The natural trajectory of ministry is burnout. I do not mean “natural” in the sense of being a fitting culmination. Rather, I mean that however much ministry energizes, it also always tempts you to worship at the altar of results, which eventually exhausts and overwhelms. Only resting deeply and practically in Christ’s grace will sustain you. The trick is that resting in grace inevitably feels counterintuitive and inefficient, which is why resting is so hard and burnout so common.
Pastor and TGC blogger Scotty Smith and pastor-author Russ Masterson understand this. That’s why I’m grateful they have chosen to share the fruit of decades of personal wrestling toward spiritual rest in Searching for Grace: A Weary Leader, a Wise Mentor, and Seven Healing Conversations for a Parched Soul.
It’s not quite like any other book I’ve read. I’m not even sure if it has a genre. Part Russ’s memoir of spiritual growth, part encapsulation of Scotty and Russ’s lessons from years of mentorship, part instruction in rejecting the performance-driven striving for peace that chokes us and leaves us gasping for the gospel. Searching for Grace asks what real peace looks like and offers suggestions for how to pursue it (spoiler alert: it has more to do with surrender than striving).
Searching for Grace: A Weary Leader, a Wise Mentor, and Seven Healing Conversations for a Parched Soul
Scotty Smith & Russ Masterson
Anxious? Burnt out? Weary? Why is it so hard for our souls to find rest? In Searching for Grace, Russ and his mentor, Scotty Smith, explore the contours of their lives and why embracing God’s grace unreservedly is so difficult for many of us. Their honest conversations offer priceless lessons for parched souls everywhere.
Many of us feel anxious and unfulfilled by our everyday existence, yet deeply long for a purposeful, meaningful, and peace-filled life. That tension creates a background buzz of profound discontentment behind everything we do. There is a better way. Searching for Grace reveals the conversations between Russ and Scotty that transformed Russ’s life forever, helping him identify the mindsets that contributed to his restlessness. Straight from his little black journal, Russ shares the seven life-giving principles he learned from Scotty that unleashed him to a refreshingly new life, radically built on God’s grace.
Rest for the Soul
If burnout is the poison that drove this book into existence, “soul rest” is the antidote Russ and Scotty recommend. Soul rest is my made-up phrase, but I think they would be OK with it. Soul rest is not to be confused with giving up one’s passion for kingdom growth. It’s not self-indulgent Netflix binging (though they’d want me to add that real rest may require both stepping back from responsibilities and having regular fun).
Instead, soul rest is the hard-won peace that comes after you battle against your inner craving to make something of yourself and finally throw yourself on God’s unconditional love for you. “Ministry generated burnout is deceptive” (14) Russ says, because you are up to your neck in the gospel, but your desperate striving makes it impossible to “hear the music” of the gospel (25). Burnt-out Christians need to repeatedly be reminded of God’s immediate and immense kindness, to regularly confess their sins to God and others, to daily cling to the hope that those sins are completely forgiven, to remind their own souls over and over that their hope and rest come from Christ’s love for them not their achievements for him. In short, true soul rest must constantly reject frantic activity in favor of life rhythms that restore our minds and hearts by remembering the reality of God’s grace.
True soul rest must constantly reject frantic activity in favor of life rhythms that restore our minds and hearts by remembering the reality of God’s grace.
Pursue Sturdy Friendships
I’m moving on more quickly than I’d like from their richly varied invitations to deeply trust the love of God. I do so because I suspect most readers of this review will need no convincing that going deeper into the gospel is central to overcoming burnout. Instead, I want to focus on what for me was the book’s most captivating element of Christ’s freeing grace: the relationship between Russ and Scotty.
You’ll notice I’m calling them “Russ and Scotty” rather than “Masterson and Smith.” This was not a slip on my part, nor an impertinent presumption of familiarity. Instead, I call them by their first names because Searching for Grace so effectively invited me as a reader into their friendship. I’m left feeling like I’m part of the friendship too, not only longing to go fishing with them but feeling on some level as if I already have.
Russ and Scotty’s friendship shows how the gospel both allows for and calls forth sturdy friendships. They are sturdy because gospel friendships give radical freedom to be honest and vulnerable about our struggles and the motivations that underlie them, because the love and acceptance we have in Christ make it safe to fully open our hearts.
Such friendships are not for the faint of heart. Russ and Scotty make no bones about the degree of time they invest in this connection. Hundreds of hours of conversation, trips to visit each other, an open invitation to reach out any time. And, as Russ puts it on the last page, “This education in the grace of God has no graduation” (228). They are in it for the long haul. Why would we expect (or even want) our best friendships to be conveniently crammed in around the edges of life?
Why would we expect (or even want) our best friendships to be conveniently crammed in around the edges of life?
Some of you will no doubt feel discouraged at this point. Perhaps you’ve yearned for such a friendship for years. Perhaps you’ve summoned your courage and knocked on another’s door only to find it never opened, at least never wide enough to let you fully in. If that’s you, take heart. Watching Russ and Scotty can give you a better sense both of how to handle the disappointments of loneliness and how to grow more into the kind of person whose life is available for and ever sowing seeds of deep gospel friendship.
Good friends voice genuine struggles with a view to receiving help by bringing those struggles to Jesus. Good friends weep with whoever around them weeps (Rom. 12:15), burn with shared anguish with whoever burns with temptation (2 Cor. 11:29), bear burdens with whoever around them is weighed down (Gal. 6:2). It’s OK to ache when your friendships lack depth. It’s OK to take your disappointment to the Lord and face the hurt in his tender presence.
Speaking of hurt, one of the most moving aspects of the book is the way the Lord leads first Scotty and then Russ to muster up the courage to face severe pain from their pasts that they’d been doggedly avoiding for decades. In fact, they suggest that “[m]ost people have a reservoir of undealt-with grief” (115).
The heavy focus on healing from past wounds was the one place the book left me just a touch uneasy. While it’s certainly true that many people’s past hurts have a key and enslaving influence on their present, I’d want readers to know that just because these two courageous men found the core of their Christ-wrought freedom and healing by facing old wounds, this doesn’t mean that facing wounds will be the primary way everyone finds soul rest. There are tributaries of burnout and striving to make ourselves enough that do not flow from the headwaters of personal wounding.
I don’t believe Russ and Scotty would disagree. Certainly they preach God’s intimately personal love in ways that speak directly to our craving for comfort, the desire to be respected, a hunger for success, and the confusion or anger of grief in comforting ways that do not depend on facing particular past pains.
Rest Is Possible
Restless, significance-hungry burnout has been stalking God’s people since thorns began to infest the ground. Searching for Grace casts a vision for the peace that comes with resisting worldly pressures to achieve without letting go of a passion to love and serve. It invites us to begin our days by “lingering in the welcoming presence of our Father” (187), a phrase I’ve been meditating on for weeks now.
Ultimately, overcoming burnout means replacing a frenzied busyness of soul and schedule with the slow, hard work of gospel-empowered vulnerability in relationships and listening to the heart of God our Father. Only then will rest be less about doing less and more about true freedom from the obligation to perform more.