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12 Defining Moments: The Moment of Self-Understanding

Do I know who I am?
12 Defining Moments: The Moment of Self-Understanding
Image: Trifonov_Evgeniy / Getty Images

Editor’s Note: If you have missed any articles in this series, be sure to check out the Introduction article, where you can find all of the articles that have been released.

Back when European mapmakers traversed the world mapping out unexplored regions, one of their occupational dreads was something called horror vacui. It was a fear of leaving empty spaces. So, where they had no firsthand information, they would fill in the maps with their own imagination, adding sea monsters and mythical islands.

Sometimes we do this with pastoral identity. Having received our vocational birthright, we step into our call, having little firsthand information as to what defines a pastor. We begin to fill in the blank spaces, often allowing congregants to do the work for us. Many are willing. They have their own perceptions that sometimes include their own monsters.

Who is a pastor? In other professions, people seem to negotiate their own narrative and gain a realistic sense of who they are. But who are we? Who am I when I stand in the pulpit, walk into a hospital room, or sit with the elders? These are vexing questions. A recent book begins with the sentence, “Pastors don’t know who they are or what they are supposed to be. Perhaps no profession in the modern world suffers from a greater lack of clarity as to the basic requirements of the job.”

Losing My Way

Some pastors do get lost and need to recover. Others have never had a map. The latter was true of me. Perhaps I was too distracted, too overwhelmed trying to discern the convolutions of leading a church. What I knew for sure was that I inherited a calcified congregation that had chosen to live in the past. They held on to archaic definitions and outmoded maps.

Some expected me to work from existing psychological charts, fulfilling the position of personal therapist. Those who were immersed in leadership cartography shaded my job description with management markings. They expected me to be a successful CEO, one with shopkeeper’s concerns—"How to keep the customers happy, lure them away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that customers will lay out more money.”

Run, John, run. I was trying to keep up with all their plotted routes. I was walking through life amassing a sense of who I was, an aggregate of what I thought everyone else thought of me. I was not alone. Other pastors admitted that they did not know who they were.

Finding the Path

Amid such confusion, I believe God brings us to another defining moment. It happened to me. Sitting at my desk in the initial week of my second church ministry, an international church in the Netherlands, this growing sense of disorientation came to a head. I was about to experience another chapter in my own horror vacui. If I did not fill in the empty spaces, a new congregation would contribute to the drawings. I would need to settle this question of identity once and for all.

I had to get a grasp of God’s map, one that is grounded in Scripture and theological integrity. Like an archeologist sifting through the ruins, I began to go to work. I would have to search for pastoral traditions that had been covered up by years of neglect and misunderstanding. I began with those who had a long history of—and careful training—in reading ancient maps. I gave myself to searching the mind of God.

For most theologians, the landscape begins with God. As one writer put it, “Pastors do what they do because of who God is and what God does.” Jesus must be the focus. He is the minister par excellence.

I was also discovering that Scripture’s use of metaphors provides a compelling portrait of a pastor. Images of shepherd, steward, ambassador, and nursing mother fill in the spaces.

Still, I kept excavating.

Going further back I came upon the initial pastors of the Old Testament, the prophets, priests, and kings. They were the core influencers in Israel. These offices became the central organizing principal of early Protestant Christological teaching. Christ united, displayed, and consummated all three. He came as the one true Prophet, the perfect High Priest, and the King of Kings (John 8:26, Heb. 4:14-15, Rev. 19:16).

Often left out is a fourth office, the office of sage. In at least one Old Testament book, the wise are included with the other offices (cf. Jer. 18:18). This further filled in the map.

All four have a particular relationship to who I am and what I do, especially in the pulpit, in the sanctuary, in the study, and in the boardroom. Though our gifts will cause some roles to be more predominant, we cannot allow any to be absent from who we are. Otherwise, there can be a loss of center in ministry.

The Pastor as Prophet

Early in the Old Testament narrative, men and women were called out and tasked with speaking for God. They stood in the council of God where they received a divine revelation (Jer. 23:16-18). Prophets were lightning rods who attracted conflict. They spoke with an authority that transcended the nations and dismantled the prevailing order of things.

Prophetic influence surpassed the power of kings, Gradually, those of the monarchy receded into the background as prophets, like Elijah and Elisha, took center stage. In almost every encounter, they systematically ripped to pieces Israel’s confidence in everything but the omnipotent mercy and patience of God. They called people back to the bedrock doctrines of scriptural orthodoxy.

