Pastoral ministry can be a hazardous occupation. Many get into this work with a noble and godly calling: to bring glory to Jesus by shepherding and equipping his flock to make disciples who make disciples. However, too many of us put a weight of responsibility on ourselves that only Jesus can carry, and even look to our ministry to gain or attain something that only Jesus can give.
The problem for many of us, or at least this pastor, is that we aren’t very self-aware. I wasn’t aware of my own sense of self-importance (arrogance), and I didn’t know how much I needed people to like me or need me (codependency). Thinking too highly of myself, while also falsely believing what people really need is more of me — more of my time and more of my ministry — was not only idolatrous, but deeply damaging to my own soul, my family, and the health of the church.
“Only Jesus can be Jesus. And he doesn’t expect you or me or the church to be Jesus for him.”
Paul is clear in his admonition to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:5) as well as in his qualification of elders (1 Timothy 3:2) that church leaders must be sober-minded. In Romans 12:3, Paul instructs all believers not to think too highly of themselves, “but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” This means humbly accepting my own limitations, and embracing both my need for Jesus and his sufficiency as well as help from others.
Early in my ministry, my brokenness came to a head on the golf course with some men in my church. The weight of leadership responsibility, along with my need to be liked and needed, was far too much for me to bear or manage. I was failing on all fronts and emotionally falling apart as a result. So was my game of golf that day. In a rage, I threw my golf club as far as I could. My friends were shocked!
Thankfully, these men, all followers of Jesus, graciously came alongside me and drew out what was going on in my heart. We all need friends of understanding who will draw out the deep waters of our hearts (Proverbs 20:5). As they listened, they reminded me that this is Jesus’s church and therefore ultimately Jesus’s responsibility. I didn’t need to carry that weight on my shoulders. His shoulders were big enough.
This wasn’t only crushing me. It was also crushing the people in our church. I had been trying to be Jesus to and for our church and, as a result, I was in turn asking the church to do the same for our city. Many of us were being burnt out and ruined from my broken christology. Only Jesus can be Jesus. And he doesn’t expect you or me or the church to be Jesus for him.
Only Jesus Will Be Jesus
Our job is not to be Jesus. Our job is to believe in Jesus, depend on Jesus, and submit to Jesus working in and through us to accomplish his work. We are not meant to carry the weight of the world or the mission of Jesus on our shoulders. Jesus came to seek and save. He doesn’t expect us to be saviors. And he doesn’t want our “success” in ministry, or the approval ratings of others, to become our savior either. We are accepted and loved by God through faith in what Jesus has done, not because of any work we might do.
“Our job is not to be Jesus. Our job is to believe in Jesus, depend on Jesus, and submit to Jesus.”
For us to be faithful in the work of the gospel, Christ must live and work through us. “I have been crucified with Christ,” the apostle Paul says. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Elsewhere he says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13).
The works of justification, sanctification, and glorification are all the works of God, from beginning to end. Sure, we work out what God is doing in us, but even then it is still his work in and through us. The same is true with the ministry of the church. Jesus said he, not we, would build his church (Matthew 16:18).
My Renewed War
In recents years, I’ve had to honestly and painfully face myself again. And with the help of others, I have come to see that I have had more wrong beliefs and broken responses that are damaging both to myself and to those I lead.
As a child, I experienced some significant shaming from spiritual leaders in the church. I wasn’t aware of it then, but I am now aware that those experiences deeply formed me. To deal with my feelings of toxic shame, I learned to perform to gain acceptance and approval, covering up but not really getting rid of the shame I felt. This included my spiritual life and eventually my ministry as a pastor. Those observing from afar saw competency, hard work, high capacity, and spiritual productivity and fruitfulness. However, those who were up close and personal in my life saw emotional damage and impairment both to myself and those closest to me.
Thankfully, once again, I had men and women around me who loved me deeply and cared for my emotional and spiritual health. They urged me to begin counseling so that I could grow in greater self-awareness and experience some much-needed healing and freedom.
Codependency in Ministry
With fresh eyes, I’ve had to revisit truths I had written. Not only do I need to regularly remember that Jesus really is sufficient, but I’ve also come to see that I need people of understanding to help me draw out the deep waters of my heart as well.
“We all need friends of understanding who will draw out the deep waters of our hearts.”
I’ve come to see my codependency in ministry and relationships — codependency being defined as I am good only if you are good with me. Or, your outside (response) determines my inside (feelings and beliefs). This codependency has produced in me a false belief that I am overly responsible for the church and the behavior of others. It has also led me to look to others to give me what only Jesus can.
And because I’ve felt overly responsible for others’ behavior and made myself much more in need of others’ approval, I’ve learned to subconsciously maneuver, manipulate, and seek to control others’ behaviors and opinions of me. This is not freedom.
Paul warns against this kind of ministry: “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). When anyone or anything other than Jesus has mastery over us, we are not free.
Sufficiency and Camaraderie
So, what are we to do? First, as I’m still learning to do, we remember and trust in the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for our acceptance, significance, and security. You and I are forgiven, accepted, and made complete not by our own work, but by the work of Jesus Christ.
However, I would expect that, like me, you also need the help of others. Some may find that for a season you need more help than your friends can provide. If so, I urge you to see a gospel-centered counselor who will help you holistically walk through healing and freedom. But more significantly, for the long run, look for men or women of understanding who can come alongside of you as friends, and graciously and lovingly draw out the deep waters of your heart (Proverbs 20:5). People who walk closely with God, have gone through their own journey of healing, have wisdom from God and his word, and love people genuinely and carefully.
Once we find those friends and counselors, we ask them what they see in us. One question I have learned to ask is, What’s it like being on the other side of me? Another helpful question might be, Where do you see me depend more on self or others than on Jesus? Now, in order to have the personal security to even ask this, you will need to go back to step one: Trust in the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for your own sense of acceptance, significance, and security.
As for me, I confess that I am a codependent pastor who is increasingly moving toward greater dependency on Jesus and healthy interdependency on others. How about you?