A Review: Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving

Resilient Ministry is a summary and analysis of American pastors’ reflections considering long-term fruitful ministry and the effects of stress.

This work unfortunately becomes a collection of aphorisms, like a bag of  fortune cookies. The advice is often very good and helpful but it all lacks a biblical and theological framework. This makes it impossible to use as a guide to ministry choices. Because this core is missing, it becomes a platform for the contemporary Christian embrace of psychology. Pastoral ministry is evaluated fundamentally through this lens.

 

Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving, Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman and Donald C. Guthrie (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013).

Introduction

Resilient Ministry is a summary and analysis of American pastors’ reflections considering long-term fruitful ministry and the effects of stress. It considers an extensive array of subjects to include spiritual formation, burn out, strategies to improve longevity, emotional intelligence, marriage and family etc. It reaches a number of conclusions that are presented in a clear and helpful way. It is sprinkled with pithy and often wise observations that should benefit pastors living with the burden of their calling.

Fundamental approach

A few preliminary observations will establish a foundation for a thorough analysis of this work. First, it is fundamentally a psychological evaluation. It focuses on psychological factors effecting pastoral longevity and health. It cannot therefore serve as a comprehensive grid for evaluating the pastorate. Attempting to do so badly distorts any assessment of a pastoral calling. It is of great value in understanding how American pastors not only live in but reflect contemporary culture. The modern, primarily Western, world  expresses and struggles with influences set loose by modernism such as individualism and psychological therapy. The book has an unfortunate tendency of universalising

Perspective

Second, it is a profoundly North American evaluation. It is therefore of certain but limited value. To say that pastoral stress is a truism is not in dispute. To suggest that American psychological self-reflection can be universalised, however, is a contradiction of such a valid, specific study. To be clear about this, the book notes its own North American orientation. A problem could emerge when attempting to universalise its perspectives. This is easy to do since it assumes that a psychological self-analysis is common to everyone. This, of course, for anyone that has lived in other cultures, is not true. That is not to say that underlying concerns for spiritual, physical health, etc., are not true everywhere. They are. The problem is that other cultures do not process these issues the same way and they also may not arrive at solutions in any way similar to the finding of the book. The movie Crocodile Dundee makes the point. An American Sue Charlton observes, “People go to a psychiatrist to talk about their problems.” Mick Dundee responds that in Walkabout Creek, in Western Australia, “you tell Wally. And he tells everyone in town…brings it out in the open…no more problems.” The book assumes that everyone, because they think about the same concerns thinks in the same way.

More significant, the book appears to assume that the psychological factors noted in sections concerning topics such as burn-out become the principle factors in determining how one lives a life of ministry. The Bible is addressed, but never foundationally or deeply. It generally becomes a source of supporting verses for a given psychological observation. In other words, it is not used as the basic grid through which to make ministry-related decisions. Rather, it affirms non-biblical phenomenology. In that sense, it often makes wise observations without ever become wise in itself.

Don’t know much about history…

The book interacts with quotations that originate with historical pastoral figures who do not share the same cultural or psychological perspectives and history as either the authors or the subjects of the study. It appears to do that in order to legitimise its own summary conclusions. For example, the work cites John Calvin’s summary insight that all humans have an innate twofold knowledge: the knowledge of self and the knowledge of God. The first statement is then employed as a basis for psychological self-reflection. This, as any historical theologian knows is inappropriate. Calvin’s knowledge of self, as he reveals in the Institutes, has nothing whatever to do with psychology. The context for his statements was a consideration of God’s creation, human sin and salvation.[1] It is not appropriate to attempt to bring Calvin in as a friendly witness to a psychological observation. We cannot read contemporary scholarly fields into long-dead men’s opinions.

Robert Murray McCheyne is also brought into view. Brain in Going the Distance, quotes McCheyne: “God gave me the gospel and a horse [speaking of his body]. I’ve killed the horse, so I can no longer preach the gospel.” Brain prefaces the quote by describing ministry idolatry as “drivenness to perform and succeed in the name of Christ,” an idolatry he directly attributes to McCheyne. This, however, is utterly irresponsible and devalues the book. McCheyne did not in fact make work an idol. Anyone who has actually read him with a sympathetic eye would know that. Let me tell you why I say so. The publication of McCheyne’s Pastoral Letters provides the necessary corrective.[2]

The background for the letters is described. McCheyne was ill with a heart condition that doctors feared would spread to his lungs. The 25 year old was forced into bedrest. He complied but his condition did not improve. He yearned to be with his beloved congregation but his condition prohibited it and he determined to practice wisdom by resting. He fervently prayed during his absence for the blessing of his people and even thought that they would benefit from his absence. By the time he returned, his prayers were answered. Dundee under William Burns had experienced revival blessings. His response to this was, “I have no desire but the salvation of my people by whatever instrument.” These are hardly the words of a workaholic, not that a man of his time would have understood that modern pop-phrase.

