The subject of burnout is a reality that many pastors have experienced firsthand or in their ministry circles. It is a real danger about which all ministers should be aware and need help to avoid. Christopher Ash, former director of the Proclamation Trust’s Cornhill Training Course in London, discusses the subject of burnout and how to prevent it in this short book that builds upon the insights Ash shared at The Basics pastors’ conference at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio in 2014. Ash draws upon his own experience, as on at least two different occasions he has come to the point of burnout (p. 15), and that of others, with the book featuring numerous stories of pastors and Christian workers who have experienced burnout.
The book begins with Ash introducing the subject of burnout and offering images of what it looks like. Ash clarifies, “Sacrifice is not the same as burnout” (pp. 23–27). Christ does call us to sacrifice and self-denial, so ministry should not be easy. This does not mean, however, that one should sacrifice to the point of burnout, as burnout actually impedes ministry and forces others to help one recover. Therefore, ministry is to be a “sustainable sacrifice” (p. 26). Ash then introduces a truth that serves as the foundation for the seven keys that he discusses: “We are creatures of dust” (pp. 35–41). This means that every human has limits—these limits might differ from person to person, but limits are still there.
The first four “keys” are implications of our creaturely limits; unlike the creator God, we need (1) sleep, (2) Sabbath, (3) friends, and (4) inner renewal by the Holy Spirit. The final three “keys” differ from the first four in that they deal more with motivation: (5) we must be on guard against a “celebrity” mindset that cares about the opinion of others; (6) we need to remember our labors are not in vain; and (7) we need to remember God’s grace and not just look to the ministry gifts that we have been given. After Ash’s conclusion, which urges the reader to put into practice these truths, is a section describing burnout by Dr. Steve Midgely, a pastor and professor who was trained as a psychiatrist (pp. 117–23). Midgely helpfully notes that burnout is not a medical diagnosis, it can manifest itself in various ways (such as depression, fatigue, sleeplessness, and poor judgment), and it emerges from a life lived at high stress for too long, with the result that one is no longer at his or her point of best performance.
The book’s insights are not groundbreaking but important and need to be heeded. The inclusion of stories of people in ministry on the brink of or at the bottom of burnout offer examples both what it looks like and how to deal with it. Moreover, I found the term “sustainable sacrifice” helpful, as I have personally wrestled with the question of how sacrifice relates to “self-care.” A way to strengthen the book might be to include or refer to Midgely’s discussion on burnout in the opening chapter to make sure the reader knows what burnout is and looks like, lest one misunderstand what is being said. In addition, I wonder if there would be value in not labeling the book as “Seven Keys” since they are not parallel; perhaps one could describe the book as a “pathway to sustainable sacrifice” rather than “Seven Keys.” Finally, while Ash states that the book is geared “especially for pastors and Christians leaders,” he states that it is also designed for “all zealous followers of Jesus,” including those who have regular jobs in addition to their labors in ministry (p. 14). The book definitely has value for pastors and full-time Christian workers, but it could use more reflection on what these practices might look like for lay Christians who might have more difficulty finding Sabbath time or implementing other practices in light of the nature of their ministry done in their “free time.” Even if these leaders do not read the book themselves, such insights could help pastors think through how to help prevent burnout among lay leaders, something that would also help to maintain a sustainable ministry.
Overall, this is a welcome addition to the topic of ministry that hopefully will help cultivate “sustainable sacrifice” among Christian workers. Ash strikes the right balance between the call to sacrifice and suffer as a follower of Christ and the reality of burnout. The book’s brevity makes it accessible for those who might feel overwhelmed and perhaps most in need of the insights from the book, and its practical points are easy to remember. Hopefully, the experiences of Ash and others will lead readers to implement the keys Ash has laid out so that they can cultivate a ministry of sustainable sacrifice and avoid being a further addition to the number of people leaving the ministry.