our wounded.  While the authors often use the results of scientific research and observations, their foundation is the infallible and inerrant Word of God.  Moreover, the theological orientation of the authors is generally on the right track.  The authors that a book cites are often revealing and Rid of My Disgrace prominently features John Calvin, Martin Luther, R. C. Sproul, and even the Heidelberg Catechism.

Good Christian books about this topic are hard to find.  Many of them have more psychology than scriptural theology.  That’s not a problem with this book at all.  This is, in fact, one of the best Christian books available on sexual abuse.  However, very reluctantly I have to point out one problem in the theology of the book.  I do it reluctantly because I don’t want this problem to prevent people from reading it.  On the other hand, I do want people to read it with discernment.

The problem has to do with their understanding of the cross.  The Holcombs speak of God understanding abuse and assault, because Jesus was abused and assaulted.  Taken by itself that statement could be taken charitably to mean that Jesus (the God-man) understands abuse and assault.  However, the authors say far more.  For example, on page 113 they say that when Jesus laid down his life as our substitute, “God is submitting to God’s own wrath for the sake of forgiving sinners.”  This kind of language, often appearing with citations from less than orthodox theologians, appears especially in chapters 6 and 7.  In QA 17 of the Heidelberg Catechism, we confess that Christ bore in his human nature the burden of God’s wrath.  To state that God suffered on the cross may sound pastorally helpful and appealing, but it is theologically problematic.  It is far better to keep the attention on Christ our High Priest and Mediator.  Our Saviour Jesus understands abuse and assault – therefore, we can be comforted in our afflictions.  We have a sympathetic High Priest to whom we can go with our burdens.

We should not underestimate the hurt that this sin has caused, also in terms of one’s relationship with God.  The historic proliferation of this sin in some of our Canadian Reformed communities has damaged the faith life of many, both women and men.  It has produced depression, mistrust, shame, hypocrisy, anger, broken marriages and families, and much more.  Because it’s so damaging, we need to continue talking about it.  Sin is like fungus:  it grows best in the dark – it’s no different with the sin of sexual assault.  Books such as this are helpful to shine the light and bring gospel hope and healing to those broken by this evil.

Pastors, please take a break

As mentioned on Monday, I just came back from four weeks of vacation.  That was preceded by a week of writing.  I’m very blessed to have a consistory that gives me enough time off so that when I come back, I’m refreshed and ready to soldier on.  David Murray wrote a must-read post for pastors last week. Most of what he suggests I already do.  I try to take one day off per week (Saturday, the day my kids are home during the school year).  All my preparations for Sunday are finished by Friday night, so that Saturday can be unencumbered.  Another practice that I’ve found helpful is the daily afternoon nap.  I’ve been doing that for years and it gives me a better state of mind at supper and more energy for the evening (when I often have visits, classes or meetings).  Then there’s also the daily constitutional, a brisk 40 minute walk after supper.  That gives me time to reflect and sometimes (if they’re interested in joining me) converse with my wife or kids.