When pastors and leaders base their identity on their performance, they run the risk of being crushed by actual or apparent failures. On the other hand, when their identity is based on grace, mercy and love, they are able to be more resilient in times of crisis.
Basing one’s identity on grace, mercy and love requires knowing oneself and facing internal fears. Two military veterans—Cmdr. Bruce Crouterfield, a Navy and Marine chaplain with more than 32 years of service, and Master Sgt. John Rudd, a Marine explosive ordnance disposal team leader—shared these lessons in a recent webinar for pastors and leaders provided by Dallas Baptist University.
Relationship with self
We don’t think much about that “we do have a relationship with self,” Crouterfield said. Responding to people who say that idea is “too Freudian,” he pointed to the book of Proverbs and its counsel to know ourselves. He made clear he wasn’t talking about a narcissistic loving of oneself.
For many leaders, he said, relationships are based on performance, not on grace, mercy and love. Marines and sailors often base their relationship with themselves on performance because of their military identity. This can create profound internal struggle if they fail or have left the service.
If my identity is based on performance, what happens when I fail, Crouterfield asked. Guilt, shame, fear—there’s nowhere else to go—because my relationship with me is based on performance, he said. Failure then can lead to self-loathing and self-judgment.
Christians, however, have a primary relationship with God entirely based on grace. “If my relationship with me is not based on grace, have I truly … accepted the grace of God in my life?” Crouterfield asked.
To shift from a performance-based to a grace-based relationship with self, Crouterfield said we need to take more seriously the biblical instruction to guard our hearts. Simply not letting any sin into our lives is a shallow position for guarding our hearts, he said. Instead, we need to know what’s going in, what’s going out and what’s going on inside our hearts.
Crouterfield suggested the following practice: Before prayer, he sits down in his office, gets quiet and inventories what’s going on in his heart. He asks himself: “Am I carrying any anger today, and what’s behind it? Am I carrying any sadness … guilt or shame … fear?”
He always ends with: “Am I carrying any joy or happiness … what’s behind it?”
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In five to six minutes using this practice, he has better understanding of “what’s going on in [his] soul.” It also helps his mind slow down, wander less during prayer and focus on God.
Personal story of a sense of failure
While deployed in Iraq, Crouterfield was sent to a forward operating base to provide a service for Marines there. Right before he arrived, the foot patrol went out, and he lost half of his congregation, which led him to ask: “Why am I doing this? Does anybody care?”
Frequently, he found himself sweaty, dusty and worn out, leading three to four people at a time in worship. So, he asked 100 Marines: “When you think of a chaplain … what do you think of? Who are we to you?”
“You’re pastors,” they responded, which Crouterfield was happy to hear, since that’s what he thought of himself, wanted to do and sensed God called him to be.
Crouterfield wanted to understand more about what the chaplain core calls “ministry of presence.” He wanted to know if there is value to it, and why.
All 100 Marines he interviewed confirmed the value of his ministry of presence, but for different reasons. Some said they felt safer when a chaplain was there. Some said a chaplain is like their gas mask, which they never want to use but are glad it’s there. Others said when a chaplain is around, “the gunnery sergeant is a lot nicer.”
From these responses, he learned when the chaplain is present, people feel safer, they’re comforted, and their behavior changes. Isn’t that what the presence of God is supposed to do, he concluded.
Paul taught the church in Corinth they are an aroma of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14-16). Crouterfield asked if ministry leaders can find their identity in being such an aroma. Ministers can know they have succeeded in being that kind of aroma if people experience grace and truth when in the minister’s presence.
Facing the worst fears
“We interact with fear all the time,” Rudd said, making a distinction between external and internal fear.
Modern people most often respond to external fear by gathering as much information as they need to feel better. This is true in business, sports and the military, he said. Modern people face internal fear by learning more about themselves, their personalities, motivations and intentions.
Facing internal fears requires dealing with the “rudder in our lives”—our identity, Rudd said.
If being a Marine is the basis of one’s identity, Rudd said, then when a person isn’t a Marine anymore, all of a sudden, the center of gravity shifts, the plot is lost, and the person is vulnerable.
Rudd’s struggle with his identity came in 2015. Up to then, his military service and the badges and ribbons on his chest—like the Bronze Star he received in 2011—were the driving factor for his identity. Then he reached a point when none of that mattered anymore.
With the ground of his identity shaken, he realized he hadn’t nourished the actual elements of his identity—his relationship with God, his wife and his children. Not having fed the primary and lasting sources of his identity, Rudd was left vulnerable.
Rudd counseled pastors and leaders to look at themselves, be honest and have a personal mission statement—or as Simon Sinek says, a “why.” Doing these things makes a person less vulnerable under pressure and in the midst of suffering. Grounding them in one’s identification with God frees them from being subject to the “moving target” of circumstances.