In his excellent book The Imperfect Pastor, Zack Eswine speaks of a pastor and mentor who committed suicide. Eswine arrived at that pastor’s church to help pastor them through the aftermath of the tragedy.
The pastor-mentor could have stepped down from ministry, Eswine said, and still mattered to many, but the pastor couldn’t see himself out of ministry. “He could not see himself useful if he no longer held the position of pastor with the care for others that the position enabled.”
Eswine’s next words are haunting: “I missed him. I was, for the first time in my life, asking myself the same question. Did I know that I could serve Christ humanly and significantly whether or not I was a pastor or leader in ministry?”
“Even the greatest theologians or preachers among us are still just ordinary persons needy for grace in Jesus,” he continues.
Eswine’s question is one that every pastor must answer: Do we know who we are, that we still matter to God and others, whether we’re pastors or not? Or have we shifted our identities from who we are in Christ to our ministry roles?
I thought of this again as I heard Ray Ortlund, Jr. talk about his father’s last words for him. Early on Sunday, July 22, 2007, Ortlund, Sr. woke up in his hospital room in Newport Beach and somehow knew it was his last day. Ortlund, Jr. was in Ireland for ministry that day, so he couldn’t be present.
The family gathered at Ortlund, Sr.’s bedside. They read Scripture and sang hymns. “Dad spoke a word of patriarchal blessing and admonition to each one, a message suited to encourage and guide. He pronounced over them all the blessing of Aaron: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace’ (Numbers 6:24–26).”
Before he died, he left a message for Ortlund, Jr. “Tell Bud, ministry isn’t everything. Jesus is.” This message, Ortlund, Jr. says, summed up his father’s entire life.
Ministry isn’t enough to sustain our identities. Every pastor will go through at least one horrible experience in ministry. The best pastors have been criticized, maligned, and even fired. Some pastors will experience multiple tough assignments and spend their entire lives with a low-grade sense of ministerial failure. At its best, ministry will demand more than you have to give.
Do you know that you matter apart from all of this?
If you don’t, it’s time to learn now. Your soul will be better for it. Your family will benefit from this realignment in your heart. I can’t make any guarantees, but it may even help your congregation. At the very least, you will be freed from finding meaning where you weren’t supposed to look.
You may be fired. You will get criticized. Church may not always go well. The number of your critics may increase. Do you know that you can serve Christ significantly and humanly even if your pastoral life falls apart?