Pastors have the same calling. We enter the silence and wait for a word from God. We speak whatever God reveals, even if it invites reproach and derision. We are bound to speak against the status quo, penetrating self-deceptions, exposing the gods people worship, and pointing people to an authority far higher than that which is political.

The Pastor as Priest

For some of us in the Protestant tradition, we might get “edgy and apologetic” when thinking of ourselves as priests. But there is a continuity of this role that pastors must also embrace.

Like the prophet, the priesthood is the common property of all believers (Acts 2:17; 1 Pet. 2:5, 9). The body of Christ is a royal priesthood offering up spiritual sacrifices and mediating Christ to the world. Nonetheless, there is a dimension to believer priests that is different for those in ordained ministry, one that shapes our pastoral vocation. These are our priestly duties.

Facilitate the Carrying out of Ritual

In ancient Israel, priests maintained the sanctuary. They oversaw various cultic acts. Priests were the chief liturgists, ensuring that things were done with order, dignity, and reverence (Num. 1:53).

Pastors fill a similar role. We have a liturgical responsibility to watch over the sacred ceremony. Every worship service has its rituals and ceremonial rites. These include invocation, public prayer, singing of song, reading of the scriptures, preaching, sacraments, and benediction. A pastor is the overseer of these practices.

Bring an Offering

One of the earliest rituals in worship was sacrifice. It was the central act in Israel’s cult, one attended to by the priest. Here, in the shedding of blood, sinful humanity found grace and the divine-human covenant was reestablished.

A pastor also comes to the altar, but unlike the Old Testament priest, we are no longer an offeror of sacrifice according to the Levitical pattern. Jesus is our sinless offering, shedding his blood and paying forever the price of our failures (Heb. 9:26). Nevertheless, the pastor comes to the altar with the sacrifice of self and praise (Rom. 12:1; Heb. 13:15). We lay before God our ministry and our people. We do the hard work of reconciling humanity with God and one another, and we plead that our people become an offering acceptable to God (2 Cor. 5:20; Rom. 15:16).

Stand in the Middle

The priest in Israel stood at the center of the divine-human relationship. They facilitated the meeting between God and his people, an encounter going two directions. Before God, they represented the people and their needs. Before the people, they represented God’s presence and purposes.

Like the Old Testament priest, pastors also stand in this mysterious in-between, representing both the congregants to God and God to the people. On behalf of the world, I come before God to hold up the human condition and make intercession for God’s mercy (Joel 2:17; 1 Tim. 2:1-2). For my people, I plead that God will strengthen hearts (Eph. 3:14-19). I pray against the evils of this world and beg for justice. With Christ, who lives to make intercession (Heb. 7:25), I make requests that others, caught up in their sins, will not ask. It’s a high and holy task. Intercession is our central priestly act.

In this middle place, I turn to the people and carry out the responsibility of representing God, be it in the sanctuary, in a hospital room, at a board meeting, or in the study.

With the Old Testament priest, I too am entrusted with the revelation of God and his will. I am called to reinforce the obligations of the covenant—the new covenant—for the purpose of keeping the people faithful before God (Deut. 31:9-13; 2 Cor. 3:6).

Be Holy

No other Old Testament office reinforces the reality that ours is a vocation to holiness. It was required that the priests of Israel be consecrated before carrying out their tasks. They received a special anointing, setting them apart for sacred use (Exod. 28:41).

Pastors are also called to a particular life of consecration. We have this holy mandate to conduct ourselves with seriousness and dignity. We seek for God’s anointing when we preach. We preside over a sacramental table, offering broken bread and poured wine in a spirit of holy fear (1 Cor 11:17-32).

Bring a Blessing

Finally, the priest had a high responsibility to bless the people (Lev. 9:22; Num. 6:22-27). A blessing gave hope. In the benediction, the priest summarized the inheritance God would bring to those who would trust him. It was a declaration that the flourishing of human beings and all God’s creatures in the presence of God is God’s foremost concern for everything that he has made.

In my identity as a priest, I have this same work of ministering a benediction (cf. Rom. 15:13; 2 Cor. 13:14; 2 Thess. 2:16-17). In this priestly act, we send people out, imparting God’s grace to lives that enter the sanctuary battered and bruised and confused. We join with Jabez, seeking God to bless and enlarge our lives (1 Chron. 4:9-10).

