We’ve all known them, those ministers who come across so preacher-like, who so obviously assume the role of preacher that we’re immediately put off. They’re always dressed like they think a preacher ought to dress; they speak with a smooth, spiritual-sounding voice, like they think a preacher out to talk; they come across as unctuous as a funeral director only nowhere near as fun; they project a kind of superficial concern for other people that they know—and person who’s the object of their attention knows!—isn’t real. It’s all a role. I’ve met those people and have to confess that I immediately disliked them.
Then my twenty-one-year-old son met a pastor friend of mine in another state. This guy is as fine a minister that I know and I’ve admired him and his work for thirty years. I asked my son what he thought of my friend and my son said, “He’s pretty cool, only he used the same preacher voice with me that I’ve heard you use so many times. You guys sound just alike.”
And I realized that what I was critical of in those other ministers, who I thought were so self-consciously playing a role, was my own conflict as well. All of us in church ministry have this central struggle: how to be real in an environment that doesn’t value authenticity. How to move beyond the role of minister into a genuine follower of Jesus, without pretense or affect. How to discover our own unique identity as men and women apart from the expectations of congregational life. Integrating what churches want in their ministers with our own distinctive personalites, as well as the more illusionary trait of what we ministers think our churches want from us, is one of the hardest and least discussed features of church leadership.
The spiritual writer Basil Pennington speaks of the differences between the false self and the true self. The false self is essentially a projection we make by thinking our identity consists of what we have; what we do; and what others think of us. Adopting a false self—which preachers do in droves—leads us to believe our ministries to be a role we adopt instead of a vocation we receive. There is little connection, in the false self, between our true identity on the inside and the way we live life on the outside. In other words, we play the game. Of course, churches often want their ministers to adopt this false self, because it conforms so much to their own set of artificial expectations of both their church and their own hearts. Ministers living as false selves do very well serving churches with false selves because each can reinforce each other’s grandiose opinions of themselves.
The true self in both ministers and churches is much different. It’s not a projection at all; instead it’s the discovery of authenticity. And authenticity is painful, messy, sinful and often very difficult to deal with. The true self has little to do with what we have; what we do or what others think of us. Instead, it finds its center in our adoption as God’s children. The apostle Paul describes the true self in Romans 8:15-16: “For you did not receive a spirit that makes youa slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” Of course, the great advantage to the true self over the false self is that it's, well, real.
There are so many conflicts in church leadership today! But the primal struggle is the least visible: it’s the struggle to discover our true identities, not as ministers but as men and women trying to follow Jesus. To live as genuine people in a plastic age. To have integrity in the deepest, truest sense of that word.