The spiritual director and writer Basil Pennington writes of two different ways of experiencing personal identity, a distinction that has special application to ministry and churches.
The false self results from thinking our identity consists of what we have; what we do; and what others think of us.
What we have is particularly noticeable in how ministers and their churches regard each other. When I as a minister of a local church believe my church is something I possess then I’m building a false self. It drives me nuts to hear ministers speak about their churches in the first person. “I needed a new building so I raised two million dollars and it took me two years to finish it. My worship service needed a new look to it. My staff required a kick in the rear.” Ministers of large churches are especially prone to this syntactical oddity, as though their numerical success has somehow given them ownership of their congregation. Their “I” has overwhelmed the congregation’s “we.”
Congregations unwittingly perpetuate the false self because like all systems, they tend toward indentifying themselves by their leaders. For a church with high standing in the community and a pastor they’re generally proud of, they’ll tell their friends that they attend the church where “Dr. Smith” tells great jokes and preaches pithy sermons that are easy to follow. Or, if in a more contemporary church, they’ll relay the latest cool gimmick their pastor performed. “He actually broke a mirror at the end of his message and glass went all over the stage!” The congregation is known as the venue where the cool pastor with the soul patch performs.
What we do is another way we ministers inadvertently try to define ourselves. I preach therefore I am, is the classic way Protestant preachers especially twist Descartes’ classic philosophical statement to our own needs. But if my sense of self is defined solely by what I do—even if what I do conforms to my vocation—I’m setting myself up, again, for a false self. Because if I stop preaching or preach poorly or can’t find a congregation that allows me to preach then my identity is compromised. Many disenfranchised preachers can attest to that principle. But what I do in today’s consumer-driven church culture also has application to the various statistics we use to measure our church’s progress. If church attendance is declining, I’m doing poorly. If it’s growing, then I must be doing great.
The last category—what others think of us—is the most tempting of the three. It’s also the one to which most ministers are susceptible. We crave approval. We want people to love us; respect us; follow us. Our sense of self is often founded on that sense of approval. The easiest way to build our egos is to do those things that we feel will make our congregations love, respect and follow us.
But our situation has yet another dimension. Just as we ministers crave congregational approval, so our congregations crave ministerial admiration. Even the most dysfunctional congregations want to believe that their minister thinks highly of them. The mutual hunger for approval between modern churches and we ministers who serve them has become an awkward feedback loop, where each reinforces the neurosis of the other. That’s the religious system that must be subverted because it’s killing both of us. Churches often pressure their ministers to adopt a false self, because it conforms to their own set of artificial expectations. The irony is how ministers living as false selves may do very well serving churches with false selves because each can reinforce the other’s grandiose opinions of themselves. They have an incestuous relationship that’s as deadly as it is false, although neither realizes it.
Ministers are increasingly despondent over the state of their churches while churches are increasingly frustrated with the quality of their ministers. The problem is that the search for approval inevitably sets up an artificial environment where biblical standards and authentic leadership take a back seat to what others think. The search for approval is a slick road to hell, both personally and theologically.
A friend of mine served in a church like this for ten years. He loved his congregation because they admired the ministry role he adopted when he realized that’s what they wanted their pastor to be; they loved him because he built their membership and reputation into the image they had of themselves. When they went to their fourth Sunday worship service and began building a massive new sanctuary, both he and the church thought it couldn’t get any better.
They were wrong. The whole thing fell apart when my friend’s third girlfriend—the one he’d been shacking up with in a deacon’s beach front apartment for the previous six months—spilled the beans. The ministry collapsed like the United States housing market in 2008, a house of cards destroyed by mere breath. Neither church nor minister ever discovered an identity deeper than their illusions about one another and preferred the Stepford system of ministry to the biblical model. In the aftermath of the church’s train wreck, the Pastor Selection Committee, charged with finding their next victim, called me to ask if I might be interested in becoming their pastor. “Are you kidding me? No way!,” I said and hung up the phone.
Discovering our true identity in a culture where so many false selves try to seduce us toward contrivance and artificiality is the most important thing any of us can ever do. The true self isn’t a projection of personal desires. It can’t be imposed from outside. It’s not the product of cultural expediency or congregational expectation. It’s not ambiguous or vague or subject to the shifting values of our own minds. The true self has little to do with what we have; what we do; or what others think of us. Instead, the true self 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 you a 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.”
The true self isn’t easy to build or maintain, for lay people but especially for ministers. The institutional church is threatened by it and almost invariable views it as subversive. With good reason. And the process to building the true self is messy, difficult and laborious. The great advantage to the true self over the false self is that it's, well, real. It will last. It’s not subject to the whims and fallacies of modern congregational life. Most important, the true self has the same practical advantage as does telling the truth over lying: you don’t have to remember what you said.