I was a pastor in the process of destroying my life and ministry, and I didn't know it. I wish I could say that my pastoral experience is unique, but I’ve come to learn in travels to hundreds of churches around the world that sadly, it isn’t. Sure, the details are unique, but I see in many pastors the same disconnect between the public persona and the private man. I’ve heard so many stories containing so many confessions that I grieve over the state of pastoral culture in our generation.
The burn of this concern, coupled with my knowledge and experience of transforming grace, drove me to write Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenge of Pastoral Ministry, from which this article series is derived.
Three underlying themes operated in my life, and I’ve observed the same themes in the lives of many pastors with whom I’ve talked. I’ll examine the first of these themes today and round out the other two themes on Thursday and Friday. Unpacking these themes helps us examine where pastoral culture may be less than biblical and consider temptations either resident to or intensified by pastoral ministry.
1. I Let Ministry Define My Identity
I always say it this way: "No one is more influential in your life than you are, because no one talks to you more than you do." Whether you realize it or not, you’re engaged in an unending conversation with yourself. What you say to yourself is formative for the way you live. You’re constantly talking to yourself about your identity, spirituality, functionality, emotionality, mentality, personality, and so on.
You’re constantly preaching to yourself some kind of gospel. You preach to yourself an anti-gospel of your own righteousness, power, and wisdom, or you preach to yourself the true gospel of deep spiritual need and sufficient grace. You preach to yourself an anti-gospel of aloneness and inability, or you preach to yourself the true gospel of the presence, provisions, and power of an ever-present Christ.
Smack dab in the middle of this conversation is what you tell yourself about your identity. We're always assigning to ourselves some kind of identity. There are only two places to look. I will either get my identity vertically, from who I am in Christ, or I will shop for it horizontally in the situations, experiences, and relationships of my daily life. This is true of everyone, but I’m convinced that pastors are particularly tempted to seek their identity horizontally.
This is part of the reason for the huge disconnect between my public ministry life and private family life. Ministry had become my identity. I didn't think of myself as a child of God in daily need of grace, in the middle of my own sanctification, still battling with sin, still in need of the body of Christ, and called to pastoral ministry. No, I thought of myself as a PASTOR. That's it, bottom line. The office of pastor was more than a calling and set of God-given gifts that had been recognized by the body of Christ. PASTOR defined me.
Permit me to explain the spiritual dynamics. In ways that I couldn't yet see or understand, my Christianity had quit being a relationship. Yes, I knew God was my Father and I was his child, but at street level things looked different. My faith had become a professional calling. It had become my job. My role as pastor shaped the way I related to God. It formed my relationships. I was set up for disaster.
To be clear, at the conceptual, theological level, I would have argued that all of this was bunk. Being a pastor was my calling, not my identity. Child of the Most High God was my cross-purchased identity. Member of the body of Christ was my identity. Man in the middle of his own sanctification was my identity. Sinner, and still in need of rescuing, transforming, empowering, and delivering grace was my identity. But at the street level, my life was different.
I didn't realize that I looked horizontally for what I had already been given in Christ, producing a harvest of bad fruit in my heart, ministry, and relationships. I‘d let my ministry become something that it should never be (my identity), and I looked to it to give me what it could never give (inner sense of well-being).
Take a few minutes to watch this video interview that I did with Scott Anderson of DesiringGod, and make sure to check back in on Thursday and Friday to read about two other dangerous themes that operate in the hearts of pastors.