It was during this phase that McCheyne was invited to participate in a Mission of Inquiry into the state of the Jews living in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. His medical advisors urged him to make the trip as they thought it would be a better climate that Dundee and would be beneficial to his health.

Letter Ten, dated 16 October 1839 gives us a great insight into the young pastor’s life and thoughts. It also affords a great look into the godly character of a faithful minister of Jesus Christ. The climate may have been good for his lungs as he journeyed through Palestine, but he nearly died with a fever. Leaving there, the mission travelled to Smyrna, where he reported on the plight of Jews and Christians under Muslim rule and then managed to escape from robbers in Poland. “I was actually in the hands of robbers; but through God’s wonderful mercy I escaped safe.” He provides another insight into his soul in the same letter. He expressed the strong desire that none of his flock had weakened in their faith, particularly those whom had been gathered in during the revival. There is no hint whatever of self-absorption.

The end of his long letter reveals best who Robert McCheyne really was.

It has been a sweet work to me indeed to carry with poor stammering lips the word of salvation to the scattered sheep of the House of Israel; still I do long, if it be the Lord’s will, to feed once more the flock that was given me in the dew of my youth. Whether I shall be permitted-and how long-to take up so great a work again, my Master only knows.

McCheyne was a great man of God driven by his living faith and his love for others, despite being given a weak body that failed him at the age of 29. There was not the slightest hint of hubris, self-importance, or self-obsession in him. To recast his words as though he was, in fact, a 21st century narcissist is to dishonour him and distort his message for us.

Then there is the curious case of Christmas Evans cited by the authors. Evans once said: “I would rather burn out than rust out in the service of the Lord.” The curiosity begins. First, Evans was a justifiably famous preacher in Wales in the early 19th century. He served in several difficult but necessary pastoral positions, participated in a pivotal doctrinal dispute and set Wales on fire with his preaching. His contributions to the gospel were universally recognised, not for their star-status but because they brought glory to God. The second curiosity appears to be an authorial mistake. The book cites a contemporary of Evans as equating Evans’ words to bravado and then pleading for a reasonable alternative to burn out. The problem is that the quote originated with James D. Berkley, former editor of Leadership Journal who made the quote in a 1983 issue of Christianity Today. He was reflecting the modern, therapeutic atmosphere not that of Evans’ day. That of course is material to our evaluation.

Is the problem of burn out that is so prevalent in our own day simply an objective phenomenon that can be combatted with more rest, more exercise, more family time, more balance, less work and lower stress? If we simply arrive at that conclusion, we simply confirm our own cultural biases and obsessions. We lump everything together under a psychological umbrella. It is a short-sighted approach to say the least. It is also a contemporary conceit. It assumes we know better than the millions who spread the gospel and, in doing so, sacrificed themselves, their families and their worldly futures for the glory of God.

The more I delved into the book, the more unpleasant the experience. What I slowly began to experience was a heavy sense of condescension on the part of lesser men and women towards truly anointed bearers of the gospel. Take David Wells for example. Wells has been instrumental in confronting the vacuosness of our present Western  Christianity. He has demonstrated tremendous courage in prophesying against the ecclesial idolatries of the age. The Western church has been backsliding in terms of its convictions and its character and David Wells has told us the truth. The book responds to Wells’ critique by patting him on the head.

Pastors in the summit would agree with David Wells who asserts, “They must avoid the cult of health, beauty and fitness so prominent in our day, with its near exclusive emphasis on looks and physique.” At the same time, comments from our pastors emphasised that poor physical health translates into less effective ministry.

