Your Ministry Is Not Your Identity

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).

  • Tom

    Hallelujah! You get it. So many don’t.

    It may be considered semantics, but I think it is important to distinguish that “God’s calling on your life” (not your calling) is that of pastor. It is the same as when people quote Jeremiah and read that God has a plan for one’s life, but few consciously remember that the plan remains God’s.

    I think that perhaps the best “tell” of a balanced pastor (or anyone else doing “ministry” is humility. Some can act what appears as humble (self depricating, using “humble language”, being seemingly deferential, etc.), but one can often observe true humility in whether a pastor ministers “from underneath” the other person (taking the foot washing posture).

    Too often people “minister down” to others. I loved your observation that “the person you are ministering to is more like you than unlike you. Also when people that minister out of pity for others, the “others” intuitively perceive that they are considered pitiful, and this feeds their self pity. Compassion requires identification with the other.

    Receiving and being teachable is not about “improving one’s performance” to increase the profile of one’s position and acceptability, but recognizing the areas in which one cannot overcome outside the power of the grace of God.

    Your post could be taken as a criticism, when in fact it is another “path to freedom”.

  • shawn

    Thanks for enriching my life with the grace of God I need. Your writing has changed my life and kept me looking to Christ for who I am rather than accomplishments or lack thereof.

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  • Michelle Krabill
    This is a post I wrote awhile back about this very issue.

  • Bo

    If we define ourselves by our ministries is this not synonymous with making our ministries our idols? God help us crush our idols and cling to Christ. Thank you for this helpful reminder of embracing God’s grace that points pastors to the High Priest–Jesus–who is our true and eternal identity.

  • Darrin Crockett


    Thanks for this article and, as always, for your wisdom and insight. I am guilty as charged. The statement “if it hadn’t been anger, something else would have revealed my plight” caught my attention. I have never had issues with anger. On the contrary I have always had the reputation of being a very laid back, easy going guy. However, I have experienced more anger in the last few years than I have in my lifetime and have been trying to uncover the source of it. It displays itself at home primarily, which really upsets me. I just had a conversation with my wife last week asking her when she first noticed this change start taking place. I’m going to share this article with her too. I don’t believe this is the sole source for the anger I experience but I do believe it is a factor.

    • Doug

      I appreciate your honesty and if I didn’t know better, I would have thought that I had written your comment myself. I, too, am the laid back, easy going guy who began struggling with anger in recent months. I too sought to get to the root of it while doing my best to suppress it but it would always come out in discussions with minister friends. For me, my breakthrough came from preaching though Ecclesiastes. It opened my eyes to seeing how much I measured my personal worth by the “work of my hands” and that the anger I was feeling arose from envy I had for other people’s ministries. I could not understand why so-and-so had such a “successful” ministry and got to write books while I was killing myself at my church plant working bi-vocationally and missing my family. I would have never articulated it that way, and would have denied it had someone accused me of it- I knew much better than to feel this way and trusted in God’s sovereignty over my life and ministry. Yet the Word exposed the dark places of my heart and I repented before the Lord and confessed this before my congregation. As a result, I felt a freedom that I had not had in some time. I don’t know if this is helpful to you at all, but I hope it will be to someone who reads this.

  • Brian Mann

    Tedd, thank you for your ministry. I need to consider this issue so much myself and it has much fuel for application beyond this. I cited your article( and made some comments applying in further in my context; the issue being the relationship between our viewed identity and our identification with others, with Christ as example and pioneer thereof.

    • Brian Mann

      I meant to say Paul in the above response, oops; don’t mean to mix you up with your brother. blessings

  • David Harris

    Paul, thanks for your graceful words. I read this through tears. Thanks for the words, “Comfort us with grace, comfort us with grace.”

  • Mike Leake

    It’s healing to remember that I won’t be wearing a name tag in heaven that says Pastor or Reverend.

    I put together a few thoughts in response to this article. I hope they are beneficial. If I knew how to do backlinks I would just do that. LOL.

  • Joe Cassada

    Very good. But what should the speaker have said to the person who felt life was so chaotic that family devotions was an impossibility? The response was wrong, but the correct alternative response was never given. What exactly would you say to the man in a way that “grace would be ministered?”

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  • Steve Hanchett

    May I comment related to the pastor/family devotion aspect…After having served as a pastor for almost 30 years, I am not self-employed having started my own business with the goal of transitioning into a missions related ministry at some point in the future. One of the things I have come to realize is that as pastors we can lose touch with the reality of the way our congregation lives. Now that I am working 50 to 60 hours a week, and often six days a week and then filling a pulpit for someone else on Sunday I realize that I have been guilty of placing heavy burdens of expectations on my brothers and sisters in Christ to whom I preached. Yes, pastoral ministry can be and often is stressful. Yes, there are demands on your time. But the truth is most pastors have a lot more liberty and flexibility with their time than their congregation. After living this experience I am a lot more sympathetic and compassionate toward the laypersons struggles in this regard than I once was. I might have been tempted to smack that guy on the back of the head…

  • Jennie Bickmore-Brand

    Thanks for this frank insight. I recall being surprised to hear my children’ s response when questioned what life would be like now that their mother had finished her Phd. They said ” it will be good to have her back.” all the time I thought my studying at home, being there when the kids came home from school and having dinner on the table was a well tuned machine. A pity I wasn’t really Present for the children as I thought I had been. My identity was wrapped up in the Phd not them.

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  • Rebecca Jeffries-Hyman

    My dear friend and childhood pastor sent me your blog in response to this one I just wrote sharing some of the same frustration. Thank you for your wise words!! What an encouragement to me and a practical instruction as well.

  • Terry Ishee

    Great reminder! I have struggled with this on and off for 15 years. Thanks!

    It was helpful.

  • Josh

    Thank you for this incredibly convicting and personally raw post. I am not a pastor, but it helps give even students like me a better perspective, understanding, and grace towards my pastor. They’re not super-humans, they’re all sinners in need of God’s grace as well. Thanks again!

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  • daniel

    there is so much truth within this post

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  • Alex G

    Thank you for this powerful piece of writing that will speak to many hearts. I was impacted by it.

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