Book Review: Running on Empty

Barbara Bancroft, missionary and pastor’s wife for moRunning on Empty 2014-12-21 at 1.51.18 PMre than 30 years of ministry, has given the church a gift. In her new book, Running on Empty: The Gospel for Women in Ministry, she seeks to encourage women who minister faithfully on church staffs, as missionaries, and as pastor’s wives. These women often labor in unseen ways and quietly give their lives for the kingdom, yet few books address their unique struggles and sacrifices.

I have longed for such a book for years, and Bancroft’s words encouraged me with truth, humor, wisdom, and grace.

Stuff People Say

Bancroft brings to her writing decades of ministry as both a missionary and pastor’s wife. She reflects, “Those of us who have devoted our lives to ministry have a special sisterhood of crazy stories, shared joys, and deep sorrows. (The things people say to us!)” She speaks with insight to the unique struggles experienced in a variety of ministry roles without elevating one area of service over the other. She also sympathetically engages and encourages single women serving overseas or in the local church.

While this book primarily addresses women working in a church or missions context, it would be a helpful read for men in leadership as well as members of the congregation. Understanding the criticism that discourages (e.g., “You’re a missionary, but took a vacation?”) and the spiritual attacks that frequently assault those in ministry would be helpful for all in the church to reflect on so that they might rightly encourage and build up women in ministry.

Bancroft writes each chapter in three parts. She begins with an analysis of a common problem or topic for those in ministry. Midway through the chapter she offers five or six questions for personal consideration and then concludes the chapter with a portion of Scripture and devotional thought titled “Pause and Reset.” I found this to be a helpful way to make the book both practical and devotional. Its structure allows it to be an excellent resource for an older woman in ministry to use in mentoring a younger woman.

Refresh and Revive

Bancroft adeptly covers a variety of topics ranging from cultural awareness, church expectations, notions of fairness, suffering, and the common struggles of envy and pride. She readily shares stories of her own failings and sympathizes with the struggles of others, while also being willing to share the positive effects of God’s grace on her heart after years spent walking with him. Her words challenge and confront, but also refresh and revive by continually pointing those in ministry back to the gospel in their own lives. “As people see how the gospel works to change us,” she writes, “they are encouraged to believe that it will also work to change them.”

Reading Running on Empty felt a bit like sitting down with a wise friend for a cup of tea and an encouraging chat. It’s often difficult for those in ministry to find time for their own spiritual encouragement because they spend most of their time pouring out to others. Thankfully, Bancroft has taken the time to pour out once more and refresh the hearts of younger women following in her footsteps. She ends the book with a helpful clarification:

Perhaps these ideas don’t feel like enough of an answer to the hardships of ministry. For many years I looked for a Christian manual that would tell me what to do in every situation. I wanted a book that gave me the how-to of ministry life. But eventually I learned through experience that there is no case law big enough to cover our response to all of the people and situations we encounter. We can encourage one another with the wisdom we have gleaned over the years, but nothing will replace the work of the Holy Spirit to change hearts, minds, attitudes, and circumstances and to open new doors of ministry for us.