Reading through the Gospels and taking Jesus’ words seriously, not to mention reading through both the Old and New Testaments, leads me to the conclusion that it’s perfectly “normal” for followers of Jesus to face persecution and to suffer. I mean, Jesus said that “since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you” (John 15:20) and the Apostle Peter wrote that “since Christ suffered physical pain, you must arm yourselves with the same attitude he had, and be ready to suffer, too” (1 Pet. 4:1). While persecution and suffering go along with being a follower of Jesus and participant in the community of God’s kingdom, I’ve found that often times we develop what I call the “ministry guise” as an excuse for just about anything “negative” in our churches. Has a pastoral identity crisis caused you to build a moat around yourself?
The Pastoral Identity Crisis
A lot of ink has already been spilled addressing the why behind church leadership’s identity crisis issues and I don’t have the time or space to dive into that. Yet it’s fairly common for many pastors to have self-esteem issues due to either the expectations they feel are placed on them or the expectations they place on themselves. If a pastor’s identity is somehow rooted in the size of his church, she or he is going to really struggle when their church’s attendance is low. In fact, those pastors often feel like they are failures simply because of the perceived “success” of the church they serve. Their own identity is so tightly wrapped around the identity of the church that they are unable to view themselves apart from the identity as “pastor.”
I can understand this pastoral identity crisis. It’s easy to see how it develops and why it continues for many pastors throughout their lives. But make no mistake. Rooting your identity in the “success” of a local church is a death blow to your own soul. Don’t do it. Your identity needs to be grounded in your relationship with God. It must be tied to your experience and knowledge of the Father’s love, sacrifice of Jesus and indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. You are not defined by your “job” or “vocation” or “calling.” You are defined by love, namely God’s love.
This Crisis Produces Excuses and Resistance
Unfortunately, for many pastors and church leaders, identity is solely shaped and formed by ministry. And because their identity is controlled by the “success” of their church, I’ve noticed there there’s a huge consequence that develops out of this misstep: Church leaders develop creative ways to make excuses for what may or may not be evidence of church health and success.
For example, I’ve heard countless pastors suggest that the reason why people aren’t coming to faith or growing in their specific church is because those people are “of the world” and it’s just evidence that the church (i.e., the pastor who solely represents that church) is being “persecuted.” Or they will suggest that the reason why the church isn’t growing is because “no one” is growing because “everyone” is declining because churches are being persecuted, etc.
And sadly, many of these pastors are resistant to asking some hard questions about their leadership or the church’s methodology simply because they have created a way of protecting themselves because of the assumption that church identity equals pastor identity. So rather than asking crucial questions related to why things are the way they are, the leader suspects that the best way to avoid self-awareness or changing is to suspect that all challenges are simply a result of suffering and persecution. Make no mistake. The “ministry guise” is just that. It conceals the truth and avoids reality. It sounds really spiritual too, and will even get people’s compassion and concern.
But it won’t actually help leaders and churches grow or experience spiritual transformation. The “ministry guise” uses doing “ministry” and being a “minister” in a way that looks and sounds really correct but avoids any and all self-reflection, self-awareness and self-development. If you are caught up in the habit of using “ministry” to avoid and resist growth, you are shooting yourself in the foot.
As you probably know, or like me, have experienced first-hand, you do yourself no good if you isolate yourself from accountability or avoid challenging questions or push back. Building a moat around your leadership does nothing to help your spiritual growth or leadership capacity or church mission. N-O-T-H-I-N-G. Absolutely nothing.
Discover a way out—on PAGE TWO: