A woman sits in front of me as I interview her. She has served as a pastor for many years in a variety of positions – from those rural ‘family chapel’ assignments that can be at times so difficult to manage for a solo pastor, to urban multi-staff congregations. She narrates stories of painful struggle with the all-too human reality of the ‘Body of Christ’, and the quiet joy of feeling a very real part of God’s effort in reaching human beings. ‘This is what I was designed to do. I feel as if my true self, with all its talents and capabilities, has found its purpose and fulfillment in what I do’. Her enthusiasm and energy are palpable as she speaks.
Yet the experience of working as a pastor can be less fulfilling. Loneliness, financial struggles, disappointments, theological disagreements, conflicts with colleagues or church members, or simply the ordinary wear and tear of a life constantly lived ‘on stage’ can more or less inadvertently bring pastors’ professional journey to a crossroad. The distance between the role they perform and their true self, their inner aspirations and convictions, may appear as insurmountable. In these cases, how do clergy manage the divide between their identity and their calling?
Speaking about personal identity may be very difficult; in the case of clergy, it may be even perceived as shameful and inappropriate. After all, until not long ago the ‘template’ pastors were called to conform to emphasized values such as self-denial and self-sacrifice as absolutely central to their profession. Yet the relationship between personal identity and professional calling plays a crucial role in determining clergy’s wellbeing.
Studying this relationship constitutes the very center of the Flourishing in Ministry research. Identity can be defined as the way people answer the question ‘who am I, and why do I exist?’. The answer to this question is often multifaceted and dynamic; it evolves through time and can be differently expressed depending on the context. It comprises personal characteristics (‘I’m an introvert’, or ‘I’m kind’), social roles (‘I’m a pastor’, or ‘I’m a mother, a father, a friend’), demographic characteristics (‘I’m a woman’, ‘I’m am an Asian’), and, most importantly, core values, beliefs, passions and ideals.
Individuals create their identities as stories they narrate about who they are. Through these stories, we try to make sense of our past, present and future as a coherent whole. They are the way through which ‘people convey to themselves and to others who they are now, how they came to be, and where they think their lives may be going in the future’ (McAdams, 2013: 233). The building blocks of our stories are our defining memories – memories that at a more or less conscious level, reveal something meaningful and important about what uniquely defines us. Shaping the story of who we are, however, is not a solitary exercise: we always tell our story with a context and an audience in mind – be that our friends, our wife or children, or our work supervisor. Stories always place us in a web of relationships, and are negotiated based on cultural and social expectations. Thus, for instance, the way I define who I am may be very different depending on whether I am interacting with my senior pastor, my church members, my friends, my husband, or my wife. Depending on the characteristics these roles imply, they can be a natural fit for some people, or a real impossibility for others.
How do you experience the relationship between your personal identity and your role as a professional? Do they ‘fit’ most of the time? Does your story feel as a coherent and purposeful whole, or does it appear as somewhat unfinished, disconnected, and waiting for a meaning?