Someone Else's Church: The Shaping of Pastoral Identity

Over coffee one Friday afternoon, a friend who was a former pastor but now drives a bus asked me, "What is the most important thing you've learned in your years of ministry?" I replied, almost by reflex, "Don't get your self-worth from ministry."

That came out almost as quickly as I could tell you my wife’s birthday (Which, I want you to know, is pretty darned fast). I was surprised how easily it came out, but I didn't know where it came from.

Then the next Monday, a seminary friend needed a substitute professor for a course titled "Lasting in Ministry" and called me to see if I could fill in on short notice. I had twenty-four hours to figure out what was the key to longevity in ministry.

Those two events less than seventy-two hours apart forced me to think, after thirty years of full-time ministry at the same church, how I form my pastoral identity. Maybe the Lord wanted me to reflect on how to play the long-game and not give up.

I easily and painfully remember moments in my ministry where my identity was totally wrapped up in how the ministry was going. When I was a youth pastor it felt like a roller coaster. On one Wednesday night we'd have a lot of kids and I'd feel on top of the world. The next Wednesday night they would stay home to study for an exam and I was crestfallen. Up-down, up-down, up-down – my feelings followed attendance. There was no way, looking ahead, that I could do this for another thirty years.

Every pastor's conference I attended made it worse. "How many kids do you have?" I'm sure I reported only the top of the roller coaster.

This was an honest and immature reality of my early ministry. How can someone get off the emotional roller coaster in ministry? How do you keep from getting your self-worth and identity tied up in ministry?

When Paul writes Titus about appointing elders, he includes this line that I'd never noticed before, "an overseer, as God's steward...". That apparent throwaway line offers a framework for longevity. It represents a key to freedom from finding my identity in ministry.

For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. (Titus 1:7-8 ESV)

The fundamental identity of an overseer is a steward. He doesn’t say, “Overseer, as God’s shepherd,” or servant, or teacher, or professional or anything else, only steward. Various lexicons define this word as one who "manages his master’s property" or "one who is in charge of running a household."

The size of the house is nothing a steward would get uptight about – it's not his house! He simply does his work for someone else. The steward serves a master. He is not the master.

The steward does what the master asks him to do. The assessment of a steward, then, is simple. Are they faithful? Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. (1Corinthians 4:2 ESV)

I’ve never been a farmer or a rancher, but my first job was as a "hired man" on a wheat farm in Central Montana. Each morning I showed up for work. I asked the farmer about the plans for the day. Some days I helped him. Some days I spent on a tractor going around the fields where he directed. He made the decisions. I did the work.

I didn’t think of this ahead of time, but I married a rancher’s daughter. My father-in-law was a cattle rancher. That meant our family vacations were spent at his ranch branding, baling hay and other activities Billy Crystal and his City Slicker friends would have paid dearly for. The most positive thing my father-in-law ever told my wife about me was, “He be a good hired man.”

To be a “hired man” means simply accompanying the rancher on his rounds or fixing fence with him. It requires a lot of time with the rancher. Once the rancher is certain you will do what he wants, the way he wants it done, he’ll send you out on your own.

The overseer (elder or pastor, I am assuming they all speak about the same office), is like the hired man. It isn't my farm or ranch. I attend first to the owner, then to the work. That separates my identity from the ministry. It is not my business how much land he has, how big his tractor is, how many head of cattle he brands. I simply do the work.

This is not unlike many shepherds in the Bible. I think it is highly unlikely that the owners of large flocks were the ones who were out in the fields shepherding the flock. Zipporah kept her father's flock when Moses helped her. Rachel kept Laban's. David kept his father's flock, not his own. Every Christmas, preachers remind us that the shepherds to whom the angels sang were likely young, maybe even just boys and girls. They weren't the sheep owners.

Much has been made of the identity of elder as shepherd. I am thankful for that. But the identity of elder as steward reminds me that these are not my people. I shepherd them on behalf of another.

A shepherd didn't own the sheep. They didn't belong to him. He was responsible for them on behalf of the owner. Their safety, health were his concerns precisely because they didn't belong to him.

Peter understood this and wrote, “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly;  not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.  (1 Peter 5:2-4 ESV)

The Chief Shepherd has placed part of his flock in my charge and I am accountable to him. The people are not my people. The church is not my church. The ministry is not my ministry.

In John 10, Jesus, the good shepherd, was clearly contrasting himself with unfaithful Jewish leaders of the time when he warned them against 'hirelings'. Granted, the freedom that comes from recognizing that the sheep are not yours can be abused. Shepherds, stewards, can be unfaithful. But they need not be.

This stewardship perspective is liberating. It comes with multiple implications that are worth considering:

  • My identity is not wrapped up in ministry. My self-worth doesn’t rise and fall on apparent ministry success or failure.

  • Ministry is an act of worship. My esteem for the chief shepherd is the throttle on my ministry.

  • It builds personal interaction with the Lord into the heart of ministry. Prayer and the word shape my conversation with the chief shepherd.

  • I am ultimately accountable to the Chief Shepherd, not to the sheep.

  • I am dispensable, maybe even invisible. I must point to Jesus, the Chief Shepherd. If I steal the limelight that properly belongs to him, I am an unfaithful steward.

  • I am temporary. I have been the senior pastor of the same church for over a quarter century, but I am an interim pastor. I am a steward that will one day pass my stewardship along to another.

  • The Chief Shepherd feels the pain of ministry. Someone leaving the faith, falling into sin, or wounding other sheep, hurts him. They are his sheep. It is his problem even more than it is mine.

One more metaphor communicates this idea. I serve on two boards as a “trustee”. To be a trustee means you hold something in trust. You have been entrusted with something precious that is not yours.

That is my simple view of ministry. I am a trustee, a hired man, a steward. The church belongs to Jesus, not to me. His reputation, not mine, is connected to her success. I steward the ministry to enhance his reputation, not my own. The people are his, bought by his blood. The church is his. The pulpit is his. The ministry is his. And, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Dr. Scott Reavely is the Lead Pastor of New Life Church in West Linn, Oregon. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Western Seminary.

David Thommen