Healthy ministers are true to themselves and their calling.
Being true to self is a moving target; we grow and evolve over a lifetime. I remember reading an article noting the human brain isn’t fully developed until age 22. Apparently, brain research has demonstrated the frontal lobe, the seat of judgment, is the last part of the brain to develop fully.
When I finished reading the article, I called my adult son and said, “I understand. Your brain wasn’t fully developed.” He didn’t recognize the humor!
Our sense of self develops over time. We mature. We get a healthier sense of perspective. In the second year of marriage everything seems of ultimate importance. In the 32nd year of marriage, we smile a lot and laugh-off potential conflicts; we learn to choose our battles. We change emotionally, socially, psychologically and spiritually.
Sometimes the word ‘role’ is used negatively, as if serving a role lacks authenticity. Actors play very different characters so convincingly we begin to wonder if the actor has a well-defined stable personality of her own. We wonder, “Who is this person?” Is she only playing a part? Yet, the word ‘role’ can identify a part of life that is profoundly connected to the psychological and spiritual self: Mommy, Daddy, caregiver, sweetheart, child, grandchild, church member, minister.
In the context of ministry I hear ministers say, “I have to play the role,” “I pay the rent,” or with deep emotion, “Why can’t I be myself?” Ministers struggle with the role of ministry and their sense of self. This is a key issue for ministers. Those who make peace with the role may find fulfillment and happiness in ministerial service; those who cannot make peace with the role rarely stay in ministry.
I offer a few suggestions.
Self awareness is the most important knowledge we will ever possess. One’s call to ministry is necessarily complex; it grows out of experience, personal history, psychological healthy (or lack thereof), personal fears and self understanding. For instance, it is no accident my sense of call to ministry came within three months of my grandfather’s death; the first time I faced mortality questions were raised for me about life’s meaning, fertile soil for God’s work.
I often recommend counseling to seminary students. There is no substitute for self-understanding. One will never be comfortable in a ministerial role if she is not comfortable in her own skin. Psychotherapy allows the individual to make peace with personal history and provides the insight to become proactive, not reactive, to life’s challenges.
A minister’s struggle with her role is, first and foremost, an internal struggle.
Center life in being, not doing. It may be an overly psychological reading of the Gospel, but Jesus said to fishermen, “Come and follow me and I will make you become fishers of men (KJV).” In coming to faith in Christ, we are becoming something. The focus is on being, not doing. In the life of ministry we seek to become a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are not simply doing ministerial things. We seek to embody the Gospel in our living. Early in my ministry career I saw myself doing ministerial things; things I knew to do because my pastor/father did them, things I was trained to do in seminary, things I picked up form more experienced ministers. I can still remember the sense that came to me (standing in my church office at Lakeside Baptist), “I’ve become a minister. These ministerial things I do, I no longer do them because I have to do them; rather I want to do them, they grow out of my sense of being and purpose.” For all of us who wrestle with the ministerial role, it is a happy day when you sense you have become a minister; as opposed to merely doing ministerial things.
Truly becoming a minister, psychologically and spiritually, is not the death of something in us but a spiritual metamorphosis. We are becoming something by the Grace of God.
My son and his wife are pregnant. They are happily enjoying a “isn’t this great – everything is new stage in life:” reading books, visiting the doctors, emailing reports to family. They are beginning to act like parents and do parental things. They changed their lifestyle: fewer parties and more nesting interests. While they are making adjustments and doing what they believe they are supposed to do, the real moment of transformation comes when they hold their child for the first time. There is nothing like being a parent.
Do not choose to live in a ‘glass house;’ live in your own house. Much is typically made of expectations placed on ministers, and their families, by church members. More attention should be placed on the minister’s acceptance of those expectations. Cyndi and I made deliberate decisions about the way we would do family, and our decisions did not always square with the expectations of individual church members. Sometimes this provided humor like the time grandmother types were standing around while Cyndi held our plump, exceedingly healthy, first-born. To the question, “What are you feeding him?” Cyndi replied, “Just breast milk.” And the delightful reply came, “Oh, my! He can’t make it on just that!”
There were other times I said to church members, “Thank you for your suggestion. I really appreciate your concern for my family. Cyndi and I have talked about this and we have decided we’ll do something different for our family.” It sounds dated now, but Cyndi and I: didn’t spank our children, didn’t require them to attend Sunday night activities (AM was required because “by the accident of birth you ended up in this particular family. Sorry about that!”), involved our children in writing family rules (and consequences), allowed them to go to baseball practice instead of Wednesday evening mission groups for children (RAs), and allowed them to wear their hair as they chose (I never liked this decision, but it was a family decision; and it proved to be a very good decision for us).
It is one thing for church members to expect the minister to live in a ‘glass house.’ It is entirely another for the minister to agree it is a reasonable expectation. Live in your own house. Be intentional about the kind of family you want. The key is being proactive, not reactive. And, learn to deal with criticism.
Discipline self, recognize the church needs you to function well as a minister for the congregation to be successful. This requires the minister to grow, evolve. I am a natural introvert. I get energy when I am alone. Crowds can drain me. As a pastor I worked an extrovert’s job. While I would have been very happy “in my own little world,” the churches I served needed something different from me. I learned to be an extrovert when the church needed a warm, friendly pastor. Did I lack authenticity? Was I playing a role? I think I was working on becoming a better minister and a more balanced person.
Who we are is always tempered by what God is leading us to become. The Christian life is dynamic: we are moving through the wilderness to the Promised Land, we are becoming fishers of men (and women), we grow from denying Jesus to preaching like an angel on Pentecost. Ministers must see themselves on a spiritual and psychological journey. Fear of personal and spiritual growth is antithetical to the Christian life and devastating for a minister. A minister’s mantra must be “with time God is going make something good of me.”
Roman Catholic theology suggests God gives a spouse to love and bless us . . . and to ‘sand-off’ our rough edges. Some church members love us, some ‘sand-off’ the rough edges. Both are gifts from God.
Being and becoming go hand-in-hand in the life of ministry.
Finally, join the human family. Because of our call to ministry, we ministers tend to think we are special, unique, different. In many ways we are; in most ways we are not different. Most people struggle with roles in life. Nancy became a seminary student after a thirty year career with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). We tease her about coming over from the ‘dark side.’ Who hasn’t heard an outrageous lawyer joke, or a negative comment about used car salesperson or Florida drivers (in Western North Carolina), or an umpire (“three blind mice, three blind mice”).
Struggle with ‘official roles’ is part of the human experience. Ministers are not unique in this regard.
True to self -- true to one’s calling: it is not an either/or choice. It is both/and.
Grace and Peace,