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REVIEW: Worldly wisdom for a divine calling

While it may not be widely admitted, navigating the sometimes-dangerous shoals of ministry can range from sheer exultation to extreme terror.
Today’s ministers need to have answers to a broad range of questions and challenges, all seemingly delivered at the speed of light. As a result, the demanding world of ministry has created two related phenomena: an ever-greater demand for dynamic leadership and a subsequent increase in ministry burnout.
Fortunately, two timely books address both issues.
Anne Jackson, a first-time book author and well-known Christian leadership blogger (flowerdust.net), addresses burnout in “Mad Church Disease: Overcoming the Burnout Epidemic.”
Jackson’s father is a former full-time minister. She grew up watching trials and burdens weigh heavily upon him. “The sparkle in his eyes was gone,” she writes. That pained observation played a role in driving her from church entirely.
As an adult she returned to full-time ministry, realizing the heavy toll it can take upon those called to do it — if it is not managed well. The title of the book is drawn from a parallel Jackson sees between the famous bovine wasting illness and the ministry burnout she experienced first-hand.
Jackson’s purpose is to offer helpful and proactive ministry advice — how to keep from burning out by managing the risk factors and symptoms of stress before they claim you and your ministry as a victim.
Jackson’s writing style manages to be both empathetic and challenging, urging you to anticipate the bumps in the ministerial road ahead. Her observations are intuitive and sometimes predictable.
Critics might feel that Jackson’s advice trends towards being too general, but she tends to balance broad counsel with more specific and practical advice for protecting you and your ministry, and thus on the whole her book is helpful and effective.
The strength of the book is its suitability for more than just full-time ministers. In particular, it would be appropriate for those in lay ministry, including small-group leaders and Bible class teachers, who are asked to do more within our churches all the time.
A weakness of the book is that its formatting (breakout boxes, varieties of font sizes per page) suggests the book is intended for a younger audience. Despite this limitation, the book is accessible, practical and helpful and should probably be re-read on occasion as a self-assessment tool.
Every chapter ends with a series of questions meant to spur thoughtful reflection about your ministry. There is a series of interviews with high-profile ministers, such as Bill Hybels, who give helpful insights for how they deal with stress in their ministries.
In a time when frequent ministry burnout is an unfortunate reality, this type of book is immediately helpful.
The topic of dynamic leadership is ably addressed in “The Three Tasks of Leadership: Worldly Wisdom for Pastoral Leaders.” The book is a critical, theological reflection on the leadership wisdom of longtime corporate CEO Max DePree and is an edited compilation of 16 essays offered by scholars and ministers affiliated with Fuller Theological Seminary.
On the surface, the book’s specificity of genre might dissuade some readers from engaging with it, but overlooking this volume would be a mistake. There is a dearth of valuable, critical, theological reflection on whether or not “worldly” or secular leadership wisdom is really good for the church — despite the fact that this wisdom is often adopted carte blanche by ministers. To paraphrase Tertullian: What has the corporate boardroom to do with the church? Magnificently, this book seems equal to the task of actually answering the question.
The essayists include David Augsburger, Richard Mouw, Robert Banks and James Bradley, among others. Their reflections are organized within three main sections of the book, corresponding to what Max DePree contends are the three definitive tasks of leadership: defining reality, displaying servanthood and saying thank you.
As editor Eric Jacobsen points out, “this definition of leadership (is) saturated with theologically informed wisdom. But it is wisdom that has been developed and tested in the boardroom rather than the pulpit. What are the possibilities and limitations of taking DePree’s insights into a pastoral setting?”
Good question.
The strength of the book is the quality of essays and essayists it presents, all addressing an important and under-appreciated topic in ministry — how ministers should engage with secular leadership wisdom and strategies born in the corporate world.
The voice and register of the book are academic, and readers will need to prepare for a careful and nuanced reading of the essays in order to appreciate their value. Because elders and ministers are administrators and leaders within our churches, the book would be most appropriate for them.
Both of the books admit the challenges one faces in ministry today and then move on to the larger and more important task of helping find answers to those challenges. The two books are largely successful.
As both a preacher and seminary student, I am thankful for the wisdom they contain and glad I read them early in my ministry.
MATTHEW DOWLING is preaching minister for the Piedmont, Okla., Church of Christ and a student in the Master of Divinity program at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City. 

Filed under: Reviews Staff Reports

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