Book Review: On the Brink, by Clay Werner
Clay Werner. On the Brink—Grace for the Burned Out Pastor. P&R Publishing, 2014. 143 pps, $12.99.
Finally, someone has written a book that is anchored in the gospel on the nearly pandemic problem of burnout in ministry! Many books on pastor burnout are written from almost an exclusively secular and psychological point of view. Clay Werner has not ignored the psychological impact of the problem but has recognized that our help comes from the Lord, who has not left the very real and hurtful trials of the pastorate to our own devices and resources.
Werner himself is a survivor, having been to the brink. But he was wooed back by a loving Savior. This is a book that leads us to the only One who can genuinely sympathize with our weakness and heal our hearts.
Werner openly shares his doubts, frustrations, temptations, depression, fears, and shortcomings and how in a burned-out crisis he fled to a mountain retreat—desperate for clarity from God about why he shouldn’t just give up and quit the ministry. This book is about the painful truths he learned about himself, as the finger of accusation that he had been pointing at others was turned to the finger of conviction toward his own soul. He says, “I identified myself as a leader, pastor, and shepherd, and had forgotten that I too was a hard-hearted, rebellious, idolatrous, angry, frustrated, slow-to-learn, impatient, prayerless sheep-disciple filled with self-righteous anger, fair-weather faith, and unrealistic and dangerous expectations of the sheep in the congregation I pastored.” He calls the process of returning solely to the cross and gospel message God’s “gospel surgery” on him.
Werner addresses several issues that led up to his burned-out state and then shares the Scriptures that ministered to his needs, primarily turning to the lives of Moses, Paul, Jesus, and the gospel. The danger might be that we pastors, who have studied, read, and taught these familiar passages numerous times, might be tempted to skim through them quickly. That would be a grave misstep because, just as we admonish our congregations to do, they require much meditation, introspection, submission, and prayer for the Holy Spirit to work his restorative work in burned-out lives. We’re also tempted to read Scripture with the idea of what is “preachable” rather than how it ministers to our own lives. Pastors would do well to mark the passages about their particular vulnerabilities and pull the book out frequently to refresh their minds with its truths.
Furthermore, ministry is sometimes hard on our spiritual lives because we treat the spiritual disciplines as utilitarian devices to support or simplify our work. Or, we attend worship services and yet do not worship because of our preoccupation with who is there, who isn’t, what lights are burned out, and how people are reacting to the various elements of the service. We all know that is dangerous, but Satan’s devices will lead us into that error.
The author also submits himself to godly counsel of great pastors and theologians such as John Newton, Jonathan Edwards, Francis Schaeffer, Martin Lloyd-Jones, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and John Calvin and to more current mentors and confidants—a seminary professor, an older pastor friend, and an elder in his church.
As a longtime pastor myself, I know that part of the pastor’s vulnerability to criticism and rejection is the fact that the church is such a large part of our lives. It is our calling and occupation. It’s the place where our family worships, and often our friends are in the fellowship. When we face rejection and criticism by the church, it strikes the very heart of our world. Our wives and children are front and center to hear the criticism and watch us struggle with the disappointments. Even our understanding of God’s love is sometimes intermingled with the dealings of the church. But Werner’s book is refreshing, as he draws us back to Christ and back to the gospel as the balm for our injured hearts and the standard for assessing our experiences.
Werner cautions pastors against disillusionment born of not remembering the impact of the Fall on the people of our congregations. Members are imperfect, fallen people that can be incredibly frustrating. But on the other hand, they are people who will administer God’s grace through encouraging words, prayer, forgiveness, and remarkable demonstrations of faith. Any longtime pastor will tell you that the people who have blessed him the most are those in the church, and the people who have hurt him the most are those in the church. What other occupation has this lovel of exposure to criticism, rejection, love, and support?
Each chapter concludes with three questions for reflection. If you can answer these questions honestly, and take the suggestions in the chapters to heart, you will learn a lot about yourself and your God.
Although the title says “Grace for the Burned Out Pastor,” the book should be read by every pastor who hasn’t yet been to the brink and every seminary student who will soon earn their pastoral credentials. Younger pastors will do well to read this book because of the circumstances they will inevitably face. The young minister often exits seminary excited, ready to set the world on fire for Christ…and naïve. Werner openly admits that he was nearly consumed by mistakes and pressure but proclaims that by God’s grace he survived.
Experienced pastors will also find hope in the pages of this book. Those who are on the brink of despair need emergency attention, which they will find, in part, in the author’s words. Those who find themselves slowly sliding toward disillusionment and despair will see their lives unfold as they read Werner’s account and may find strength to know that they are not alone and that there is hope. Werner desires to share his insights with others who have been called to the noble profession of the ministry so they don’t join the ever-increasing statistic of those leaving the ministry early.
For the non-pastors reading the book, it’s a wake-up call to the importance of praying fervently for your pastor. It will give you a glimpse of the pressures on the person who leads your church.
A perfect book it is not. I wished that Werner would have peeled back more of his experience to help us identify with the depth of his anxiety and struggle. It would have been helpful if he had reflected more on this joy at having been saved from the pain of ministry failure. Nevertheless, this is a book that I will highly recommend to the young pastors whom I mentor as they find themselves on this wonderful, yet all too often hazardous road that we call vocational ministry.