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Spiritual duty to refuel

12 February 2016

Sue Atkinson considers counsel of various kinds

Staying Fresh: Serving with joy
Paul Mallard
IVP £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90


Stress: The path to peace
Simon Vibert
IVP £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10


Refuel: How to balance work, life, faith and church — without burning out
Kate Middleton
DLT £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9


THESE three Christian books about stress take three very different approaches.

Paul Mallard’s Staying Fresh is biblically based, and includes considerable personal reflection. It is a book for Christian leaders who want to get back to the love they felt for Christ when they first became Christians. It is about staying fresh in leadership, and covers issues such as overworking, looking after our body, being an agent of change in church growth, and ways not to end up burnt out.

Mallard is didactic in style, but also engaging, and far-reaching in terms of the pitfalls in Christian leadership — from the need to rest, to coping with pain and frustration — and the crucial need for integrity and personal prayer.

One interesting exercise is “What are the signs of ministry idolatry?” A list for praying through this question includes danger signs such as: “I neglect prayer and personal devotions — the demands of ministry make me too busy to pray,” and “I become authoritarian and dictatorial,” and “I become disappointed and disillusioned. . . ministry becomes a drag rather than a joy.” There are 11 scary items on this list (and presumably most leaders would say “Yes, at times” to most of them); so the book is demanding. But it also shows ways through the hardest issues.

This would be a useful book both for those training for ministry as well as those somewhat daunted by the size of the task ahead.

I found Simon Vibert’s Stress: The path to peace far less satisfying, although it could be a useful resource for Evangelicals wanting a biblical study on how to manage stress. It is not at the same depth as Mallard. Vibert tells stories about four people at the start of the book, and reflects briefly on these at the end of each chapter. There is a considerable amount of Vibert’s personal life throughout the book, as he covers issues about why Christians get stressed — and how to cope. The book is written in a sermon style.

I found myself constantly saying “Yes, but . . .”. For example in the chapter on anger, Vibert sees anger only as personal: me and another person. Our righteous indignation or anger at injustice is dismissed in one sentence: “We feel indignation at injustice, but we do well to remember that perfect justice will not exist in this world and that God is the just Judge.”

I think that is far too shallow: what about our Christian calling to walk alongside the vulnerable who are seeking justice — say, after abuse — often motivated by our anger or indignation?

By far the most interesting book to me of three was Kate Middleton’s Refuel, about how, as Christians, we often push ourselves to the limit — but need to stay sane in the process. The book starts with her analysis, as a psychologist, of stress — and she is wonderfully free of the sort of trite Christian advice that says “Pray about your stress and it will go away.” This first section covers issues such as, Do we care too much? Is it our passion that is stressing us out? Are we burned out?

Each chapter is followed by a “writing in the book” section of questions and exercises to help us to understand our own stress. There is useful information, for example, on how our passion can lead to strong feelings of frustration and guilt, and interesting concepts such as “emotional hijack”. The second part of her book is about how to make positive changes to our lives so as to manage our stress.

I would hesitate to give this book to someone suffering from high levels of stress, however. I found Middleton’s hugely long paragraphs overwhelming in places, and some double-page spreads are just dense text. For me, the chapters needed many more bullet points, boxes, and numbered lists to make them more accessible and easier to read, which was a disappointment in a book with so much potential.

There are many practical suggestions — such as turning off work emails on days off — and a wonderfully clear section about learning to be mindful. The book ends with references to further online resources, making this useful both for readers who want to reduce their stress level, and for those who care for stressed people.


Sue Atkinson is the author of Struggling to Forgive (Monarch, 2014) and other books.

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