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.
Twenty-five years ago this September, at the First Presbyterian Church of North Arlington, NJ, I was ordained Minister of Word & Sacrament. I answered the Constitutional questions and then knelt for the laying on of hands, which took place several feet away from the font where I was baptized twenty-six years earlier. As I approach the anniversary of my ordination, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a pastor. And so I was grateful for Adam Walker Cleaveland’s invitation to contribute something to this series on pastoral identity.
After twenty-five years of ministry in three very different congregations, I’m still trying to figure what it means to be a pastor. What I have come to know, at least, is this: my pastoral identity is grounded in my baptismal identity and who I am as a child of God is related to my life as a pastor, but they are not the same. I’m grateful that I was ordained where I was baptized. One led to the other, one informs and shapes the other, but they’re not the same. Remembering my baptism grounds me in who I am; it reminds me who I am, first, as a person, as a child of God, and then, second, as a pastor. It’s from out of my baptismal identity that I find I’m being called, again and again, to serve God’s people in particular ways.
Indwelling the connection between baptism and ordination, I’ve come to see that God’s call is to all of me and not just part of me. This relatively recent insight arrived after many years of internal struggle. All of me was and is claimed in the waters of my baptism. Therefore God’s call is directed toward me, to all of me—not part of me, not just the “churchy” part, or the part that had perfect church school attendance, or the Master of Divinity part, or the PresbyGeek part, not just the “religious” or “Christian” or “spiritual part” of me. God summons all of me, the totality of my being, both spirit and body, both who I think I am, consciously, as well as the part of me that is unconscious, unknown to me but known to God.
Why is this so important? Because in ministry it’s so easy to lose one’s soul—and not in a good way. By soul I mean one’s true or core self. And one of the fastest and easiest ways to lose one’s soul is by taking on the expectations and role projections of both congregation and society.
It’s easy for pastors to conflate their self-identities with the image/prestige/influence of the congregations that they serve. Some begin to think they are their congregations, which is disastrous for ministry—both for the minister and for the church. This is how you lose your soul.
It’s easy for pastors to meld their self-identities with their public roles. Then they begin to believe they are their personas, which is also destructive—both for a minister and for a congregation. This, too, is how you lose your soul.
Everyone has a persona. They’re necessary, important. They help us navigate through the world. Our pastoral personas are equally necessary, essential, and, at times, remarkably useful. And, yet, I’ve come to know that while my pastoral persona is how I appear to the world, as well as to myself, it doesn’t exhaust who I am, the core of my being “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).
It was C. G. Jung (1875-1961) who spoke about persona from a psychoanalytic perspective. Originally understood as “the mask worn by an actor, signifying the role [s/he] played,…the persona,” Jung explains, “is nothing real: it is a compromise between the individual and society as to what [one] should be. [S/he] takes a name, earns a title, represents an office,…is this or that. In a certain sense all this is real, yet in relation to the essential individuality of the persona concerned it is only a secondary reality, a product of compromise, in making which others often have a greater share then [s/he.]” (CW, 7:245, 246, emphasis added). The persona is a particular mask, chosen by the ego to hide from or cover something else, which enables one to perform particular roles in society. For most, there is always something of one’s core identity reflected in the persona. Personas are personal, which prevent us from becoming bad actors and complete shams. In extreme cases, however, a persona can be completely at odds with one’s soul, which often leads to vocational crisis and/or psychological breakdown. This is why the persona must not be confused with one’s soul or core self.
Jung reminds us that:
“the Latin persona came from per sonare, to sound through, because masks had a sort of tube inside, from the actor’s mouth into the mouth of the mask, a built-in megaphone to amplify the sound so it would carry.” (C. G. Jung Speaking, 210).
To sound through. I love this image.
We all need a pastoral persona, a kind of mask, unique to each that allows the core self—all that we have individually come to know of God’s grace and goodness in Christ—to sound through. Still, the persona should not be confused with what is trying to sound through us.
I don’t believe the Spirit called me to live out a persona. Instead, rooted in my baptismal identity I struggle to be authentic, hoping that my soul sounds through in the many ways I try to live out my call. Who I am is deeper than my persona, therefore I try to wear this mask gently.
I often draw strength from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s (1906-1945) brutally honest poem, WHO AM I?, included among his Letters and Papers from Prison. In this piece we’re privy to a conversation he’s having with himself as he tries to reclaim his soul, as it were, out from under his pastoral identity or role. As a prisoner of the Third Reich in Tegel prison in Berlin, awaiting execution, Bonhoeffer ministered to his fellow prisoners, they became his congregation. Here in this piece, from July 1944, we find a seasoned pastor wrestling with who he is.
Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though is were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of the birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
Ken Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, MD, and has served churches in St. Andrews, Scotland (UK) and Mendham, NJ. He studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in theology from the University of St. Andrews. Ken is on the board of both the Covenant Network and Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary. He’s is the author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011), writes for Lectionary Homiletics, The Presbyterian Outlook, The Zurich Lab[oratory] and (slowly) writing a book on C. G. Jung and the Christian life. His sermons may be found at On the Way. You can find him on Twitter @KenKovacs.