Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Review - Going the Distance

As part of my final retreat for the Clinical Pastoral Education course this weekend I had to review a book. The following isn't great, but it fulfills all righteousness, and I think Peter Brain has some incredibly helpful and insightful things to say. I found it a very useful book to read, and would strongly encourage anyone in ministry, or training for ministry to read it. Regularly.

Peter Brain. Going the Distance: How to stay fit for a lifetime of ministry. Matthias Media: Kingsford, NSW. 2004. 260pps

Peter Brain, the bishop of Armidale, has a simple purpose in this work, stated in the subtitle. To articulate, enable, and equip pastors for a lifetime of ministry. Working from the position that ministry is a lifelong vocation, and that pastors seek to remain faithful and effective in that ministry for the long term, Brain’s primary emphasis is on self-care:

…intentional self-care on the part of pastors is not a matter of selfish pampering, it is essential to maintaining an effective ministry over the long term. (p10)

It is the nature of ministry itself which necessitates such a conscious and significant level of self-care. Dealing with matters of eternal significance; the voluntary nature of the church; the portrayal of ministry in society; demands for ‘success’ in terms of church growth, as well as the feelings of inadequacy which ministers can feel from comparing themselves to others, or even to their own expectations, all mean that ministry can be a difficult task which takes a toll on the well-being of the pastor. Brain is very clear up front that he is in no way advocating that ministry should be taken less seriously – indeed by the end of the book one feels the weight of ministry more keenly – but rather that in caring for ourselves well we preserve ourselves for the long haul of ministry, and (as he later develops) promote a picture of ministry which is model-able and therefore more effective in self-replication.

Having identified the importance of self-care, Brain then pragmatically turns to consider the issue of burnout. While a helpful chapter, this also highlights Brain’s pastoral approach in the book. He very frequently deals with where pastors ‘are at’ rather than stating the ideal (and therefore potentially discouraging many). This is also seen in the overall positive nature of the book – a variety of authors and sources are quoted – the vast majority (if not all of them) positively. Brain’s purpose is not to show that he is right and others wrong, but to urge faithful pastors to care for themselves that they might better serve God and care for the people entrusted to their care. This works from his presupposition about the nature of ministry – he doesn’t argue for it, but rather assumes a word-based, parish-centred, evangelical ministry. While different theological and pastoral settings would bring some changes, many of the principles would remain unaltered, although his final chapter on justification by faith might not have the same paradigmatic force.

The issue of burnout is treated as a sign that self-care isn’t working, and/or that self-care needs to be implemented. Brain presents a helpful, cyclical description of burnout, noting how it often feeds on itself. Rather than treating it as a problem (although he clearly sets forth the problems of burnout), Brain urges the reader to see it as ‘an invitation to take stock’ (p31), much like the fuel light in your car. He notes that the early signs of burnout are signs to ‘turnout’ – to slow down and take time to refresh, much like ‘drive-revive-survive’ concept here in New Zealand.

Burnout itself is grounded in how the pastor identifies and manages stress – the topic of the next two chapters. Brain is clear that there will be stress in the pastorate, the key issue is how it is dealt with. Helpfully, he identifies that poor (and therefore stress producing) patterns of behaviour don’t emerge overnight, but are often the result of thoughts and attitudes, which result in behaviour, and eventually change character. This progression, however, works both ways – for good and ill. He suggests three areas in which stress can be managed – articulating priorities, being assertive, and saying ‘no’. In all three, the key issue is taking control of the situation, and being in control of ministry. He doesn’t advocate a domineering or selfish approach, but rather to be in control of your ministry – in such a way that ‘we can prepare ourselves to be less stressed [which] flows out of the healthy basis of justification by faith.’ (48) Brain also addresses simply the physiological issue of stress – how God has made our bodies to be stressed, but then to have that stressed relieved. He offers simple and practical advice such as using the diary to plan less-stressful events after stressful ones; to enjoy little things every day; to watch artificial stimulants; to cultivate good friendships; to remind yourself of God’s sovereignty.

Depression is treated next, and in a generalist work such as this, it receives a generalist treatment. Brain is upfront that he is not an expert in the area, and draws on others who are. A helpful distinction made is between endogenous depression (that caused biologically) and exogenous depression (that caused by loss), and Brain focuses on the latter, suggesting that for the pastor there can be four major areas where loss occurs – natural loss (death, friends moving town, etc.); particularly Christian loss (sending missionaries overseas, planting a new church, etc.), issues of conscience (‘genuine difficulty with church or denominational teaching of practices’ (p71)); and sinful causes (loss of power, loss of prestige, the giving up of sinful behaviour, etc.). Turning for a moment to a broader purview than just the pastor’s self-care (although obviously related), Brain suggests that the pastor helps in these areas by both preparing the congregation for loss, and by pastoring them when it happens. For the pastor, six points are made: realise that ministry is full of loss (i.e., be ready for depression!); accept that it is ok; allow yourself to feel loss; healing will come through identification of loss; there is no short, quick remedy; and finally, that a series of ‘bottomings’ can happen, and only after the last one will recovery really be possible.

