Who Am I?
The question of pastoral identity
I meet with some of the most successful leaders in the United States and around the world. They have incredible talents and have seen remarkable growth in their organizations. But when I peel back some layers of their obvious competencies, I often notice a striking similarity: Many of them live with a significant measure of insecurity. It shows up in comparison, competition and ashes of self-doubt. I’ve learned to recognize this often-buried but common trait in leaders because I’ve struggled with it myself.
The Search for Security
All of us instinctively ask the penetrating question, “Who am I?” Few people, however, come to satisfying answers. We all have inestimable value, but we continue to look for security in something else — anything else!
- We long to be seen as successful, and we’re haunted by the prospect of failure.
- We live for affirmation, and we wilt when we’re ignored or criticized.
- We admire people who have great wealth, and we feel defeated — even exposed as a failure — because we don’t have as much.
- We think the next step up the ladder will finally give us the fulfillment we long for ... and it does, for a few days, and then we feel empty and driven again.
- We compare the size of our organizations to those of our peers. We feel superior to some and inferior to others, but pride and shame are poor sources of identity.
All of these longings promise to fill the hole in our hearts and finally put the stamp of validity on our lives. They promise the moon, but they leave us with hands full of dust. Ironically, the experiences of success, fame, wealth and organizational growth don’t necessarily change a person’s self-perception.
I know people who have achieved all of these things and still feel they need to prove themselves by building the biggest house, driving the fanciest car, wearing the finest clothes, and going on the most lavish vacations. They’re trying to mask their insecurities, and they’re desperately trying to impress people, so they’re always marketing themselves.
Please don’t misunderstand me. There’s nothing in the world wrong with success, pleasure, approval or power, as long as those don’t define us. When they are products of a life lived out of a full heart of gratitude and the security of God’s limitless love, we can thoroughly enjoy them and share our abundance with others.
Years ago, I served as the pastor of a small church in Hartford, Michigan, far out in the sticks. We had to travel more than three miles to find the closest blinking street light, and the nearest McDonald’s was 18 miles away. I was the only dark-skinned person in the county, so I assume some of the people who attended our church came for the novelty factor.
One week, a traveling evangelist spoke at a series of meetings at our church. It was a shattering experience for me. He said the same things I’d said to our people dozens of times before, but they acted like it was Pentecost all over again, shouting praise to God and singing hallelujahs.
At first, I was amused, but as the service went on, I got angry. Why were they so moved by this guy but sat on their hands when I spoke every week? Then, I realized the answer: The evangelist walked as he talked, and I always stayed behind the pulpit. That was it. That was the secret of his success.
The evangelist left town on Wednesday. The next day, I drove to the nearest Radio Shack. I was on a mission. I walked up to the counter and said, “I need an audio cord — the longest one you have in stock.”
The man looked in his catalog for a minute or two, and then he looked up and said, “We don’t have it in stock, but will 60 feet work for you? We can have it in two days.”
I was thrilled. On Saturday morning, I made the trek back to pick up the cord. It weighed probably 20 pounds, but I didn’t care. This was going to be my ticket to stardom! That afternoon, I went to the church and plugged the cord into our sound system. I practiced walking back and forth across the platform, in front of the seats, and down the aisles.
To be thoroughly prepared, I wrote instructions in red in my sermon notes: “Move away from the pulpit.” “Pick up the microphone.” “Start walking.” “Go in front of the podium.” “Walk down the left aisle.”
I was sure the power of my message would get through now!
The next morning, I was eager for the singing to conclude. I had business to take care of, and I was ready. I followed my notes, walking all over the church as I preached, and was masterful at slinging the cord just right so I could make the turns. I was so happy!
Near the end, I had enough presence of mind to shift my focus from my performance to the faces of the congregation. They weren’t standing, shouting or singing. They were looking at me like I’d lost my mind, or maybe an alien had taken residence in their pastor’s body! Their body language was teaching me a very important lesson: Don’t try to be something or someone you’re not. Stop comparing. Use and hone your talents. Be yourself. Be your best self, but be yourself.
Measuring ourselves by how we stack up to others is natural, but it’s eventually destructive. In geology, the underlying fact of tectonic insecurity may remain hidden for years, but at some point when it’s least expected, the damage can be overwhelming.
