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Leadership Journal

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Calling Killers

Calling Killers

How I discovered three dangerous illusions about my ministry and identity.

I was an angry man. But I didn't know I was an angry man. I didn't think I was perfect, and, yes, I knew I needed others in my life, but I lived as though I didn't. When my wife, Luella, would approach me with yet another instance of this anger, I would always do the same thing: wrap a robe of righteousness around me, activate my inner lawyer, and remind her once again of what a great husband she had. I would go through my well-rehearsed and rather long list of all the things I did for her, all the ways I made her life easier. On one occasion, I got on a roll and actually said, "Ninety-five percent of the women in our church would love to be married to a man like me!" Luella quickly informed me that she was in the five percent.

I was a man headed for disaster. The gracious and patient pastor our congregation saw in public ministry was a very different guy from the irritable and impatient man at home. I was increasingly comfortable with things that should have haunted and convicted me. I just didn't see the spiritual schizophrenia that personal ministry life had become. Little did I know that God would expose my heart in a powerful moment of rescuing grace.

My brother Tedd and I had been on a ministry training weekend and were on our way home. Tedd suggested that we try to make what we had learned over the weekend practical to our own lives. He said, "Why don't you start?" and then proceeded to ask me a series of questions. As Tedd asked me questions, it was as though God was ripping down curtains and I was seeing and hearing myself with accuracy for the first time. I couldn't believe that the man I was now looking at and hearing was actually me. It was a pointed and powerful discussion, a bigger moment than I was able to grasp at the time.

There are three underlying themes that operated in my life, which I have encountered in the lives of many pastors to whom I have spoken. These themes functioned as the mechanism of spiritual blindness in my life, and I'm convinced they also do in the lives of countless other pastors.

Letting ministry define my identity

No one is more influential in your life than you are, because no one talks to you more than you do. You are in an unending conversation with yourself, and the things you say to you about you are formative of the way that you live. Smack-dab in the middle of your internal conversation is what you tell yourself about your identity. There are only two places to look for identity: vertically, from who you are in Christ, or horizontally, in the situations, experiences, and relationships of your daily life. This is true of everyone, but I am convinced that getting one's identity horizontally is a particular temptation for those in ministry.

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 in a battle 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 a set of God-given gifts that had been recognized by the body of Christ. "Pastor" defined me. It was me in a way that proved to be more dangerous than I would have thought.

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. But in ways I now find embarrassing, ministry told me that I was not like everyone else, that I existed in a unique category. And if I was not like everyone else, then I didn't need what everyone else needs.

A while back Tedd and I attended a large Christian-life conference. A well-known pastor told stories of the zeal, discipline, and dedication of the great fathers of our faith to personal and family worship. He painted lengthy pictures of what their private and family devotions were like. It was all very convicting and discouraging. I felt the weight of the crowd's burden as they listened. I found myself whispering, "Comfort us with grace, comfort us with grace," but the grace never came.

On the way back to the hotel, we rode with the speaker and another pastor, who drove. The driver had clearly felt a similar 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 out of bed and get the child fed and off to school,' what would you say to him?" The speaker answered, "I'd say, '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.'" Maybe it was because he was with a group of pastors, but he actually said it! There was no identifying with the man's struggle, no ministry of grace.

As I heard his response, I became angry, until I remembered that I had done the very same thing again and again to my wife and children. At home it was all too easy to mete out judgment without grace. I had let my ministry become something that it should never be (my identity), and I looked to it to give me what it never could (my inner sense of well-being).

Letting theological knowledge define my maturity

I was an honors graduate of a seminary. I won academic awards. I assumed I was mature and felt misunderstood and misjudged by anyone who failed to share my assessment. In fact, I saw those moments of confrontation as part of the persecution that anyone faces when he gives himself to gospel ministry.

But maturity is not merely something you do with your mind (although that is an important element of it). No, maturity is about how you live your life. It is possible to be theologically astute and be very immature. It is possible to be biblically literate and be in need of significant spiritual growth.