The writers of the book never engage the truth of Well’s statement. They simply nod and go on to focus on the some of the same things Wells warned against. Wells would, of course, never argue against the idea of being healthy. He did, however, warn against an obsession with it. By ignoring his core concern, the writers and participants appear to confirm the truth of it. In the name of increasing pastoral balance and resilience, the writers have published an almost entirely unbalanced work that can only confirm the cultural biases and idolatry of the contemporary church. The whole becomes less than the sum of its often excellent parts.

Core perspectives

This kind of self-centredness also obscures our core identity as humans made in the image of God to be reflections as martyr-witnesses of his in the world. Because the book does not presuppose this, it serves to move pastors to accept an alternative identity. Rather than being martyrs as the Bible describes us, we become responsible men of moderation. Aristotle would be pleased. More significantly, we blur the picture of Jesus in us. This is the Jesus that bids us follow him no matter what it costs.

It is completely true to say that we pervert our callings with self-obsession. We are driven by sinful lusting after the approval of others, the vindication of self even after receiving the pardon of God, the desire for fame and fortune etc. The book appropriately testifies to everyone of these. They are important reminders that we serve to worship God and not others or ourselves. The entire thrust of the book however, because it lacks a sufficient biblical and theological context, becomes THE context for shaping the calling. Because it concerns self-care so exclusively, it makes self the measure of merit in matters of pastoral ministry.

A way forward

We really need to start our consideration by asking ourselves some fundamental questions.

  1. What is the fundamental source and nature of the biblical call to ministry?
  2. Why do contemporary churches and not just individual ministries fail in North America and the first world?
  3. How do I make decisions about using my time?
  4. How do I make holistic decisions about balancing self-care and service to others?
  5. When I have to make difficult decisions about my time and I know that I cannot do everything and I cannot please everyone, what drives my decisions?
  6. What is the relationship between self-care and our identities as martyr-witnesses?
  7. How does wisdom inform our calling?
  8. How much of my self-appraisal is an accurate reflecting back to me of what Scripture concludes and how much of it is a reflection of contemporary cultural norms and values?
  9. Since most of the world likely does not reflect the same psychological interpretation of personhood, are we right and they are wrong?
  10. How do evaluative tools other than psychology contribute to my self-understanding and how do they influence my decisions about life and ministry?

A common refrain is that psychology and the disciplines of social science simply serve as tools to augment other knowledge in our pursuit of understanding ourselves and our work. It is my experience that this is generally not true. These tools such as psychology tend to drive self-definition rather than just describing specific features of human behaviour and self-perception. They become the benchmark for our decisions. They, in a word, define us. That is of course a problem since we have already been created and, therefore, defined, by God. It is possible that these psychological perspectives may yet serve useful purposes but only in conscious submission to biblical and theological norms.

This work unfortunately becomes a collection of aphorisms, like a bag of  fortune cookies. The advice is often very good and helpful but it all lacks a biblical and theological framework. This makes it impossible to use as a guide to ministry choices. Because this core is missing, it becomes a platform for the contemporary Christian embrace of psychology. Pastoral ministry is evaluated fundamentally through this lens.

As I read through the entire work, I longed for the pastoral wisdom of our church fathers showcased in works such as Thomas Oden’s Classical Pastoral Care or of the Puritans, such as Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory. The Bible served as a smorgasbord of proof-texts rather than a foundation for framing pastoral ministry. We pastors become the exemplars for the emerging culture rather than shepherds that help our flocks live as God’s people in rather than of the world.

Bill Nikides is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Trinity Church Vicenza (International Presbyterian Church) in Vicenza, Italy.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin’s Own “Essentials” Edition. A New Translation of the 1541 Institutes. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2014) 1. This is a new critical edition of the foundational, theological basis for the final 1559-1560 edition. The whole sum of our wisdom-wisdom, that is, which deserves to be called true and assured-broadly consists of two parts, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves. The purpose of the first of these is to show not only that there is one God whom all must worship and honour, but also that he is the fount of all truth, wisdom, goodness, righteousness, judgement, mercy, power and holiness. …The purpose of the second is to show us our weakness, misery, vanity and vileness, to fill us with despair, distrust and hatred of ourselves, and then to kindle in us the desire to seek God, for in him is found all that is good and of which we ourselves are empty and deprived.

[2] Robert Murray McCheyne, Pastoral Letters: A Collection of Ten Letters Written in 1839. (Shoals, Indiana: Kingsley, kindle edition May 2010).