Over the course of the last week, I had the privilege of speaking to two vastly different groups about the urgent need in the church for restorative grace for pastors. The first was a gathering of seminary students in St. Louis, at Covenant Seminary. The second group was mostly made up of seasoned pastors from around Southeast Michigan. In both cases, as we talked about the present challenges of ministry life and as I shared my own journey under God’s restoring grace, a common theme emerged. In the midst of the questions and comments it became apparent to me that there is a fundamental flaw in the way we view ourselves and in the way we understand our roles in life and ministry.
Most of us see ourselves solely as reflections of our calling – our “work” role – and that self-image defines how we relate to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, doing so can lead to many of the difficulties pastors and church leaders face today: the pastoral persona, the need for approval and validation from those we work for, etc. However, based on these recent conversations, I’d like to suggest an alternative, though it might be a complete paradigm shift for both the pastor and those he shepherds.
It’s become clearer to me that the place to begin, is the beginning.
We need to see ourselves first as human beings, created in the image of God, who are in need of the gospel every single day. This fundamental reality is inescapable. Pastors are not suddenly exempt because of their calling. Even as pastors, we are as limited, needy and flawed as everyone else – and the object of God’s great love and grace as well. By recalibrating our thinking here, we can avoid a host of troubles in our lives and ministries. Without the sense of ourselves as human, we tend to live separate from the one thing God has put in place to help us all grow back into the fullness of His image: the community of the Church.
Next comes the importance of understanding that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. Our own discipleship precedes anything else we might do “for” Him. I have often said to my fellow servants that God is far more interested in YOU than anything you might do for Him. This translates into reordering our personal priorities and schedules to make room for the care of our own souls first, and the honest working out of our own obedience to His first call on our lives, “Come, follow me!” A critical point shared with the group of seminary students, and confirmed by research done among pastors, was that if the basic disciplines of the spiritual life are not already in place while in seminary, those disciplines will not be present when a newly ordained pastor enters full-time ministry. When Jesus restored Peter, he not only re-commissioned him to teach and feed His sheep, but also set that clearly in the context of Peter’s own need to follow Jesus (John 21).
When we see ourselves first as human beings in need of grace, and then as disciples of Jesus Christ, our vocational calling can begin to take its proper shape. Pastoral or ministry leadership in the Body of Christ has to grow out of the realities of both our humanity and our discipleship; the sequence is of critical importance. If we reverse the order, or ignore one or the other, the dangers of pride, isolation, need for control, and living a double life are far too tempting. It is humbling to actually live out the understanding that we are human beings that need to experience repentance, confession and forgiveness just like everyone else. It can be difficult to prioritize our lives around our fellowship with Jesus and not around ministry tasks. But, then again, faith is sometimes unsettling.
I am becoming convinced that taking a good, hard look at myself and reorienting the way I see my life is the first step to healthy ministry. It may be the key to living and serving from the heart, rather than simply from our heads. I appreciate this warning to us all from Paul Tripp,
“…a pastor’s ministry is never just shaped by his knowledge, experience, and skill. It is always shaped by the true condition of his heart.”
– Dangerous Calling
How do you see yourself today?