A series of chapters then deal with:

Anger – a helpful point made is that anger, unless identified and managed, will quickly turn either outward or inward, and that forgiveness (very often a required outcome) is first an act of the will.

Families – Brain here recognises the close ties the Bible draws between the church and the family, but also the difficulties that this can potentially bring for the biological family. Rather than a ‘first’ ‘second’ type system, the proposal is suggested that the primary commitment is to God, and then to act faithfully, lovingly, and graciously in the areas in which we are called to live. This is helpful advice, for it recognises that there will be seasons where one of the two families will take significant priority over the other, and that grace, not law, is a proper way of managing such situations.

Sexual temptation – particularly the importance of the example that the pastor sets in this area, and to be realistic that there may very well come times and people in the pastors life where he will be willing to abandon everything for someone not his wife. Brain flags that pastors who are arrogant, alone, and addicted to work are more prone to failure in this area, but also offers a variety of suggestions for how sexual temptation can be avoided and managed. Central to this is his insight from Crabb (an insight quoted quite regularly) – ‘be hypocritical to your feelings, not your purpose’ (p137)

Friendships – while developing friendships is an act of pastoring, they also support and maintain the pastor.

In the following chapters, Brain turns to think about the way forward – about what a plan of self-care might look like. While expressed explicitly in a few places, running throughout these chapters like a recurring melody is the idea of planning. Self-care is a deliberate, focused, and thought out activity which requires the pastor to plan for it. He starts with eight principles upon which any such plan should be based: a Sabbath rest; the development and use of a network of support; a realistic appreciation of opposition and unbelief in ministry; that justification is by grace through faith (not by being ‘the best’ pastor); the sovereignty of God in all things; the importance of receiving hospitality; taking time for study and reflection; prayer. These principles must then be planned for – take time to plan (i.e., plan to plan) – plan to rest; plan to study; plan to be a spouse and parent; plan to be humble (i.e., development of one’s relationship with God); plan to be accountable. Brain’s advice is essentially to make self-care an integral and deliberate part of your ministry – not for it’s own sake, but to serve and support your ministry.

Recognising that self-care doesn’t take place in a vacuum, three additional chapters are written to church members, church lay-leaders, and to denominational leaders. While helpful and useful advice is given, Brain doesn’t offer practical suggestions as to how the information contained within these pages might find its way to the target audience. Obviously them reading the book is one option, but a discussion about how to educate and help your congregation help you in self-care would have been valuable.

Two final chapters round out the book. Penultimately, Brain addresses the specific issue that ministry is never finished. Unlike most other professions, a pastor finds it extremely hard to measure the real heart of his work. Therefore, the setting of small goals can be of great help. Ultimately, however, it is an understanding of the true nature of ministry – that it is an eschatological work done in a relay-type environment under the sovereign hand of God – which frees the pastor from the successful/unsuccessful feelings.

This leads to Brain’s last chapter, which in one sense is the bringing together of the theological presuppositions woven throughout. He focuses here on justification by faith as the heart of the Christian life, and therefore the heart of Christian ministry. We are saved not by works, but by grace through faith, and therefore our salvation, and our ministry, is all from God. Justification by faith assures us of God’s goodness to me, and also acts as a model for ministry. It provides the basis for our self-esteem (grounding our identity not only in creation but also in redemption); provides and allows for our failure by setting all that we do in the contrast of what we were (rebels) and are (adopted children); provides the basis for all relationships, including receiving correction; leads to real work, for we will work for the one from whom we seek praise and reward; helps us to be grounded in what we are, rather than what we do; and frees me to serve, love, and give wholeheartedly.

Brain’s aim is laudable – to equip pastors for a lifetime of ministry. The positive tone of the book and the gentle yet direct encouragement found in it not only sets forth how to care for yourself and equip yourself for that long-term ministry, it also cares and equips you through the act of reading it. As noted, it presupposes a particular theological position, and because it is grounded on this I’m not sure how transferable some of it would be to those who hold different positions. Nevertheless, his chapters on stress, anger, family, sexual temptation, and others, and particularly the pragmatic advice on planning and managing self-care are applicable to all. It is helpful to have this advice from someone who has run the race, and stayed fit for a life-time of ministry.

1 comment:

Scott Couchenour said...

Thanks so much for the review of the book. I will absolutely have to add it to my "nightstand".

Be well!