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Zack Eswine learned that his mentor had committed suicide. Eswine took a sabbatical from the seminary where he taught and spent six months as interim pastor with his departed friend’s family and congregation. He spent his time foraging “together for scraps of grace and truth amid the wreckage.”

Eswine knew that his friend could have chosen to step down from ministry and still have mattered to his friends and family. But stepping down would not have been seen as a sign of humanity, but as a sign of failure.

Eswine’s reflections in The Imperfect Pastor are stuck in my mind. I think of them often.

He could not see himself useful if he no longer held the position of pastor with the care for others that the position enabled. 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?

In other words, do we know that we have an identity that’s separate from our role as pastors?

Preaching Grace but Pastoring by Works

I’ve written elsewhere about my concern for pastors. Our current crisis seems to have stretched a lot of us. Our normal rhythms are gone. We face an extended period of uncertainty. We face new pressures and many of us feel tired, maybe even a little unproductive even though we’ve been working hard.

We normally derive some comfort from established routines and from our normal roles. A lot of that’s been thrown out the window.

Versions of Eswine’s question are worth asking right now:

  • Do we know that we can serve Jesus even when I can’t preach to my entire church like I could three months ago?
  • Do we know that we matter to Jesus whether or not we gain ground in this next season of ministry? Even if half of our people are angry at us for the decisions we’re making right now?
  • Do we know that our identity doesn’t come from our performance as pastors, and that he cares for us as friends and not just as servants (John 15:15)?

My sense is that most of us could answer these questions correctly on an exam, but we still drift toward rooting our identities in the wrong things. We know we matter to God based on his gracious love for us through Christ, but we think he loves us a little more when we’re succeeding. We preach grace but pastor by works.

Our Job in the Next Season

Our job in the next season may look a little like ending work around dinner, even though there’s more to do; taking a Sabbath even though there are a million reasons to work; phoning a friend and laughing ourselves silly; sitting in the backyard with someone we trust and telling them what’s really going on in our souls.

Our job may be to preach the same gospel we preach to others, but to ourselves; to marinate in the ministry of another trusted brother who preaches the Word faithfully; to pick up a novel for no other reason than to enjoy it; to see if we can romance our wives like we did before the kids came.

The demands will still be there. I don’t expect the uncertainty to end soon. But I wonder if we remember that Jesus cares about us not just as pastors but as humans, and that our identity is child before it is pastor?

If we don’t, I can’t think of a better time to figure this out.

Do We Know Who We Are When COVID-19 Ministry Gets Hard?
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