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  • Garth Leno

Search for identity

WINDSOR, ONTARIO – In a recent sermon I disclosed something that made people wince.

“For the first five years of my pastoral ministry in a small church in Canada, I did not take a day off, except for vacation. Five years of non-stop work, seven days a week.”

I felt justified. People around me, living without Jesus, were on their way to hell. How could I stand by and imperturbably take a day off? They needed me. God needed me (or so I thought). 

The Bible says that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how can they call on Jesus to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in Jesus if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about Jesus unless someone like me tells them (Rom. 10:14)?

So, yes, I felt justified working around the clock. God needed me to declare the gospel so they could be saved. Wrong on so many fronts! God does not need me. He is not served by human hands as if he needed anything (Acts 17:25)! He loves me and he welcomes my service in the name of Jesus but he is not dependent on me. Sadly, my theology and the mission of God back then were not as compelling as my identity crisis.

Pastors either get their identity vertically, from who they are in Christ, or they shop for it horizontally in the experiences and relationships of ministry. That was my biggest problem. I excused my workaholic tendencies by appealing to the lostness of mankind, but the way I worked my fingers to the bone and neglected my marriage and family proved that my horizontal search for affirmation was clearly misdirected and hazardously mismanaged.

Paul Tripp speaks to this tendency in most of us. He suggests that many church leaders place themselves into a nonexistent spiritual category and see themselves as “arrived” or spiritually mature, or in my case, indispensable. They are quick to minister to others, but slow to receive ministry from others. But, whenever we place our identity in ministry instead of Jesus, then a distorted and skewed sense of self-awareness, pride, and sin will result.

Our identity should be found in Jesus only who freely lavishes grace upon us and transforms our hearts, minds, and souls (Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. Crossway, 2012).

In an article for The Gospel Coalition website, Tripp adds a bit of his own testimony:

Ministry had become my identity. I didn’t think of myself as a child of God, in daily need of grace, in the middle of my own sanctification, still battling with sin, still in need of the body of Christ, and called to pastoral ministry. No, I thought of myself as a pastor. That’s it, bottom line. The office of pastor was more than a calling and set of God-given gifts that had been recognized by the body of Christ. Pastor defined me.


When we derive identity from ministry we develop spiritually unsafe habits. We allow inconsistent devotional habits to take shape, read the Bible only for sermon preparation, and worship songs no longer find the soft spot in our hearts. Loving correction from faithful friends are suspect at best, and often interpreted as betrayal. Ministry as identity is a dangerous place for anyone to live, but especially an elder or pastor.

If you find yourself in this space, get alone with God. Seek his face and cry out. Remember all that he has done for you. Repent of your sinful passion to find yourself in what you do, in your performance. Restore your first love in Jesus. Recalibrate your heart for the journey ahead.

When Jesus spoke to the church at Ephesus, he said,

“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance…. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent”

(Rev. 5:2-5 ESV).


You may be working hard every day, toiling for the sake of gospel, ministering to your church family, patiently enduring whatever trial is in front of you, and you are doing it for the name and fame of Jesus. But if you forsake your first love in the process, exchanging worship for work, pursuing a sense of worth from work, then it’s all for nothing. Remember what God has done. Repent of your self-sufficiency. Restore your first love.

Acceptance by God has nothing to do with performance.



Dr. Garth Leno is the Pastor/Planter Care Specialist with the BSCM. He serves in a similar role with the Canadian National Baptist Convention, and he is the founding pastor of The Gathering Church in Windsor, Ontario, a church he planted with his wife, Patty, and a few of their friends.


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