Pastor, Remember Where Your Identity Is Found Before You Retire


John Newton, former slave trader turned minister and hymnwriter, lay dying. Barely audible, he uttered, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior.” He made no mention of extraordinary hymns he wrote, or sermons he preached, or men he mentored.

A great sinner. A greater Savior. That’s what lingered in John Newton’s mind when he faced eternity.

That keen focus on eternity didn’t start as he lay dying. Newton had long labored to keep his eyes on Christ and eternity, rather than fame and adulation. He didn’t see himself, or pastors in general, as indispensable. We can hear this in his letter to John Ryland Jr. about Andrew Fuller’s serious illness:

I hope that he and you and I shall all so live, as to be missed a little when we are gone. But the Lord standeth not in need of sinful man. And he sometimes takes away his most faithful and honored ministers in the midst of their usefulness perhaps [for this reason] among other reasons, that he may show us he can do without them.[1]

The Lord can do without us. And yet in his wise purposes and for his good pleasure, he appoints us for a season to shepherd a little portion of his flock until he’s ready to appoint another.

We may nod agreeably at that sentiment. But living it—pressing on in life after letting go of a pastoral charge—is quite another challenge. Pastoral ministry brings unmeasured joys and opportunities, challenges and trials. Nothing quite compares to it. However, if our identity is preaching and pastoring, what happens when we no longer stand before people to preach and pastor? We must labor to have our identity fixed on Christ and eternity with him.

I recently heard Matt McCullough tell fellow pastors, “We’re pilgrims being formed for heaven.” We’re not only readying others for heaven. We’re on that journey. We must get our eyes on the destination and not linger too long on the preparation. Consider a few helps in this pilgrim journey.

Familiar Patterns in Ministry

Pastors spend countless hours doing their jobs. Twelve to twenty hours a week in sermon preparation is normal. Hours spent counseling members, preparing for worship gatherings, and interacting with fellow pastors fill a week. Pastors begin and lead new ministries. They show up at the hospital after a happy birth. They show up at the hospital after a surprising death. They rejoice and they comfort. They do premarital counseling and plan a wedding ceremony. They travel out of town for the wedding weekend. They counsel and pray for someone trapped in sin. They meet with fellow elders to pray, plan, and mobilize care for the flock. Rarely do pastors accomplish all they hoped in a given week.

Then we stand before our people on Sundays; their eyes and ears are locked on us. We receive their comments, greet them at the door, see wounds in their eyes, and listen to sins confessed. We share joys and sorrows. We point them to Christ, but we know how easy it is to become the center of our congregation’s attention. They know us. They trust us.

And then we leave. That’s when reality hits.

Reality Settles In

Suddenly, you announce you’re stepping down, and you’re no longer at the forefront. Your wife is no longer the church’s “first lady.” You no longer get calls asking for your counsel. You’re not the first to know about an ER visit or baby born. No longer do you hear the knock at the study door. You once thought of this as an interruption, but now you long for it, missing how often someone found encouragement from your counsel. You no longer lead worship gatherings or staff meetings. You don’t direct the church’s mission or budget. You’re no longer the man everyone looks and listens to.

If your pastoral position has become your identity, then get ready for despondency to follow. Get ready for lethargy and restlessness to strike. You can only pull so many weeds from your garden to distract your thoughts from the aimlessness you feel. That is, unless you’ve prepared.

A Better Way

If we wisely prepare, then stepping out of the lead pastor’s limelight will feel more like reaching a mountain’s peak as opposed to stopping mid-ascent. Consider three practices to reshape pastoral identity.

First, Focus on the Eternal

“We’re pilgrims being formed for heaven.” When returning from their ministry assignment, filled with elation over successfully exercising their gifts, Jesus told the seventy-two, “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).

Yes, we point people to heaven as a normal duty, but do we meditate on heaven? Do we long to see Jesus face-to-face? Do we discipline ourselves to “set [our] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2)?

Make this focus on heaven a regular part of your prayer and meditation.

Second, Aim to Keep the Faith

Some grow crotchety late in ministry, others cynical. That wasn’t Paul’s heart in 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” He persevered through massive struggles in ministry. He kept the faith.

Do we keep the faith? Do we daily consider the promises of Jesus secured in the gospel and rest in them by faith? Do we progress in trusting Christ? That kind of perseverance in the faith prepares us for whatever God’s providence hands us.

Third, Be Steady in Your Christian Walk

As Peter ended his second epistle, he turned to the reality of Christ’s return, and with it, the cataclysmic reversal of everything touched and affected by the fall. With that in view, he counseled, “You therefore, beloved . . . take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:17–18).

Observe four practices that fix identity on Christ and eternity: (1) Remember the judgment that follows Christ’s return. (2) Avoid licentious patterns. (3) Remain steady in habits of trusting and obeying Christ. (4) Keep growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ.

Fourth, Remember You’re a Church Member Before You’re a Pastor

You did not begin life as a pastor. Christ met you in saving grace. In his mercies, you became part of a church body through baptism and their welcome. By the Lord’s kindness, the local church nurtured you in the faith and affirmed your ministry call. Return to your roots in the church as a member who loves and encourages his pastors, who prays for fellow members, and who readily serves as you’ve called others to do for years. Perhaps, as a member, you’ll help nurture and affirm a young man who will pastor as you did.

The habits and patterns of our spiritual focus in the present will prepare us for the day when we’re not front-and-center. Will we miss it? Probably so, but if we’ve learned to focus on eternity, keep the faith, and remain steady in our Christian walks, then when that transition comes, it’s just that: a transition, not our demise.

Pastoral ministry is not ultimate. It’s far sweeter to taste this reality: we are great sinners with a greater Savior.

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[1] Grant Gordon, ed., Wise Counsel, 280

Phil Newton

Phil A. Newton serves as director of pastoral care and mentoring for the Pillar Network after pastoring for 44 years, the last 35 at South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which he planted in 1987.

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