Jun 18, 2018
Misplaced Identity in College Ministry Success
Darrick Smith shares a personal story of misplacing his identity in college ministry success, only to be reminded of the true, lasting hope in the Gospel.
It was the spring semester of my second year on a college ministry staff. I remember vividly going to bed at night for about a week crying quietly so that I wouldn’t disturb my wife. I was frustrated with where we were as a ministry.
I was believing the lies that ran through my head over and over. They were like a broken record.
It’s my fault.
I didn’t disciple them well.
I didn’t train them well.
The vision wasn’t clear.
My recruiting skills weren’t polished enough.
I’m not a good communicator.
I’m a failure.
That semester church attendance plummeted. Students were inconsistent in discipleship groups. Students became lazy in evangelism and the few students that signed up for our summer mission project ALL dropped out.
Should this be happening to me? I mean, I’ve worked hard. I’ve put in the long hours. I was doing everything by the book. My reputation is on the line here. God, where are you? What are you trying to teach me?
Seasons of Ministry
As I cried myself to sleep each night I soon came to realize that there were seasons in ministry. Seasons where you sow relentlessly but don’t see the fruit of your labor. Seasons where you sow and reap the benefits immediately. Seasons of dryness. Seasons of difficulty. Seasons of ease and fruitfulness. But in every season of ministry what is at the core of your heart is always revealed.
Oftentimes the challenges we face in ministry uncover that we’ve built our identity on how well we are doing in ministry. Our eyes are often open to those quiet and secret desires to be praised and affirmed by man. We often come face-to-face with the gut reality that our hope has been misplaced — our hope is no longer in Jesus Christ but in our ability to perform. We frequently put the weight of the ministry upon our shoulders and when we do, it’s costly.
My hope was in my ability to disciple and train students to be disciple-makers. My hope was in my ability to preach and cast vision. I found my identity in what people thought about me. I needed their praise and affirmation. I needed my peers and students to think that I was great at what I did. While I knew, “Apart from Jesus I could do nothing” (John 15:5), I seemed to have functioned as if could do everything apart from Jesus. When things were going well I attributed that to my performance, rather than to the grace and power of Jesus. I gave myself a pat on the back and kept moving. Soon after I began to experience a lack of joy, frustration, and bitterness towards God and even my students — it cost me. I soon came to realize that no matter what season of ministry I was in God was sovereign and he was using every single season of my ministry to do a few things:
1. God was reminding me that I am a sheep before I am a shepherd.
Early on in Jesus’s ministry he emulated what this meant. When Mary and Joseph went looking for him after having gone missing for three days, they found him in the temple listening to the Scriptures and asking questions. Throughout the gospels we frequently find Jesus getting away from the crowds, going to desolate places, and finding times of solitude to be with the Father. His ministry was shaped by who he was in the Father, not what he did for the Father. He was a Son of God first and foremost. This is true of us. Our identity is not a shepherd but sheep. We are children of God first and foremost — that is our primary identity. When we switch the two around it costs us. It costs us our joy in Jesus. It costs us our relationships with students, peers, and leaders. It costs us intimacy with the Father. Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection was to draw us to him as sons, not shepherds. We must not confuse the two.
2. God was teaching me dependence.
My personality type and sinful flesh lends itself towards me being self-sufficient. I want to do things the way I want to do them and I often don’t want much help or input. It’s pride. It’s sinful. It’s displeasing to the Lord. When we meet with failure in our ministry strategies, more often than not, God is revealing to us our sinful self-sufficiency—our lack of depending on his strength and power to accomplish the works of the ministry. Without the power of the Holy Spirit then we can all hang-up ministry. It’s going to fail. We can’t do it without him and the truth is we need the Spirit of the Living God to breath on us, our students, and our ministry. Not having all the answers is a good thing. Being weak is a good thing. Asking for God’s help is a good thing. Dependence upon the Lord is a good thing.
3. God was revealing the very essence of true joy.
Happiness is subject to change but joy isn’t. Happiness changes within a few seconds, but joy doesn’t. Joy is a deep-rooted delight in Jesus and his finished work on the cross. True Christian joy is rooted in the gospel not in our circumstances and situations. Paul encouraged the Philippian Church to “rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 4:4). Notice he didn’t say rejoice in your circumstances and situations. The Philippian Church was having a rough time and dealing with a lot, so much so that Paul had to encourage them not to be full of anxiety but instead to rejoice in the Lord. Paul is painting a picture that no matter what happens in our lives, we can have an unshakable, unstoppable, and unwavering joy because our joy is in what Jesus has done for us on the cross. He has defeated sin and death and has rescued us from the hands of the enemy. Our salvation through his works is secured and we have an everlasting dwelling place with our Daddy in heaven that awaits us. This is the Good News of the Gospel and this my friends, is the reason we can have joy.
Obeying the Great Commission of Jesus Christ is a great and worthy call. However, it’s a difficult and often challenging call. It brings with it ups and downs, highs and lows, frustrations and great excitements. It takes us on a journey where there are days where we couldn’t imagine doing anything else and days where we want to throw in the towel and give up. But in our obedience, we must never forget Jesus’ words, “I am with you always, even to the very end” (Mathew 28:20). May it be these words that fuel our ministry efforts and may it be these words that sustains in wavering seasons of ministry.