If we find ourselves uncomfortable with the priestly identity, we are ignoring the role of Jesus as our high priest, who serves as our example. We are overlooking the Apostle Paul, who summarized his work as a priestly duty and saw himself as a drink offering, one in the process of being poured out in addition to his sacrifices (Rom. 15:16; Phil. 2:17; 2 Tim. 4:6).

The Pastor as King

Leadership is a critical part of a pastor’s identity. Congregants expect pastors to lead. But what does this mean? Just how much authority comes with the pastoral office?

The office of an Old Testament king gives some framework to this third role. It’s not that I am to wear a crown and reign over a church (though some pastors seem to rule as monarchs!). From the beginning, the king was obligated to fulfill certain covenantal expectations, “under-kings” serving the King of Kings. Among them:

  • Instill order, guard the boundaries, and steward the resources—David
  • Mediate God’s justice—Lemuel
  • Discern and exercise wisdom—Solomon
  • Bring about needed reforms—Asa
  • Impart a vision and a strategy—Jehoshaphat
  • Lead people into battle—Uzziah
  • Call people back to God—Josiah
  • Serve the people—Jesus

Retracing these, I found that each one applies to me. Who am I? I am summoned to serve, to provide leadership similar to that of the Old Testament king. As an overseer, I guard the church. I seek ways to upend the status quo and bring needed reform. Pastors must be missional, visionary, strategic, and tactical. In this spiritual war we face, I must lead the people against strongholds that threaten our existence.

At the same time, I must heed the same warnings given to ancient royalty (Deut. 17:14-20). I am not to use my position to amass power and wealth, nor assert myself in a Caesarian way, as superior to others. There is no place for bully-pulpits and ministerial abuse. Like the kings, pastors must also curb their ambitions and walk in fear of the Lord. Like the ultimate King, Jesus, I am called to bring a towel and a basin and wash off the grime of the world.

The Pastor as Sage

The sage completes the answer to the question of identity. Looking back, they were part of a class of notables who associated with the priests, the prophets, and the kings. The large section of wisdom books in the Old Testament argues for the existence of a sapiential office, one that played a vital part in the training of a nation. They were indispensable for they understood—above others—that folly is behind most of history’s tragedies.

The wise were tasked with being professional observers of life, keeping data on how things worked. These were some of their observations:

  • Life has its rhythm. Getting in step is what leads to order.
  • Life has its realities. Ignoring them leads to disorder.
  • God has his wisdom. It transcends every other kind of wisdom. Divine wisdom enables one to discern what is actual and get in sync with God’s cadences.
  • Wisdom is in the hunt for us.

The sage of ancient times was a composer making use of poetic lines to compare and contrast. They and their peers compressed life experiences into easy to grasp admonitions. Ultimate realities were distilled into brief two-line dissertations, inviting the listener to stand in the middle and learn.

The more I explored this final office, the more I realized that this is also who pastors are. They present two roads and two ways. They point to what logically follows obedience and disobedience. Like one observing the phenomena of thunder and lightning and concluding that it generally means impending rain, so the force of a harsh word normally leads to anger; deferred hope is usually followed by a sickness of the soul; and lives that drift often end up in the wrong house (Prov. 15:1; 13:12; 7:8-22).

Soon enough, a pastor realizes it is not enough to exegete the text and immerse people with knowledge. A pastor’s work is to understand how to apply truth to life. Part of this happens in the latter part of a sermon, but a more significant part takes place in the personal ministry of counsel. Here, in the privacy of an office and in the spirit of the sage, we give rules for steering. We help people discover prudence for life decisions, discretion in when and what to say, understanding when life does not make sense, and the fear of God in everything we do.


At some point, every pastor must get one’s identity sorted out. One must discover the paths. There can be no white spaces. If one is listening to the Spirit, there comes a defining moment when God forces us to face this question, “Who am I?”

Reflecting on these four offices, I have found that they are central to a pastor’s identity. They provide the boundaries. Any expectations placed upon me must fit within the framework of these four.

John E. Johnson is an adjunct professor of Pastoral Theology and Leadership at Western Seminary in Portland, OR. He has served as a lead pastor for thirty five years, and currently is a writer working on his fourth book, as well as serving as an interim teaching pastor.