Ministerial Identity

This is a sermon I did on Ministerial Identity:

Biju Chacko who was once a student here at the seminary, for his Doctoral paper, wrote on Pastoral or Ministerial Identity. He says that ministerial identity develops from four different directions. –Skills (My confidence in my identity as a minister or servant of God is tied to skills I have developed in the field in which I serve. Makes sense.) –Community (The community— our church or denomination affirms our identity with titles, ordination, certifications, offices, formal roles, and so forth. Informally, one may also be identified in the larger community as a man or woman of God) –Calling (In this context, it is the sense that God has a fairly well-defined plan for your ministerial path, and that you are, for the most part where God wants you to be, doing what God wants you to do.) –Self-Perception (This is the vaguest one. This includes an understanding of one’s own personality, attitude, and character. It deals with one’s own insecurities, fears, hopes, boundaries, sense of limitedness, and more. The seminary wants each of you to develop a strong healthy Ministerial Identity. In fact, the Mission Statement of PBTS, supports this. To train God-called and church-affirmed men and women for Christian ministry. To Train relates to Dr. Chacko’s item for skills. PBTS seeks to help you develop skills that support your ministry and ministerial identity. God-Called relates to Dr. Chacko’s item on calling– the seminary seeks to help you develop a clear understanding of the pilgrimage that God has placed you on. Even though we ask you to describe your calling to be admitted into PBTS, the fact is that most students come to seminary with a very limited… murky sense of what God is doing in their lives. As such, seminary is a place where they struggle with this idea.Church-Affirmed lines up with Dr. Chacko’s item for Community. Affirmation comes through the church. But we must understand that the seminary has an important role in the affirmation of its students for ministry. The only one not listed in our mission statement is self-perception. That is the hardest one in some ways because it deals with a lot of deep-seated issues of past and feelings about self. There are people who are senior citizens who have been very successful, but are still desperately trying to succeed to silence the self-doubt that is part of their inner monologue. Success doesn’t silence deep hurts and doubts.What happens when one’s ministerial identity is weak? Let’s consider John. John is new to ministry. As such, his skills are not well-developed yet. His sense of calling is still quite uncertain. The community in which he serves may like him but still treat him as a child. Or, conversely, they may treat him like an expert, tempting John to fake his own confidence and competence in the hopes of not being found out. I can relate to John and maybe you can too. I remember coming to the Philippines back in 2004. Celia and I would be invited to speak in churches or other events. They would call me a missionary or a pastor… but I wasn’t sure if that was true. Is that who I am? Am I a missionary, am I a pastor? Or am I a guy who at almost 40 years of age underwent a mid-life crisis, quit his job and went on an extended vacation 9000 miles from home. One day I hope to know the answer.Or consider Susan. She is in ministry, but her denomination, or perhaps her church, or broader community doesn’t value her because in their setting, women do not take on ministerial leadership roles. Or perhaps it is not about being a woman, but about being single or not having children. Or not having formal training. The lack of affirmation from those around her, can even make her question the legitimacy of her own calling. We had a student here, one of the top students in her graduating year. She goes back to her home and is asked by her home church to plant a satellite church. So she does this and it quite rapidly grows to a nice healthy young church. Soon, a pastor in that same community, no connection to her church, nor even of the same denomination, goes to her parents, not to her, and tells them that their daughter is going to hell… because (1) she is in ministry… and (2) she is a woman— two facts that I believe her parents already knew. Now… personally, I am unaware of any verse in the Bible that says that a woman cannot plant a church. I am even more certain that the Bible does not teach that violating culturally sanctioned gender roles is the unforgivable sin dooming one to eternal torment. But when someone who is a pastor refuses to affirm, and even denies calling— there are few who can brush it off. It sticks, it stings, and it stinks. Or consider Brian. Brian had a sinful past. He couldn’t let go of his feeling of unworthiness… and periodically he would meet someone who would remind him of his unworthiness to serve as a minister. In the Bible. We have Moses who was a murderer. We have Paul who rejected Jesus’ ministry and persecuted Christians. And I think the past affects the minister later. Perhaps that is why the Calling from God for those two had to be so extravagant. Talking burning bush for Moses and blindness tied to a voice from heaven for Paul. Even then both struggled at time with their ministerial role and identity. In fact, even years later Paul was concerned that many people considered him to be a “second-tier apostle,” and Paul even started a fight with Peter over an issue that was at best trivial, and at worst wrong. Having a poor ministerial identity can sabotage your service to God and your people.. For me, my favorite example of the struggle to come to terms with ministerial identity is Elisha. I would like you to read with me one of my favorite passages in the Bible. It is II Kings 2:23-25. If you are of the Orthodox tradition, it is 4th Kings.23 He went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” 24 And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. 25 From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and thence he returned to Samaria.When I was very young I had a Bible story book for kids, and it actually had this story in it– pictures and everything. No idea why they thought it was a good story to tell children. But the story fascinated me because it was a bit of a mystery. How does one make sense of it. The passage contains no commentary to it— was Elisha in the wrong? Were the boys in the wrong? Or maybe both were wrong. The Bible does not say. So I read commentaries or heard sermons where this story is mentioned. Some sermons use it to give the lesson that you should not insult or speak ill of your pastor. (A rather self-serving interpretation I must say.) But I suppose one could use it as a reminder that it is not nice to be not nice. But then Elisha was even more not nice.Often the commentators start from the presumption that Elisha must have been doing the right thing… because he was Elisha. