A few mornings ago, three seminary students came to interview me for a project they had to do. They had to seek out an older, experienced pastor to ask, among other things, knowing what he knows now, what advice would he give a younger colleague. The students were not that young and already had some life experience before they embarked on their seminary studies. That showed in the sharp questions they posed to me.
One of the things I suggested was that they must have clarity as to their primary identity because that would have a bearing on the main source of their self-worth. They must be clear that they are first and foremost children of God. They are somebody already because God loved them enough to create them, for Jesus to die on the Cross for them, to adopt them as His children, and to include them in His plans and His perfect future. Their self-worth must be rooted in the fact that they are children of God.
This is critical because otherwise they will seek their self-worth in their ministry. As a result, if they are doing well — however that is defined — they will be vulnerable to pride. And if they think they are not doing well, they will be prone to depression. Rooted in their identity as children of God they can see ministry as they are meant to see it, expressed in faithfulness to what they have been called to do. At the end of time Jesus is looking for the faithful ones (Matthew 25:21).
I shared with the students that in the early days of my ministry I was looking for affirmation from my ministry and that made it hard for me to say no to ministry invitations. As a result, I was always tired, giving my best to the people I ministered to and not giving my family the time and therefore the love they needed. I look back on that period with much regret and have tried to accept the forgiveness and grace of God for that failure.
I really wish I had good mentors and spiritual friends to walk with me then. I had friends but we hardly talked about such issues of the heart. So I told my three new friends to ensure that they walk with a few good friends who know and love them for who they are and not because of their ministry role/success/failure. I suggested that such friendship groups need to meet regularly and, at their meetings, they celebrate each other as brothers/sisters, and they call each other by names and not by titles.
We may know in our heads that God loves us for who we are and not for what we do but we need to have that reality reinforced by friends who love us for who we are and not for what we do.
Of course we all need this and not just those in church-related vocations. As Dana L. Roberts reminds us, “Friendship forms Christian identity” (Faithful Friendships [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019], 4). This is just one more reason we need to follow Jesus in the company of friends. And if my seminary friends took anything away from our chat, I hope it is this.