The fault line in the Indian Ocean had existed for many years, but on Dec. 26, 2004, the plates violently shifted. The 9.2-magnitude earthquake under the sea created a 100-foot tsunami that raced in every direction, drowning about a quarter of a million people in 14 countries.
In the same way, fault lines of insecurity in our lives may stay hidden for a long time, but a sudden shock of disappointment or the gradual wear of unrelieved stress can cause a psychological quake that devastates us and those around us.
We can be masters at disguising the fault lines. We smile when we’re dying inside. We compliment others, hoping they’ll return the favor. We drive ourselves to work long hours to prove we’re worthy. We hide from risks or take foolish ones. We deny our fears. We minimize our doubts. And we hope no one has enough insight to look beneath the surface to see what’s really going on inside.
Sooner or later, however, we can’t resist the underlying pressure any longer and the quake strikes. We try to minimize and deflect, but our tidal wave of hurt, fear, shame and anger washes over the people near us.
Size or Impact
Comparisons can consume our thoughts and rob us of joy. Too often, we use the wrong measuring stick. I sometimes talk to leaders who are ashamed of the size of their organizations. They say something like, “I have a small company,” or “I’m the pastor of a little church of 80 people.” Their tone of voice and the look in their eyes tells me they feel embarrassed that they aren’t more successful. In their own eyes, they’re not measuring up. Yet the question of significance isn’t size; it’s impact.
Many years ago when I was a pastor, I had a good friend, Edgar Kent, whose church had about 25 in attendance most Sundays. My church had about 130 each week, so he thought I had hit the big time. One morning as we had breakfast together, he poured out his confusion and consternation.
“Sam, our church is small. Sometimes, it grows to 40 or even 50, but after a few months, it declines back to 25 again. This has happened a dozen times while I’ve been the pastor. I don’t know what’s going on.”
I picked up a napkin and took a pen out of my pocket. I asked, “Edgar, when these people leave your church, where do they go? Do they leave the faith? Do they go to other churches?”
He thought for a few seconds, mentally scanning the faces he’d seen over the past few years.
“No, they don’t leave the faith,” he said. “Some of them are going to other churches, and some have started new churches.”
Something clicked. I said, “Tell me who has started churches. What are their names?”
He began naming people who had planted churches. He paused for a few seconds between some of them, and then he remembered another ... and another. I wrote the names on the napkin. By the time he couldn’t remember any others, I had a list of 18 people who had started churches.
I pushed the napkin in front of him and said, “Edgar, God has used you to plant all these churches.”
His eyes widened with astonishment. He had never thought of these people in this way. He had seen them as dissatisfied with him and his leadership, never recognizing that he had inspired people to establish outposts of God’s kingdom in new areas. The size of his church hadn’t expanded, but his impact was exponential. Edgar was surprised when I gave him my interpretation of his church’s history. He was also reluctant to see the picture I was painting for him. For him, it seemed too good to be true.
A Different Question
We need new metrics to determine our identity. When we answer the identity question with measures of performance, popularity, power or wealth, we’ll remain empty, confused and desperate — but, of course, we’ll try our best to look confident so no one guesses we feel insecure. But there’s a far better answer.
We are relational beings. We don’t thrive in isolation; in fact, we can’t live very long in isolation without going insane. Perhaps a better question than, “Who am I?” is, “Whose am I?” To whom do I belong? Who imparts love and meaning to me? Who believes in me no matter what? Who forgives me when I fail and celebrates with me when I succeed?
If we are convinced that God’s opinion means more than anyone else’s, including our own, we can get off the treadmill of always trying to measure up. We can stop comparing and replace our desperation with gratitude. We may be walking while others are running, but God gave both the tortoise and the horse enough time to get into the ark.
Do we understand the concept of God’s grace and believe it applies to us at the deepest level of our hearts?
Our journey may have unexpected twists and turns, just as Joseph’s did when God took him on an extended tour of Egypt (Genesis 37–50). Time and again, those who looked at Joseph failed to see what God saw. His brothers saw a useless dreamer. The Midianite traders saw a source of profit. Potiphar saw a gifted slave. Potiphar’s wife saw a potential lover. The prison warden saw a hopeless case. But all of them missed God’s plan.
