Reading through the Gospels and taking Jesus’ words seriously, not to mention reading through both the Old and New Testaments, leads me to the conclusion that it’s perfectly “normal” for followers of Jesus to face persecution and to suffer. I mean, Jesus said that “since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you” (John 15:20) and the Apostle Peter wrote that “since Christ suffered physical pain, you must arm yourselves with the same attitude he had, and be ready to suffer, too” (1 Pet. 4:1).

While persecution and suffering go along with being a follower of Jesus and participant in the community of God’s kingdom, I’ve found that often times we develop what I call the “ministry guise” as an excuse for just about anything “negative” in our churches. Let me flesh that out a bit more…

The Pastoral Identity Crisis

A lot of ink has already been spilled addressing the why behind church leadership’s identity crisis issues and I don’t have the time or space to dive into that. Yet it’s fairly common for many pastors to have self-esteem issues due to either the expectations they feel are placed on them or the expectations they place on themselves. If a pastor’s identity is somehow rooted in the size of his church, she or he are going to really struggle when their church’s attendance is low. In fact, those pastors often feel like they are failures simply because of the perceived “success” of the church they serve. Their own identity is tightly wrapped around the identity of the church that they are unable to view themselves apart from the identity as “pastor.”

I can understand this pastoral identity crisis. It’s easy to see how it develops and why it continues for many pastors throughout their lives. But make no mistake. Rooting your identity in the “success” of a local church is a death blow to your own soul. Don’t do it. Your identity needs to be grounded in your relationship with God. It must be tied to your experience and knowledge of the Father’s love, sacrifice of Jesus, and indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. You are not defined by your “job” or “vocation” or “calling.” You are defined by love, namely God’s love.

This Crisis Produces Excuses and Resistance

Unfortunately, for many pastors and church leaders, identity is solely shaped and formed by ministry. And because their identity is controlled by the “success” of their church, I’ve noticed there there’s a huge consequence that develops out of this misstep: church leaders develop creative ways to make excuse for what may or may not be evidence of church health and success.

For example, I’ve heard countless pastor’s suggest that the reason why people aren’t coming to faith or growing in their specific church is because those people are “of the world” and it’s just evidence that the church (i.e., the pastor who solely represents that church) is being “persecuted.” Or they will suggest that the reason why the church isn’t growing is because “no one” is growing because “everyone” is declining because churches are being persecuted, etc.

And sadly, many of these pastors are resistant to asking some hard questions about their leadership or the church’s methodology simply because they have created a way of protecting themselves because the assumption that church identity equals pastor identity. So rather than asking crucial questions related to why things are the way they are, the leader suspects that the best way to avoid self-awareness or changing is to suspect that all challenges are simply a result of suffering and persecution. Make no mistake. The “ministry guise” is just that. It conceals the truth and avoids reality. It sounds really spiritual too, and will even get people’s compassion and concern.

But it won’t actually help leaders and churches grow or experience spiritual transformation. The “ministry guise” uses doing “ministry” and being a “minister” in a way that looks and sounds really correct but avoids any and all self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-development. If you are caught up in the habit of using “ministry” to avoid and resist growth, you are shooting yourself in the foot.

As you probably know, or like me, have experienced first-hand, you do yourself no good if you isolate yourself from accountability or avoid challenging questions or push back. Building a moat around your leadership does nothing to help your spiritual growth or leadership capacity or church’ mission. N-O-T-H-I-N-G. Absolutely nothing.

Learn the Art of Self-Reflection for the Sake of Self-Awareness for the sake of Transformation and Growth (and invite some other humans to help you).

Pastors are always talking about how people need to believe in the gospel and experience spiritual transformation as the Holy Spirit begins to work. They’re also always talking about the importance of living in community because other followers of Jesus are there to both serve and be served.

Sometimes, however, it’s easy to say these things for other people but forget to believe them for ourselves. But we need to. We need to learn to ask ourselves hard questions. We need to be self-aware of both our strengths and our weaknesses. We need to buy into an approach to spirituality that understands that becoming like Jesus and leading like Jesus is a process and that we change over time and that we should be growing. We also need to know that there are huge culture shifts happening and that the way in which the church must communicate an understandable gospel may require requires methodological changes. That’s why it’s important for church leaders to both ask and be asked tough questions. For example:

  • What am I doing that is a bottle neck to our commitment to empower people for ministry?
  • How can I better equip everyone?
  • What practices do we have that actually undermine our theological commitments?
  • What values are working against our mission (which is hopefully God’s mission)?
  • Is our mission the same as God’s mission (you knew that was coming)?
  • Who is able to challenge me / us?
  • Why do we do _________?
  • What is the perception that our community has about our church?
  • Are we making disciples?
  • How are we measuring our effectiveness?
  • Would anyone notice if our church closed?
  • How am I going to grow in my leadership skills?

These are just a few of the types of questions that need to be regularly asked. But if your assumption is that the problem is never you and it’s never the church’s culture(s) or ministries, you’ll likely never ask the hard questions, right?

Ask them. Take a risk. You’ll discover that growing as a leader will actually help you both face the curves that life and ministry throw at you and the church you serve as well as make the right decisions in the midst of those curves.

What do you think? I’d love your thoughts in the comments! How have you grown in this area? What are some practical ways to continue growing?