Some household chores are more enjoyable than others. One that I don’t particularly enjoy is balancing my checkbook. However, one Saturday per month, I print off my latest bank statement, and I walk line by line through each transaction to make sure that I have included it in my personal checkbook register. Occasionally, I’ll discover some transactions that I failed to document.
There have also been a couple of times when I found a transaction that I did not authorize. After calling the bank to inquire about it, I discovered that I had been the victim of identity theft. Someone pretended to be me to use my bank account to make purchases for themselves.
If you have ever had a similar experience, you’re not alone. As our society shifts to more and more online transactions, identity theft cases continue to increase. According to the Federal Trade Commission, there were nearly 1.4 million stolen identity reports in 2020, about twice as many as in 2019.
Financial identity theft is a huge problem. So is pastoral identity theft.
Pastoral Identity Theft Defined
Pastoral identity theft occurs when pastors begin to allow their ministry to define their identity. They forget about who they are in Christ and begin to define themselves by what they do for Christ. It’s a subtle temptation, but it has devastating consequences. I should know because I have fallen prey to pastoral identity theft more times than I can count.
In his book Dangerous Calling, Paul David Tripp explains, “Human beings are always assigning to themselves some kind of identity. There are only two places to look. Either you will be getting your identity vertically, from who you are in Christ, or you will be shopping for it horizontally in the situations, experiences, and relationships of your daily life. This is true for everyone, but I am convinced that getting one’s identity horizontally is a particular temptation for those in ministry” (p. 22).
Our vertical identity in Christ is quite simple. We are sinners saved by grace. We are recipients of countless spiritual blessings in Christ. We are objects of God’s sanctifying power. We are part of His redeemed family. This is true for every Christian – including pastors.
However, whenever a pastor experiences pastoral identity theft, his title becomes the most important descriptor of who he thinks he is. He allows his title as pastor to determine his self-worth. He allows his title to affect the way he treats others. He allows His title to influence the way he reads the Bible. Everything is filtered through the lens of his pastoral identity.
If he is not careful, this mindset can quickly lead to pride and arrogance. It convinces the pastor that he has arrived spiritually – that he doesn’t struggle with sin the way everyone else does. It tricks him into thinking that others need him, but he doesn’t need them. It fuels feelings of spiritual superiority. And nothing could be further from the truth.
Consider Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14. The Pharisee was convinced that he was spiritually better than others, while the tax collector pleaded for God’s mercy because he rightfully acknowledged that he was a sinner. Jesus concluded the parable by saying, “I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Pastors who fall prey to pastoral identity theft are much like the Pharisee who exalted himself. We forget who we really are.
Characteristics of Pastoral Identity Theft
Again, Paul David Tripp offers several helpful characteristics of those who allow their ministry to define them. Read his words slowly and carefully: “There are many pastors who have inserted themselves into a spiritual category that doesn’t exist. Like me, they think they are someone they’re not. So they respond in ways that they shouldn’t, and they develop habits that are spiritually dangerous. They are content with a devotional life that either doesn’t exist or is constantly kidnapped by preparation. They are comfortable with living outside of or above the body of Christ. They are quick to minister but not very open to being ministered to. They have long since quit seeing themselves with accuracy and so tend not to receive well the loving confrontation of others. And they tend to carry this unique-category identity home with them and are less than humble and patient with their families” (p. 23).
Left unchecked, pastoral identity theft is disastrous for the pastor, his family, and his church.
A Necessary Reminder
If you are a pastor who has experienced pastoral identity theft once or a thousand times, I want to share a brief reminder with you that has helped to recalibrate my mindset many times. Whenever I’m tempted to allow my ministry to define who I am, I repeat the following words: who you are in Christ is more important than what you do for Christ.
Don’t get me wrong. What you do for Christ matters. The ministry you carry out as a pastor is a gift to the church. However, that’s not who you are.
- A sinner saved by God’s grace. Never forget that you were – and are – a sinner. Prior to your salvation, you were an enemy of God. You were an object of His wrath. You were destined to spend eternity receiving just punishment for your sins in a place called hell. But by God’s grace, He saved you! You have received the unmerited favor of the Almighty. Although you still struggle with sin every day, you have inherited eternal life in Christ. Your eternal destiny is secure!
- A recipient of countless spiritual blessings. By God’s grace, you have received every spiritual blessing in Christ. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 1 that God chose us in him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him. We have been adopted as God’s children. We have redemption through Christ’s blood, the forgiveness of sin. In him we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it. God has been incredibly gracious to sinners like you and me! In addition, God has given you spiritual gifts to carry out the work He has for you to do. Whenever you’re tempted to allow your ministry to become your identity, remember that God is the one who has called and equipped you to serve as a pastor. He could have just as easily called and equipped you to serve Him in some other way. No matter how God has gifted and called you, you are a recipient of His infinite blessings!
- An object of God’s sanctifying power. As you serve as a pastor, you do so as one who doesn’t have it all together. When God saved you, He did not immediately make you perfect. You still make mistakes. You still battle sinful tendencies. Sometimes you are victorious over temptation. Sometimes you’re not. But the good news is that you don’t fight the battle of the Christian life alone. God gave you His Holy Spirit who is daily working in your life to sanctify you. To make you more like Christ today than you were yesterday. Whenever you mess up, you can have the confidence that God doesn’t immediately discard you. He is still molding you into who He wants you to become. I wish I could say sanctification was a quick process, but it takes a lifetime. Therefore, remember that you’ll never arrive spiritually until you are in His presence and hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
- A part of the Body of Christ. While you serve in a significant role in the church as its pastor, you are only one part of the Body of Christ. You serve a purpose, but you don’t serve every purpose. Remember that it was God who called and equipped you to serve as a pastor while He called and equipped others to serve in different ways in the church. Just because you hold the title of pastor doesn’t mean that other members of the church are less important in God’s eyes. It simply means that every member has a different role, and every role is needed. As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 12:21-22, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ Or again, the head can’t say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that are weaker are indispensable.” As a pastor, you need the other parts of the Body!
As a pastor, you are a sinner saved by God’s grace. You are a recipient of God’s countless spiritual blessings. You are an object of God’s sanctifying power. And you are a part of the Body of Christ. Just like every other member.
That’s who you are in Christ!
When You Lose Your Mistaken Identity
I’ve heard many stories of pastors who have experienced an abrupt change in their ministry assignment. Some have been forced to resign because of church conflict. Some have had to take on a second source of income to make ends meet. Some have had stepped away from the ministry due to a moral failure or personal matter.
For those whose identity is defined by their ministry, their mistaken identity is stripped away, and they experience an identity crisis, unsure of who they are or what their purpose is. If you ever find yourself in that situation, remember that who you are in Christ is more important than what you do for Christ. Find your identity in your Savior and nowhere else!