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  • Adam Embry

Pastor as Title. Pastoral as Identity.

I’ve been working through an idea. It’s personal, being observable in myself yet observable for anyone who’s been in ministry. The idea is that sometimes there’s a distinction between being a pastor and being pastoral. These two concepts are complimentary and belong together. One is a title, a endowment, a position entrusted by a presbytery or congregation. The other is an inward quality of grace that only God can give. The title of pastor is not a bad thing. It is a noble calling to pursue. But not all who have the title are pastoral. And not all who are pastoral have the title. Sometimes they don’t reside together in a man’s life for a short period of time, or worse, the quality of being pastoral is entirely absent from a man who bears the title of a pastor.

What does it look like to have a title of a pastor but not have an identity of being pastoral? I can think of three things that describe the unpastoral pastor:

Entitled. A man with the title of “pastor” but who’s not pastoral will feel entitled. There’s something he thinks he deserves, some sort of pastoral respect. And he’ll often do anything to get it. Be a people-pleaser. Long for respect from other pastors. For myself, it’s the entitlement education brings. Sometimes I think I need to be heard, dog-gone-it, because I think I know more than you. The list of our desires for entitlement are endless. Where does our entitlement come from? Our pride, the desire for recognition, to feel important, needed. What only matters is that we feel good because we’re feel important. We deserve it, after all. We have the right friends, the right schooling, the right church, the right resume. But we’re no different than James and John, desiring the best seats near Jesus in the kingdom. It’s as if James and John were saying, “We’re concerned about your kingdom, Jesus … now tell us where our place of prominence in it will be.” How easy it is to mask our entitlements as genuine kingdom desires!

Subtitled. A man with the title of “pastor” but is not pastoral will have a subtitle in his life. We know several subtitles throughout history: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Peter Pan; or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. With a subtitle, there’s something underneath the surface that explains who we truly are, what we live for. For a man with a subtitle, the subtitle is the main identity in his life. How do you know if you’re a pastor with a subtitle? The answer is found in examining your imagination. What do you dream about yourself when you dream about ministry? That’s your subtitle. You’re longing to be somebody other than who you are right now, a better you with a better identity.

Mistitled. A man with the title of “pastor” but is not pastoral is also mistitled. He’s been given a title he shouldn’t have. There are heart issues that need repentance and resolution, but an entitled and subtitled pastor will spiritually harm people. Some people will be emotionally damaged, others will be falsely coddled by his people-pleasing. So something needs to change quickly. Behind the subtitles are often dark places in his soul where he needs the healing power of Christ. The irony is that because the mistitled pastor has made ministry about himself, he can’t let ministry go and won’t take the steps necessary to care for himself by doing the right thing: taking a sabbatical, get counseling, and perhaps even resign. As the great KVJ (Kevin J. Vanhoozer) has reminded us, “Hypocrisy is wrong not only because it deceives others but also because it injures oneself.”

If we think about our lives, we realize at some point in different ways, each of us have our entitlements and subtitles that we prize. What can we do about it? The solution is found in our identity with Christ.

How do we put an end to our desires of entitlement? We identify with Jesus, our example. Right after James and John inquire about their position of authority in the kingdom, Jesus tells them he came to serve others and they must too. We must recognize again that kingdom ministry comes by laying down our lives for others. We are entitled to nothing, but must be servants of all.

How do we rid ourselves of our subtitles? We must repent and find our subtitle in Christ like Paul did: Paul; or an Apostle of Jesus Christ. Our life is hidden in him. Our life is gone. It shouldn’t be found. No subtitles. No hidden desires for us to shine in ministry. The subtitle for the meek will be a description of who they are in Christ, not who they are in their imaginative, alternate world.

What do we do if we’re mistitled? With the help of pastoral friends and counselors, gauge whether or not the mistitle is temporary or not. Is there actually a quality of pastoral grace that is in your life right now, however faint it may be? Either way, there’s hidden sin that needs to be brought light. According to James 3:1, there is a stricter judgment for pastors. There’s also the possibility of condemnation from Satan (1 Timothy 3:6). What good will it be if you gain the ministry you’ve always wanted but lose your soul? You need friends and counselors along the way who will provide a safe environment for confession and repentance to take place.

Here’s the thing: Christ wants you. It’s not that he wants you to succeed in ministry. He wants you, all of your heart. He wants you to know that he’s not merely “for” you, but that he’s “in” you. Cry out for that inward quality of grace to restore your soul, not so you can be restored to ministry but so you can live and Jesus can live through you.

Adam Embry is a follower of Christ, husband to Charlotte, and father to six children. He has served in various churches and ministries. He is currently helping to lead the Calvary Institute at Calvary Church in Englewood, Colorado. He is a graduate of Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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