Book Review---Mad Church Disease

[disclaimer to my readers at Calvary Church, Monticello: You all have not treated me with any level of disrespect. Personal experiences and statements here generalized from the 15 years of ministry before this and from observations/conversations of other ministers and ministries. Does this make us immune from madness in our relationship? No, we have to guard it]

I was recently given the opportunity to read an advance copy of Anne Jackson's(check out www.flowerdust.net) book Mad Church Disease. The catch was that I had to write a review of the book and post in on my blog. I was excited to have the opportunity, but I've been putting off writing this review.

Why? Because I want to write a balanced review, without my own emotional response getting in the way. I also want to review the book without either criticizing or canonizing the author. However, I'm having a split response to the book, so I'll share my opinions here, and let the comments and response fly:

Mad Church Disease is a good book. Anne Jackson does a good job explaining what goes on in churches fairly well, and the insights from other people's stories are shared well, and bring in some additional perspective. The directions for getting healthy are very helpful. The foundation of burnout issues is addressed in the statement: "own up to the decisions that have led you here." Too many ministers live as if they are victims of the church, which leads to the burnout syndrome. I know this. I have lived it as a staff member with a bad pastor, blaming him for the problems I had personally, when it was my own lack of prayer and faith that had put me in those situations.

The opening parts of the book are intended to diagnose whether or not you are caught in a church situation that lends itself to burnout, or whether you are personally dealing with being a burned-out minister. It is a thorough treatment, and enough for nearly anyone in ministry to find themselves somewhere. I think that might be a two-sided problem here: at some point, we have to recognize that no church creates a perfect situation for her ministers. And no minister brings perfection to their role, whether family or church. But these imperfections are not a guarantee of burnout. However, I think that most readers will recognize that God's grace is sufficient for our minor imperfections, and if you picked up this book hoping to find yourself as diagnosed with burnout, you've got some problems that need healing. If that is you as a reader, skip the first part, and read the second.

The second half of the book addresses what individuals can do to heal and get healthy from burnout in their own lives. This is a very practical section, and should be cautiously applied. Why do I say cautiously? Well, here's where I'll probably upset some people: You can't do it all. Well, let me rephrase: I can't do it all. The church I work for has expectations, and my family has needs. If I meet those expectations and those needs, there is not a lot of time left in the day for things like an hour's worth of exercise. Not if I want to get the sleep. And relational health is a good thing, not living in isolation is a good thing, but again, because of the type of church I serve, I won't find most of those relationships within my church family, and the time needed to find and build those relationships outside is hard to come by.

This is, from my perspective, a weakness of this book. I think that Mrs. Jackson's analysis of what is wrong in many churches, and what to do about it, is spot on. The problem is that many ministers don't serve churches that will read this book or allow them to implement the practical suggestions in it. I remember hearing some very similar suggestions when I was in youth ministry. I went to my pastor and asked to implement some of the boundaries, asked for the time to renew, recharge, grow, build relationships, and I was informed that a minister need only have a relationship with God. Now, I know this is faulty (otherwise, God would have called the alone Adam 'very good' rather than seeing it as 'not good that man should be alone'), but my job was at stake. And jobs for people with Biblical Studies degrees are hard to come by, so I chose to suck it up. Many of us serving in traditional churches have to find the balance between the fact that our jobs and our ministries are the same thing. Most of us wanted it that way, but it comes at a price. The price being that the church gets a say in how we spend our time, what days we get off work, what hours we spend in an office or on the road, what resources our families get to live on. The price includes realizing that your church family can't be the source of your most intimate friendships, and that many times other ministers don't want to be.

Unfortunately, many of the old, entrenched lay leaders of our churches won't read this book. To them, Anne Jackson does not have the education, experience, or (and this is unfortunate) proper gender to tell the church what to do. I know this is also true for many pastors I know, that won't touch this book because of traditional biases such as those, and the fact that she doesn't work for a traditional, legacy-type church. I probably would not have bought this book because I tend to exhibit those same biases. They won't recognize that fresh eyes sometimes see the problem better than old, bitter eyes. Since they won't read it, many ministers in those types of churches will have to choose between fighting off burnout within the framework they have, or leaving full-time ministry. Which was, by the way, my choice for a while, until the call kept dragging me back to preaching until I couldn't take it any longer.

True, this is more of an evidence that we have an epidemic of Mad Church Disease in American church life than a problem with the book itself. However, I think that the book would be strengthened by having a preface or forward or interaction with a traditional church pastor/leader, something that says to people in old-school churches that there is something here worth reading.

Because there is something here worth reading.

I found this book a good read. I think that it, along with J.D. Grey's Epitaths for Eager Preachers (which is an old, out-of-print book) should be required reading for all ministry students at all levels, and would love to see it read and discussed by ministers already serving in churches.



And what was my other emotional response I didn't want creeping in? Jealousy...people actually read Anne Jackson's blog at www.flowerdust.net, and Zondervan let write a book. No fair! I want people to read my blog and someone to publish a book I write! I didn't want that attitude to pervade my reading and reviewing. Truth is, I don't think I'd write as good of a book about this issue. Mine would be 3 chapters: Churches sometimes treat ministers sinfully; Ministers sometimes act sinfully; We all need to repent and be more like Jesus. And those would be the sentences in those chapters. Zondervan will only publish that if they make fortune cookies. Or as a haiku, if I trim some syllables.

Comments

  1. sounds like a good read.....It is good to be open to this sort of reading. Some church leaders are "above" that type of reading(such as Comeback churches and the God Centered Church).

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  2. Thank you so much for your thoughtful review. It is so well balanced and I really appreciate the time you took to read the book and write this!

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  3. Great review. Thanks for posting it. And the last couple sentences about fortune cookies and haiku absolutely cracked me up.

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  4. I think you succeeded...this is one of the clearest, most balanced book reviews I've read. Thanks!

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  5. Nice review - I especially enjoyed your closing paragraph. I have the same jealousy issue creep in on occasion as I read Anne. But now, thanks to her Twitter, I read your post today, too. :)

    I hate that you said if we are looking for a burnout diagnosis we should skip the first section. Ugh. I think that may just be me these days. Shoot.

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  6. The reality of ministry can be mind blowing, can't it? Blessings to you as you look for a healthy way to do ministry. As someone who's come back from the edge of burnout, it's a scary place. I couldn't live there. I had to make changes or leave ministry.........Sometimes it takes a crisis and I praise God I was surrounded by a church family that was understanding and allowed me time to heal.

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  7. You are a great writer! You can write daily blogs...the three sentences that you wrote at the end say a whole lot. Write like that every day. Thanks for reading Mad Church Disease and writing about it. Made me think alot.

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  8. Thanks to those of you who have commented. A couple of replies:

    Kristi: I don't think I was quite clear with what I meant. The first part of the book is good. I should have phrased it more as: If you know you're dealing with burnout, skip the first part, read and do what you can from the second. Then go back and read it.

    I was more thinking of those who suffer from spiritual hypochondria, where every time you read about a church or ministry or spiritual problem, you figure out a way that you have it. Those types of folks should stay away from the first half of this book, as they'll figure they're burnt out, possibly without ever having done anything.

    Jan: Praise God your church family was willing to help you heal. Too often our churches are more like a hospital that shoots the people in ICU.

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