One of the ongoing challenges of ministry, particularly occupational ministry, is taking up the work God gives us to do without allowing it to become the primary driver of our identity. We all know the temptation, and gravitational pull on our hearts, to feel less valuable when things are going poorly and more valuable when they are going well. We also know our identity is meant to be rooted in Christ, not ministry success. For many of us the last two years have revealed again where that work has been done and where it has not.
How do we continue to do the hard work of firmly planting our identity in Christ so that we weather ministry success and failure with faithfulness and joy?
WHAT IS IDENTITY?
When philosophers talk about identity, they typically mean something like the question, “How do I know I exist?” They discuss concepts like persistence (Is the “me” that existed yesterday the same “me” that exists today, and how do I know?) and fission (Could there be more than one me inhabiting my physical body?). As fascinating as those existential questions are, when the average person talks about identity, we mean something more like the question, “Who am I at my core?”, by which we are really asking, “What gives me value?”. How we answer that question of value is the key to establishing a firm identity.
Value, for most of us, is drawn from three places: our Purpose, People, and Power. We derive our sense of worth by knowing what we are on earth to do, what group of people accepts us and to whom we belong, and what abilities we possess that enable us to accomplish our purpose and receive affirmation from our people. Tim Keller has some interesting and helpful thoughts on how identity is established in a modern vs. traditional cultural setting. His overarching takeaway, is that in both these contexts, identity is achieved (albeit in different ways) and thereby inherently unstable. Christ offers us an identity which we receive, because of His work, and thereby cannot be taken from us. In Christ, our primary purpose is no longer a task, it is our relationship with Him. Our primary people are no longer our national or ethnic group or even our biological family, it is the Church. Our power is no longer what we must strive and strain to grow, it is whatever set of gifts and skills God chooses to impart to us for the role we play in His work. There are massive implications for our faithfulness and joy in understanding how Christ brings a new paradigm to our Purpose, People, and Power.
All the identity statements the New Testament makes about us, (We are: Ambassadors, Ministers of Reconciliation, God’s Temple, Christ’s Body, Citizens of God’s Kingdom, etc.), probably the most helpful in thinking about our received identity is that we are Children of God (see Romans 8:16, John 1:12, and I John 3:1). To be God’s son or daughter through Christ is to answer questions of Purpose, People, and Power in a way that we cannot be elevated by success or lowered by failure in ministry.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO KEEP ESTABLISHING OUR IDENTITY IN CHRIST?
With that framework in place, let’s spend the rest of this post considering some things we can do that will reinforce drawing our Purpose, People, and Power from our identity as God’s Children rather than from the work of ministry we do.
1. Create a rhythm of pulling away for prayer and guard it.
My kids know and experience my heart as their father through the time we spend together, especially the times we pull away from our day to day activities to get more intentional and extended time together one on one. Establishing an identity as God’s son or daughter requires spending extended, uninterrupted, time with Him. Don’t let the press of ministry steal away this time or convince you it isn’t necessary.
2. Join your area EFCA Pastor Cluster.
One of the greatest benefits I have found in these groups is that they provide a space for processing different ideas and challenges with pastors from different size churches. This helps us see how powerfully God is at work in churches of all sizes and prevents us from idolizing or dismissing numerical growth’s importance in ministry effectiveness.
3. Have real friends in your church.
This one may be harder for some of us than others. The pastors who mentored me in my early years of ministry often advocated against having close friendships with members of your congregation, for a variety of reasons. I have come to believe that, while certain caveats of this advice can be helpful, it is ultimately wrong. If the local church is the place we experience life with brothers and sisters in Christ we cannot forego this because of our pastoral role. What is more, I am not sure that the pain of broken relationships, when they happen in the body, is any more painful for us than for others. We want all of our people to be vulnerable with one another in order to grow spiritually, and that same advice should apply to us. The one unique thing about this vulnerability for us may be the connection of our livelihood to the maintenance of good relationships within the body. But we will simply have to trust God to plant us where He wants us and provide for us in the event that godly vulnerability leads to a loss of position.
4. Take note of the situations that bring out your bad behavior.
Practically, I’m not sure we can simply comprehend these realities about identity and in so doing shore up our identity in Christ. It will probably take a process of failure, confession, and repentance. That being the case we should pay attention to the different situations we encounter which bring out the worst in us. Is it being criticized for a decision we made? Our staff team taking us for granted? Someone leaving the church? Our ministry growing exponentially? Whatever success or failure reveals it, every failure to root our identity where it belongs provides an opportunity to confess and repent. When we do this we are taking one more step in the continual process of establishing (and reestablishing) our identity in Christ as God’s children.
Discussions of identity will always be necessary and timely for us because the temptation to put our identity somewhere other than in Christ is constant and subtle. I am praying for you, fellow minsters of the gospel, that together we would walk from this season into the next more firmly rooted in the purpose, people, and power Christ has given to us as the Children of God.
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