I was a youth pastor for most of my 20s. And I was all in on being a youth pastor. I got a graduate degree in youth ministry, where I met many of my close friends, who are also youth pastors. I read books, attended and spoke at conferences, and was fluent in the language. I spent Friday nights at football games and weeks in the summer leading mission trips. I let everything from my social media presence to how I dressed (Chacos and baggies, anyone?) be shaped by my identity as a person doing that job.
And then I quit. And in the weeks leading up to my last day, I found myself wrestling with a question: who was I if I wasn’t a youth pastor? How did I define myself outside of my job? It seems like a small question, but the threat can feel existential, particularly for those of us in call-driven jobs. Psychologists would define this as a crisis of ego – not ego the way we use it colloquially, meaning self-absorption, but its clinical meaning – the narrative we tell ourselves about who we are.
When the Story Holds us Back
We are frequently hindered by these sorts of ego crises, both personally and as groups, when faced with some call into change, transition, or innovation, even if the change is widely considered positive. An example might be a church that has considered itself small, having complex feelings about instituting systems for attendance tracking because it doesn’t feel like them. When those changes are more ambivalent, the feelings are even more intense: who are we as a community if we don’t have Sunday school? If our food truck becomes a permanent location? If we shift from one missional focus to one that we think will be more effective?
These questions can cause us to hinder our own progress as leaders, innovators, and organizations. I watched a dear friend, working in a successful, well-funded, large church ministry, pick unnecessary battles because he was so locked into an identity as a scrappy underdog fighting against the system that when the system was on his side, it felt uncomfortable.
Take a moment and consider what ego stories you hold about yourself – are you a solo innovator? A community pastor? A rising star in the system? Or as someone called to undermine it? What about your community – are you a tight-knit family in one community? Or a big-tent standard-bearer for your denomination? There’s nothing wrong with constructing those stories; they are often crucial for a sense of identity in your community.
But what realities could those stories be holding you back from realizing? What is something that God could be calling you or your community to that feels outside of that story? How would you react to that call if you felt it? Would you, or your community, be able to hear and respond to it faithfully?
Ego Death and Resurrection
One of the core processes of our faith is a call into death and then to resurrection. One of the deaths we may be called to, over and over again, is a certain ego death, a dissolution of the story that we have told ourselves about who we are, a detachment from the constructed sense of self to make space for who we will be.
Leading our organizations through this kind of death is terrifying, exciting, and challenging. It requires a deep trust in those parts of our ego that will not and cannot die – as people of God, as those called to follow the prompting of the Spirit into whatever God is doing next. It requires a trust in your community of being knit together by more than a few external identity markers, but instead, a deeper sense of purpose.
This theme of how the stories we tell ourselves hold us back or empower us has come up in this blog fairly regularly over the past few months (like in this blog about video games, and this one about vulnerability), likely as much because of my own process of renegotiating the story of who I am as anything else. I left my job as a youth pastor the first week of August and don’t intend on becoming one again. I’ve spent these past few months moving, setting up a new home, working for Ministry Incubators, and preparing for the next identity I will take up – being a mother.
This will be my last blog for two months as my husband and I welcome twins into our home. We at Ministry Incubators are excited to highlight the voices of some of the other incredible coaches, consultants, and innovators who make up our team. Thank you to any and all of you who have read along and given me this platform to share, learn, and grow with you.
See you in January.