Monday, March 17, 2008

Book Review - Going the Distance by Peter Brain

Peter Brain (2004) Going the Distance (Matthias Media)

An enormously helpful book: the focus is on pastors, but it would also be very helpful for church members to understand better the pressures that pastors face and so be equipped to support them better.

The thesis of Going the Distance is that for effective long-term ministry, Christian ministers need to look after themselves. The implementation of good principles of self-care are crucial for the pastor to avoid burning-out in the face of the multitudinous and intense pressures of what Christian psychologist Dr Arch Hart describes as “a unique vocation and if undertaken seriously the most dangerous occupation around.” (quoted by Brain, p.12) This self-care needs to be intentional on the part of pastors, and should not be seen as in conflict with the call of Christ to self-denial, for the pastor’s efforts at looking after himself will both set an example to others and sustain his ministry in the long-term.

Areas covered in Going the Distance include burnout, stress, depression, anger, the pastor’s family, sexual temptation and friendship. Each issue is discussed with a view to understanding the dangers involved and suggesting principles & strategies in developing a healthy approach in each area. There are also significant chapters addressing church members, church leaders and denominational leaders as to how they can contribute to the health of their pastor’s ministry. The penultimate chapter emphasises the vital role that the doctrine of justification by faith plays in establishing the pastor’s identity and protecting him from many dangers.

Evaluation – what I found helpful
In chapter one, the author argues carefully and, I think, persuasively for the importance of self-care in Christian ministry. He writes from the perspective that pastors, because of their commitment to the Lord and the work He has called them to, are in general going to tend to overwork rather than laziness. But the choice, echoing a comment from Christmas Evans, is not between burning out and rusting out in the service of the Lord. Particularly helpful are his comments on self-care and self-denial. He refers to Dr Hart’s careful distinction where the “call to self-denial refers to our ‘motivational self’, whereas self-care deals with our ‘structural self’” (p.22) and concludes that “devoted service and obedience not only will flow out of a base of thoughtful self-care, but will be fuelled by it.” (p.23) – as long as self-care does not become an excuse for selfishness or cowardice.

The detailed discussion of the range of issues that pose dangers to the pastor is very helpful; here I will mention one or two areas by way of illustration.

Stress and demands are neither unavoidable nor necessarily problems in themselves – for they are the job! However, it is important to have a good attitude towards them to avoid the potentially destructive effects that can come from them. Pastoral ministry is by nature never-ending, the fruit is by default intangible & unmeasureable and there is always more to do. Demands can come from all kinds of directions and if not managed well, unhealthy stress can seriously distort the pastor’s work. In dealing with the demands of ministry, the author suggests (1) that pastors need to define and articulate their priorities carefully and clearly. What areas of ministry should the pastor be concentrating on? If those priorities can be worked through with others (e.g. church leaders) then all the better. (2) When other demands come along that do not fit into those priorities the pastor has the freedom to say ‘no’ and the opportunity to explain what those priorities are. (3) Indeed, when a pastor says ‘no’ to some demand, that ‘no’ gives value to his ‘yeses’. A pastor who is unable to say ‘no’ is in trouble.

Another area where Going the Distance offers very helpful advice is in that of relationships, particularly family and friendship, although I will only comment on the latter here. It is great, argues the author, when the pastor’s greatest support & companionship comes from his wife, but it would be unhealthy if this were the only significant deep relationship he had. A few deep friendships, whether with people in the congregation or from elsewhere, take a lot of time and effort to build, but are enormously beneficial because of the support and accountability they provide. Gordon MacDonald suggests a number of different kinds of friends that a pastor needs[1]:

(1) the sponsor – someone who will mentor, see the potential of, encourage and advise

(2) the affirmer – someone who encourages, shows appreciation, affirms the pastor in his ministry

(3) the rebuker – someone who will tell the truth, especially when it hurts

(4) the intercessor – someone who will pray for us

(5) the partner – someone to work alongside or share & sharpen

(6) the pastor – “the tender person, the person who comes alongside in the moment of exhaustion” (quoted by Brain, p.152).

Finally, let me mention the extremely helpful chapter entitled “a word for local church members”. Church members often do not understand what it is like to be a pastor nor how best to relate to and support him. Reading this chapter would surely be very helpful for many, as it has been for me. A particularly helpful section discusses attitudes to change. Churches can often be resistant to change, but often because of unhealthy attitudes. The author also emphasises the importance of thoughtfulness; when was the last time you deliberately thought about how you can bless and support your pastor and took the initiative to carry it out?

The author says nothing about illness. My experience is that I can handle being ill badly, particularly when I have a forthcoming responsibility (e.g. leading a Bible study) and I am relatively ill. Firstly, I do not know whether I will be better by the time of the Bible study. Secondly, I can make myself worse by worrying; should I cancel? should I wait and see if I improve? Sometimes I have gone ahead and done it (and set myself back healthwise). At other times I have cancelled (and sometimes felt bad about it).

I buy the author’s thesis about self-care, but do worry that I tend more to laziness and fear, and so need to beware of using the principle of self-care as a cover for selfishness. It is possible to go far in advocating self-care – although I certainly do not think the author is going too far. These words from the Together for the Gospel blog provide an appropriate conclusion:

At one point the conversation turned to our busy schedules. One person exhorted another about the importance of rest. It was then that John Piper quietly commented "I find productivity restful for my soul."
"Restful for my soul."
Bodily rest is important. Rest for the soul is even more important.[2]

[1] clearly, there is much overlap between these categories and I think they are to be taken as suggestive not definitive

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