God saw Joseph as a leader whose spiritual maturity and organizational skill would save two nations: Egypt and Israel. God’s perspective of Joseph was far more accurate and far more important than the view of any person. God often sees things we don’t see. Throughout the Bible, where others saw limitations, God saw potential:
- God looked past the advanced age of Abraham and Sarah and blessed them with a child (Genesis 21:2).
- God looked past Moses’ lack of eloquence and called him to lead His people out of Egypt (Exodus 4:10).
- God looked past inexperience and selected David, a young shepherd, to become king (1 Samuel 16:1-12).
- God looked past gender barriers and used Esther to save the Jewish people (Esther 2:17, 4:14).
- God looked past ethnicity and placed foreigners, Rahab and Ruth, in Jesus’ family tree (Matthew 1:5).
- God looked past Paul’s history and called a former church persecutor to become His spokesman (Acts 9:3-9).
- God looked past physical appearance and noticed the seeking heart of Zacchaeus, who was short in stature but long in desire to meet Jesus (Luke 19:1-6).
- God looked past the reputation of Mary Magdalene, a former demoniac, and made her a first witness to Jesus’ resurrection (Luke 8:2; John 20:1-18).
- God looked past Peter’s failures, choosing him to lead the Early Church (Matthew 16:18).
God knows we’re slow to get it. We’re driven, but often in the wrong direction. We’re confused, so we make poor decisions. No matter how many times God has told us about His love, His grace and His purpose for us, we fail to fully grasp it. But He never quits.
Most of us see ourselves in a kind of courtroom every day — the courtroom of public opinion — and our performance is our only evidence. The prosecutors are the people who find fault with what we think, say and do. To be honest, sometimes we’re on that side of the room, blasting ourselves with blame for being so insensitive, ugly or shallow.
We try to plead in our own defense, but it just doesn’t work. Then Jesus steps up and says, “Your honor, the price has already been paid. The verdict is already in. My client is completely forgiven.”
Do we live like the verdict is still out and we have to plead our case by showing we’re acceptable to the people around us? Do we live with nagging guilt and the sense that we’re never quite enough? Or are we convinced the verdict is in, the debt is paid, and we’ve been set free?
The real Judge steps down to adopt us as His own. He tells us, “You are My beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” He’s not pleased because we’ve done everything right. He’s pleased that we belong to Him!
Instead of performing to earn a good verdict (and defending ourselves when we or others question our performance), we realize Someone has taken our place, paid the price we couldn’t pay, and given us a status we could never earn. This is the impact of God’s grace in our lives, and it changes us from the inside out. We still perform, but for a very different reason.
We work, we strive and we pursue excellence — not to prove ourselves, but out of a deep sense of gratitude and a desire to represent the One who has done so much for us. In these two motivations, there’s a world of difference. God’s grace, then, is the true source of our security.
When we’re secure, we walk out of the courtroom of public opinion and we get off the treadmill of performance to prove ourselves. We no longer have anything to prove, so we can relax. We’re no longer competing with other leaders, so we’re not threatened when someone is better at something than we are. We used to avoid high-level leaders, but now we seek them out so we can learn from them.
Insecure leaders don’t attract the very best employees and staff. Secure, sharp people don’t want to work for insecure leaders. These leaders won’t give credit to others, don’t affirm creativity and boldness, and feel threatened when others receive praise. Insecure leaders cut off others in meetings, claim others’ ideas as their own, and patronize people, treating them like children.
Secure leaders are just the opposite. They stimulate creativity and value others’ contributions, so they attract the best and brightest. These leaders aren’t afraid to look in the mirror and be honest about what they see, and they look out the window at the horizons to lead their organizations into the future. They aren’t consumed with inflating or guarding their reputations, so they can focus on the people around them to teach, affirm, encourage and direct.
Leaders who have inner composure realize they stand tall on the shoulders of those who have come before them. They live with a wonderful blend of courage and humility, passion and compassion. They aren’t crushed by criticism, and they don’t resist people who speak the truth to them. They have cultivated the fine art of listening; they understand that to go higher, farther and faster, they need the input of other secure leaders. They aren’t obsessed with controlling people and programs. They hire carefully, delegate clearly, and then let others fly.
But What About ... ?