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have people believe that everything you do is correct? I don’t know. They note that there was no direct condemnation of Elisha in the passage— nothing to indicate whether what he did was deemed good or bad. But the Bible often doesn’t. Literally four chapters later, is a story of two women who had conspired to kill their infant sons and eat them. There was no moral comment placed there in the text as to whether this was good or bad. It is almost as if God thought that we could hear a story and know bad actions when we hear them. But maybe we can’t. What I can say, is that if you read the entire chapter of II Kings 2, you find it is about the process of passing on the role of lead prophet from Elijah to Elisha. Transfer of authority, office, and power in a ministry is always difficult, and the whole chapter is… quite awkward really— like neither Elijah nor Elisha really knew how to deal with it. Instead of going through the whole awkward chapter, I will quickly note four somewhat awkward moments. Awkward Moment #1. The will. Elijah offers to give Elisha anything he wants before Elijah departs. Elisha asks for a double portion of his Spirit. Elijah seems to me to be a bit taken aback by the statement, and I can understand why. If you are taking over a church from a well-loved older pastor and he asks if there is anything he can do before he leaves… I don’t really recommend you saying to him… “Let me be twice as good of a pastor as you. Let me be twice as good of a preacher, counseling, administrator, and teacher as you.” I don’t recommend it. To some it will sound of hubris. To others it will sound of insecurity. Neither look good on you.Awkward Moment #2. After Elijah was taken up into the heavens and left the mantle or cloak for Elisha to take, he returns to the Jordan River and seeks to cross the river miraculously the way Elijah had done earlier. He repeats the miracle of Elijah using the same cloak of Elijah. He was repeating what he saw… showing he had mastered a skill (Good). But he is struggling to embrace the role of lead prophet, so he say “Where is the Lord God of Elijah?” He was calling on God, but triangulated through Elijah. After I earned my doctorate here, one of the professors would always call me Doc. Hey Doc Bob. How are you doing today Doc. I told him one day that he really did not need to do that. He said, I know… but your role has changed, and you need to really embrace a new role and a new title. That is harder than it sounds… it took Elisha a little while to see the Lord God as his God.Awkward Moment #3. Returning to the school of the prophets they recognize that he has replaced Elijah. However, they wanted to go look for Elijah to see if he was okay. Maybe the whirlwind dropped him on a mountain somewhere. Elisha says don’t bother. But they persisted until the Bible says he was too embarrassed to refuse, and so they went. The prophets respected his position, but did not listen to his words. Much like a person new to a role, he had the authority of position, but not of performance. Influence takes time.Awkward Moment #4. Walking past Bethel, Elisha is seen by people in the village. It says a bunch of young boys or young men came out to taunt him. They started chanting “Go up, you bald head.” Most likely the story of Elijah going up into the heavens had already reached them. So saying to Elisha to “go up” is a call to do what Elijah did. Calling him “baldhead” is probably a bit of a reference to his contrast with Elijah. Elijah is described as a hairy man, although some interpret the Hebrew differently. Elijah was larger than life. A man that had to be respected even if not liked, and perhaps feared more than respected. If so, it is like they were saying. “You may be wearing the cloak of Elijah. You may think of yourself as the new Elijah… but next to Elijah, you are nothing. You don’t come close to comparing to Elijah.” That’s tough. Replacing a great leader or at least a popular leader is difficultI know a church where that had a well-loved pastor. He was there for many years and the church had grown by over 600% during his ministry. When he stepped down to do other things, the church brought in a younger guy to take his place. This younger pastor was okay, but soon found himself overwhelmed with dealing with a larger church that he did not know how to handle. People began comparing him to the former pastor. People started to move away to other churches. Eventually the new pastor resigned, and then he stepped out of Christian ministry completely. Struggling with ministerial identity can be difficult. It can show itself in different ways. One may feel that one is a fraud. That one doesn’t deserve to be in ministry. But you feel that you have to put on a fake front for others. It is difficult when people see the mask but not the real you. But it is also difficult when people come along and appear to see behind the mask… exposing one’s shame. Elisha gets angry and curses at his tormentors. A childish response to childish behavior. We dealt with a counseling case of a woman who cursed her daughter for something she had done. She said that she wished her daughter dead. The daughter died in a freak accident a day or two later. The mother was inconsolable because of the loss and because of the belief, right or wrong, that somehow her words had caused the death of her own daughter— Words that could never be taken back. This was a deeply crushing event in her life. Elisha’s childish behavior brought horrifying results. Perhaps in the past he could say whatever he wanted. He could vent his anger however he wished. But now his voice has authority. His words have power and his behavior has consequences. Did Elisha learn from this? Maybe. Elisha did place curses two more times. One of these was making the Syrian army blind… but two verses later he restores their sight. On a second occasion, Elisha cursed his servant Gehazi with leprosy and on his descendants forever. Since we know of no such family line in which every family member has leprosy, I must suspect that Elisha reversed that one as well at a later time. All other miracles of Elisha were ones that brought joy and healing to people. I like to think that he learned something. In some ways he learned it too late, but he did learn. Seminary is a good time to gain a sense of your ministerial identity.

  • It is a good time to learn skills that will provide you with competence in your service to God and to your people.
  • It is a good time to reflect on and gain insight into God’s plan for you… who He has created you to be and what path He has established you to lead.
  • It is a good time to seek competent reliable affirmation of your call to ministry.
  • It is also a good time work through the issues of your past and present that are lurking in your life, behind the mask, to sabotage your testimony and your service.
  • It is further a good time not to base your self-worth on your detractors— those who compare you to others, or the trolls who simply prefer to destroy than to build up.
  • It is a great time to develop a Godly character— one who can return good for evil.

Ministry is tough. But it is far tougher if you do not have a firm understanding of who you are and what your place is in God’s work.

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