This post is part of a blog series on Pomomusings, discussing pastoral identity. To read about the series, as well as get a full schedule of participants, click here.
A Pastor’s Witness
When asked to reflect on “pastoral identity,” I realized that at most I know what one of those two words means. A little clarifying helped me understand “identity” as a practical term. Identity, the character by which we are known, reveals itself in the patterns we form. The root of identity, the Latin word identidem, means “repeatedly” or “again and again.” So our identity, in this sense, is comprised of those things that are experienced about us, again and again. Identity asks us to understand who we are through how we are.
Our understanding of those patterns – self-identity – is an intimate but not complete knowledge of how we are experienced and known. We are of course part of all the patterns we make. But what we know best are the motivations that produce those patterns. Self-identity is intimate knowledge of what we intend, as well as an incomplete knowledge of how we are experienced.
I intend to be a witness. In my own walks through a life of struggle and doubt, I have needed the companionship of truth-bearers to remind me that struggle and death and the world’s disarray do not have the last word. The truth has been born in my life through those who have shown up, sat with me and my confusions and angers and fears and tears, and in so doing pointed to something else. It turns out there is something to the something else. Having experienced the something awful and the something else, I too have become a witness to the truth of something else. The story of Jesus the Christ situates the something else in the cosmic fabric of the universe, giving meaning to the journey and hope for what lies ahead.
I remember the first night I spent with my kids before the starry sky. It was an oddly turbulent night, waters roaring up to the beach beneath our feet, but clear views of the deep night sky. We looked up wondrously at the dazzling lights in the dome, and had to shout over the waves. “Daddy, look! I see a flower!” “Dad, look! I see The Hulk!” My dad taught me the constellations on this same beach years ago, the evidence of the divine written down in the night, and as I passed along the ancient illustrations we placed our own inspired discoveries among them. That’s how I think about witness – standing together in the turbulence, before the deep, pointing to the bits of light and what they help us see above us looking down.
The witness takes many forms in a community of faith, of course, but includes especially the housing shelters, vigils, hospital rooms, funeral homes and memorial services – the places a witness is most sought. Most of us know what the gospel says, but we need one another to discover and remember that it is true. Although there are many patterns I experience about myself, some of which I am working on, the deepest sense I have about why God called this fumbly orphan into ministry is as a witness.
The patterns by which we are experienced and known are also more than ours to discover and name. There is a dance between who we intend to be, how we understand ourselves to be, and how others understand us to be. This dance can take the form of feedback loops, which work for good and ill, or the form of people growing in faith and action. But a pastoral identity with integrity, it seems, would be that which is affirmed by how we are experienced in another’s life.
In my experience so far as a pastor, this can serve as a process of evaluation, sure, but also as a process of revelation – that what we are part of is so much bigger than what we do. I’ll never forget the day I stepped into the pulpit and cleared my throat to apologize to the congregation for what they were about to hear. Maybe you know those weeks, when the thoughts and words just do not flow. At the last second, filled with self-disappointment, I chose instead to save my apology for the receiving line, so those people I love could see the sorry in my eyes. I proceeded to give what I maintain is the worst sermon I have yet offered.
And then as I took my place of shame in the receiving line, the very first handshake was accompanied by these words, “that was your best one yet, thank you!” Though deeply, deeply wrong about the sermon, this person proceeded to explain to me their favorite part was something I never said at any point in the service, by scripture or pastor, and it was just the thing he needed in his despairing life. Something moved just as it was needed, despite me. That was a humbling reminder that I am part of something far bigger than what I do. And sometimes, thank God.
I can also remember when a biting critique came my way, and I sought to learn more about where it came from in a one-on-one conversation. There I learned the story behind the critique, which had to do with a moment of my underperformance, sure, but had far more to do with the deep pain this person has experienced, exacerbated by another pastor from another part of her life. I am part of something far bigger than what I do. And sometimes, help, God.
So maybe faithful reflection on pastoral identity, the patterns of experience we generate for ourselves and others, should always be understood in the divine presence and loving will that we proclaim. We cast visions, build and lead community, listen and witness to the stars above our turbulent nights with more at work and at stake in what we do than any of us will ever know. Thanks, God. Please help.
David Lower is Senior Pastor of Winnetka Presbyterian Church in Winnetka, IL. He, his wife Amanda, and their two children live in Northfield, IL.