Do we understand the concept of God’s grace and believe it applies to us at the deepest level of our hearts? Grace is an exceptionally hard concept to grasp. Martin Luther spent his life trying to communicate grace to everyone who would read his books and listen to his messages. He said grace is at the heart of our faith in God.
“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times,” Luther said. But he also recognized our natural desire to prove ourselves instead of trusting in God’s grace. He told church leaders that it is necessary for them to study grace, know it well, “teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually.”
We aren’t consciously resistant to God’s grace, but many of us think it’s too good to be true, or painful experiences in our past scream that God can’t love us unconditionally, or we’d rather earn approval from God and others instead of receiving it as a gift.
God’s magnificent grace isn’t something He dispenses once when we become believers and then we’re on our own. Pastor Rick Warren observed, “What gives me the most hope every day is God’s grace; knowing that His grace is going to give me the strength for whatever I face, knowing that nothing is a surprise to God.”
If God’s grace is so amazing, why is it so elusive? We need to boldly ask ourselves, What prevents me from letting the grace of God penetrate the deepest crevices of my soul?
The principles of identity apply to the people you’re leading, but first, they apply to you. Let me give you a process to identify and replace false ways of thinking with the truth about who you are and whose you are. You can choose the content of your thoughts and your self-concept.
First, notice your compulsions and fears. As you’ve read this article, have you identified with the paragraphs about comparison and competition, with the ones about fear-driven compulsions to please people or dominate them, or with those about defensiveness and control? Sure, you have. Admit it. Don’t rush past these observations. Live with them. Ask yourself follow-up questions: Where did that perspective come from? How has it affected my relationships?
Quite often, leaders become so focused on the future they don’t pay attention to the voices from the past. We don’t want to live in the past, but the past can haunt us if we don’t address the pains and sins buried there. Let them surface. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s good for you. Take plenty of time. There’s no hurry. And be sure to tell a trusted friend.
Flush the waste. Too often, we’ve let toxic thoughts linger far too long. They haven’t just sat there. They’ve poisoned our relationships and become a constant stink we’ve learned to live with. Don’t live with them any longer. Get rid of them by forgiving those who hurt you, experiencing forgiveness for your wrongs, grieving the losses, and healing the hurts. Again, this takes time, but it consists of dozens of intentional decisions to get rid of the waste in your mind.
Continually fill up. Find books, podcasts, articles, and messages on the amazing, unconditional love of God. Let people who have struggled to believe it tell you how they finally experienced the wonder of God’s grace. You aren’t alone. It’s hard for all of us to grasp, but it’s necessary to dedicate ourselves to pursuing it.
Guard your mind and heart. If we don’t pay attention, our grasp of God’s grace as the source of our security will atrophy. That’s what has happened to some of us. We experienced God’s love and presence in powerful ways years ago, but the stresses of leadership and unfinished business from the past have slowly eroded our sense that the verdict is in and we’re God’s beloved children. We need to be on guard to prevent slipping back into the inevitable insecurity of living for approval, power and success.
Identity and security. When I speak on the topic of identity and security, I often use a $20 bill as an illustration. I ask the audience, “Who would like me to give this to you?” Everyone is eager to get the money. I then put it in my hand and crumple it into a wad. I turn to the crowd and ask, “If I take this to the bank, would they give me $18 for it?” They shake their heads, so I ask whether they still want the bill, and the response is the same. I then drop the bill on the floor and stomp on it. I suggest to the audience, “Maybe the bank would only give me $10 for it now.” They laugh because they know that’s not true. I ask again who wants the money; of course, they all do.
I tell them, “My friends, you have witnessed and now understand a valuable lesson. No matter what I did to the $20 bill, it didn’t decrease in value, and you still wanted it.”
Many times in our lives, we’re crumpled, dropped and ground into the dirt by the decisions we’ve made, the decisions others have made, the opinions of others or circumstances beyond our control. We may feel worthless, but our value to God hasn’t changed at all. We are created in His image, and we are still called to bear His image to a lost and broken world.
You are special. Don’t forget that! Never let yesterday’s disappointments overshadow today’s grace or tomorrow’s dreams.
This article is abridged from Chapter 4 of Sam Chand’s recent book, New Thinking, New Future (Whitaker House, 2019) and is used with permission. For more information, visit samchand.com. This article appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of Influence magazine.