Sin is not first an intellectual problem. (Yes, it does affect my intellect, as it does all parts of my functioning.) But sin is first a moral problem. It is about my rebellion against God and my quest to have for myself the glory that is due to him. So it's not just my mind that needs to be renewed by sound biblical teaching, but my heart needs to be reclaimed by the powerful grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Biblical maturity is never just about what you know; it's always about how grace has employed what you have come to know to transform the way you live.

Think of Adam and Eve. They didn't disobey God because they were intellectually ignorant of God's commands. No, they knowingly stepped over God's boundaries because they quested for God's position. The spiritual war of Eden was fought at a deeper level than mere knowledge. Consider David. He didn't claim Bathsheba as his own and plot to get rid of her husband because he was ignorant of God's prohibitions against adultery and murder. David did what he did because at some point he didn't care what God wanted. He was going to have what his heart desired, no matter what.

Even though I didn't know it, I had walked into pastoral ministry with an unbiblical view of biblical maturity. I thought I had "arrived." So when Luella lovingly and faithfully confronted me, I was convinced that she was the one with the problem. I didn't see myself as needy, I was not open to correction, and I used my biblical and theological knowledge to defend myself. I was a mess.

Confusing ministry success with God's endorsement of how I lived

Pastoral ministry was exciting in many ways. The church was growing numerically, and people seemed to be growing spiritually. People were committing to this vibrant spiritual community, and we saw battles of the heart taking place in their lives. We founded a Christian school, which was growing and expanding its reputation and influence. I started out my days with a deep sense of privilege that God had called me to these things.

But I held these blessings in the wrong way. I took God's faithfulness to his people, to the work of his kingdom, to his plan of redemption, and to his church as an endorsement of me. I would say to Luella (and this is embarrassing), "If I'm such a bad guy, why is God blessing everything I put my hands to?" God was acting as he was not because he was endorsing my manner of living but because of his zeal for his own glory and his faithfulness to his promises of grace for his people. And God has the authority and power to use whatever instruments he chooses in whatever way he chooses to use them. The success of a ministry is always more a picture of God than a statement about the people he is using.

I took credit that I did not deserve for what I could not do. I made it about me, so I didn't see myself as a man headed for disaster and in deep need of the rescue of God's grace. I had it all wrong.

Releasing my anger

After my convicting talk with Tedd, I couldn't wait to get home and talk with Luella. When I walked into the house, I think Luella knew right away that something was up. I looked different. I asked her if we could sit down and talk, even though it was late. "I know you have been trying for a long time to get me to look at my anger, and I have been unwilling," I said. "I have always turned it back on you. But I can honestly say for the first time that I am ready to listen to you. I want to hear what you have to say."

Luella began to cry. She told me that she loved me, and then she talked for two hours. In those two hours God began the process of tearing down and rebuilding my heart. The most important word of the previous sentence is process. I wasn't zapped by lightening. I didn't instantly become an un-angry man. But now I was a man with eyes, ears, and heart open.

The next few months were incredibly painful. It seemed that my anger was visible everywhere I looked. At times it seemed the pain was too great to bear. That pain was the pain of grace. I was in the middle of spiritual surgery.

Months after that night, I was coming down the stairs into our living room, and I saw Luella sitting with her back to me. And as I looked at her, it hit me that I couldn't remember the last time I had felt that old ugly anger toward her. By no means was I perfect, but that old, life-dominating anger was gone. Praise God! I walked up behind Luella and put my hands on her shoulders, and she put her head back and looked up at me. I said to her, "You know, I'm not angry at you anymore." Together we laughed and cried at the same time at the beauty of what God had done.

How do you view yourself? Do you see yourself as a minister of grace in need of the same grace? Are there disharmonies between your public ministry persona and the details of your private life? Do you use your knowledge or experience to keep confrontation at bay? You don't have to be afraid of what is in your heart, and you don't have to fear being known, because there is nothing in you that could ever be exposed that hasn't already been covered by the precious blood of your Savior king, Jesus.

Excerpted from Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Crossway, 2012).