Pastors experience shame too. Our shame—like everyone else’s—began in Eden, and we trace its path in our lives through a variety of things we have done and things done to us.
There are even times when the ministry itself feels like a source of shame. We feel misunderstood. Our ministries are not what we envisioned. Our persistent calls for people to come, to care, to contend for eternal things leaves us feeling vulnerable to their rejection. Over decades of ministry, accumulated vulnerability can take its toll.
Yes, we know where to look for hope. We can look to Christ and remember the dignity of belonging to him. But isn’t it sometimes easier to deliver this promise to others than to know it ourselves?
Sometimes pastors can preach to others that Christ has taken our shame, even as we use our ministry calling to cover ours. Sometimes we place a burden upon the ministry (to be seen, known, loved, and belong) that it cannot bear.
So what can pastors and church leaders do when we see our ministries as both the source of and (false) solution to our shame?
Remember Truth. Confront Lies.
We experience relief when we remember our identity in Christ: we are seated with him not as a result of works done by us but because of his work on our behalf. Indeed, knowing we are fully seen and known by God, and yet fully loved and chosen by him, can be sufficient to draw us out of our despair.
But why is this relief often short-lived? Previously, I assumed the problem was forgetfulness. I just needed to create more reminders that reoriented me to the truth. But when I considered the ministry conditions that led me to feel shame, I realized I was delighting in a truth without uprooting the lie.
Sometimes pastors can preach to others that Christ has taken our shame, even as we use our ministry calling to cover ours.
Church attendance dwindles and our sense of acceptance along with it. We think we are as significant as our last sermon. Our influence wanes and we fear we will be forgotten. What’s the lie here? We wrongly believe crowds, visible impact, and growing influence among those we do not know is the path to dignity. But this creates a spiral in which the sources and solutions to our shame become the same thing: worldly measures of success and affirmation.
To confront this lie, we must not only remind ourselves of our identity in Christ but also that we identify with him. When we do, success and dignity take on new meanings.
‘Identity in’ and ‘Identify with’
What does it mean to identify with the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief? Mark records a conversation between Jesus and two disciples who longed to be seated with him at his right and his left. In response, Jesus asked, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38).
He responded to their request to identify with him in his glory with a question about whether they would identify with him in his suffering. Were they willing to rethink their concept of honor and dignity in light of the cross?
Jesus was despised and rejected by men, with no beauty or majesty that any should desire him, perceived as cursed by God and afflicted. When we experience suffering that remotely resembles these things, do we consider it unnatural for a minister of Christ or the incredible privilege and costly dignity of following him?
When the American dream, and not the suffering of Christ, shapes our expectations for ministry, we will cling to our identity in him only in the moments we don’t succeed—without ever questioning our definitions of success in the first place. We will find our identity in Christ but still prefer not to identify with him. We will relish the comfort of “identity in” without embracing the discomfort of “identify with.”
Imitation and Association
There are times when I place my desires for ministry on one side, and the crucified son of a carpenter on the other, and ask myself which ministry I would rather emulate and with whom I would associate.
To be sure, none of us is Christ, called to bear the sin and suffering of the world, and it takes wisdom and relationships to discern whether we are trying to be. However, we are called to embrace a cruciform life, in which the cross doesn’t simply teach us that Christ has died, but teaches us how to live.
We are called to embrace a cruciform life, in which the cross doesn’t simply teach us that Christ has died, but teaches us how to live.
Christian ministry is cross and resurrection, sacrificial love and life. We who live are given over to death for Jesus’s sake so that his life may be manifested in our mortal bodies. While a kind of death is at work in us, resurrection life is at work in those we love (2 Cor. 4:11–12).
But even if this new life is not visible to us—even if there is more dying than rising in our ministry—shame need not cover our faces. Not if imitating Christ and being associated with him is the greatest honor of our lives. Not if sharing in his glory in heaven and his suffering on earth is our fullest joy.
Ministry is a labor of love that will force us to face our fear of rejection, our fear of being forgotten, and our fear of being perceived as a failure. When it does, we can rest in our identity in Christ, know the glory of identifying with him, and minister without shame.