I was a pastor in the process of destroying his life and ministry, and I didn’t know it. I wish I could say that my pastoral experience is unique, but I have come to learn in travels to hundreds of churches around the world that sadly, it is not. Sure, the details are unique, but I see in many pastors the same disconnect between the public persona and the private man. I have 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, drives me to write this column.
Three underlying themes operated in my life, and I have observed the same themes in the lives of many pastors with whom I have talked. I will examine these in this column and the one to follow next week. 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.
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 are engaged in an unending conversation with yourself. What you say to yourself is formative for the way you live. You are constantly talking to yourself about your identity, spirituality, functionality, emotionality, mentality, personality, and so on. You are constantly preaching to yourself some kind of gospel. You preach to yourself an anti-gospel of your own righteousness, power, and wisdom, or your 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 am 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.
Different View from Street Level
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, and if it hadn’t been anger, something else would have revealed my plight.
I’m not surprised by bitter, socially uncomfortable pastors with messy or dysfunctional relationships at home, tense relationships with staff members and lay leaders, and secret, unconfessed sin. We have become comfortable with defining ourselves in a less than biblical way. We approach God as less than needy, so we’re less open to the ministry of others and to the conviction of the Spirit. This sucks the life out of the devotional aspect of our walk with God. Tender, heartfelt worship is hard for a person who thinks of himself as having arrived. No one celebrates the presence and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ more than the person who has embraced his desperate and daily need of it.
I know I am not alone. Many other pastors have developed spiritually treacherous habits. They are content with a non-existent devotional life constantly kidnapped by preparation. They are comfortable with living outside of or above the body of Christ. They are quick to minister but not very open to receiving ministry. They have long since quit seeing themselves accurately and so tend not to receive loving confrontation very well. And they tend to carry this unique category identity home, making them less than humble and patient with their families.
You are most loving, patient, kind, and gracious when you realize you desperately need every truth you could give to another. You are most humble and gentle when you realize the person you are ministering to is more like you than unlike you. When you have inserted yourself into another category that tends to make you think you have arrived, it is very easy to be judgmental and impatient.
Laying Down the Law
I once heard a pastor unwittingly verbalize this problem well. My brother Tedd and I were at a large Christian life conference listening to a well-known pastor speak on family worship. He told stories of the zeal, discipline, and dedication of the great fathers of our faith to personal and family worship. He painted astounding pictures of what their private and family devotions looked like. I think all of us felt it was very convicting and discouraging. I felt the weight of the burden of the crowd as they listened. I was saying to myself, “Comfort us with grace, comfort us with grace,” but the grace never came.
On the way back to the hotel, Tedd and I rode with the speaker and another pastor, who was our driver. Our pastor driver clearly felt the burden and asked the speaker a brilliant question. “If a man in your congregation came to you and said, ‘Pastor, I know I’m supposed to have devotions with my family, but things are so chaotic at my house that I can barely get myself out of bed and get the children fed and of to school, I don’t know how I would ever be able to pull off devotions too,’ what would you say to him?” (The following response is not made up or enhanced in any way.) The speaker answered, “I say to him, ‘I’m a pastor, which means I carry many more burdens for many more people than you do, and if I can pull off daily family worship, you should be able to do so as well.’” There was no identifying with the man’s struggle. There was no ministry of grace. With little compassion or understanding he laid the law down even more heavily.
As I heard his response, I was angry, until I remembered that I had done the very same thing again and again. At home, it was all too easy for me to meet out judgment while I was all too stingy with the giving of grace. This unique category identity as pastor not only defined my relationship with others, but it was also destroying my relationship with God. Blind to what was going on in my heart, I was proud, unapproachable, defensive, and all too comfortable. I was a pastor, so I didn’t need what other people need.
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.
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 had 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).