Identity Beyond Church
By Trevor Brisbin
August 17, 2010
For a pastor, receiving a wedding invitation in the mail is a bit like getting the monthly bills. Whether you want them or not, they’re coming. Some summers, it seems as if every weekend is consumed by a Friday night rehearsal and the big event on Saturday. I have grown to love being involved in these weekends. Wedding rehearsals provide a front row seat into the family dynamic. The ceremony is an opportunity to make a church experience engaging for the many guests who would never otherwise be at church. And the reception is always a chance to meet interesting people and prove that
Baptists really shouldn’t dance.
So, that Thursday morning, when my wife and I received yet another wedding invitation, it should have been an occasion for joy, right?
Instead, the invitation sparked something ugly within me. Without warning, one of those hibernating fears somewhere deep within my being awoke.
The invitation was from a longtime friend of my wife, who we had been hoping would marry her boyfriend. As we read through the details eloquently etched on the artisan paper, a bittersweet sensation haunted my soul. I was delighted Cathy was finally going through with it, but truthfully, I was far more terrified by the fact that at this wedding I would simply be a guest. I would not be officiating.
It has been years since I’ve attended a wedding as a run-of-the-mill invitee. I’m always the guy at the front with the best view of the groom’s face when he sees his bride. I’m the one who gets to make the congregation laugh. I’m the one who releases the army of salad-carrying servers with an “Amen” at the end of grace.
Who would I be at this wedding? Was I just the +1?
The insecurities released that morning led to a healthy introspection. I’m beginning to realize that more than just an insecurity to be worked through, there is an evil side to what I felt that morning. An evil that needs redemption. I have too often allowed my role as pastor/leader to define my relationship to the people around me. To put it another way, there are times that I am afraid to relate to people in my raw humanity. Something very subtle within me, nearly silent until that morning, needs to be known as the pastor, the leader.
Is it that I want people to know— that I’m a spiritual guy?
Or, when people know that I am a pastor, is there an ancient lie that whispers into my ego that I am just a little bit more like God than they are? I’ve got just a little bit more of the Truth than they do? That maybe God smiles at my life just a little bit brighter?
There have been many days I’ve eaten that fruit. It’s seductive. It’s about power. And it’s evil.
Recently, a friend expressed his disdain for how many Christian leaders mistakenly believe that it’s always lonely at the top. He lamented over how many of us have settled for a life accepting that what we do, the pressures we face, are so unique and superhuman that no one else can relate to us. The problem in the misconception is it enables us to turn our vocation into the excuse that keeps us from genuine human-to-human relationship. We’ve exchanged real connection as God intended it for a parishioner-to-pastor or follower-to-leader charade.
After eating the fruit in the garden, Adam and Eve hid from God and from each other. I’ve discovered that my pastoral gifting and role can become a very convenient hiding place. For as long as I am identified by my gifting and position, the fruit is there to sink my teeth into anytime my insecurities rage.
You’ve probably heard integrity defined as “who you are when no one is watching.” I’m beginning to wonder if identity has something to do with “who you are when no one knows your role.”
This past winter, my family and I spent four months on sabbatical in South America. I’ve become convinced that every church should facilitate a season of sabbatical rest for pastoral staff. I was formed and transformed on so many levels, identity being one of them. In a foreign country, surrounded by a foreign language, and people I didn’t know, my position as a pastor was inconsequential. Trev the pastor became Trev the gringo. It became a fast from my role, or at least my reliance on it. It was for me a purposeful rest in my simple, God-designed humanity.
As I begin to integrate back into congregational life and responsibilities, the temptation to once again seek identity in my title is palpable. It’s into this temptation that I daily return to one pastor’s ancient wisdom: “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3, TNIV).
Our lives and relationships as pastors and leaders are entrusted with so much, and we must never hide behind what we do. For when we live as such, we eat a fruit that poisons. Instead, may we discover the secret place where all that we were created for is found in Christ Jesus, His Father and the Spirit that gives our lives breath.
This article originally appeared in Issue 04 of Neue Quarterly.