The Pastoral Practice of Self-Reflection

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Not sure what James & John were thinking. Perhaps they weren’t when they asked Jesus if they could have positions of honor and authority when Jesus comes to sit on his throne as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Clearly their question revealed some serious shortcomings in their lives or simply the wild imaginations of their mother, Mrs. Zebedee. You may know that in Matthew’s version of this same story, she, not her sons, asks Jesus for the unusual favor (Matthew 20:20). But even in Matthew’s version, Jesus addresses his response to the two sons of Zebedee.

The unflattering story of James and John prompts a concern and a question. My concern: How am I as a pastor like James and John? My question: How can I not act like James and John?

My concern was alleviated and my question answered while reading a book by Harry Kraemer, Jr., a professor within the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. In From Values to Action (Josey-Bass, 2011), Kraemer identifies four practices that lower my odds of following the example of James and John: self-reflection, balanced perspective, true self-confidence, and the cultivation of humility. I have discovered each of be helpful and difficult, especially the first.

Kramer defines self-reflection as the exercise of stepping back from the busyness of life so that we can gain clarify on our identity. The objective of self-reflection is to gain a better understanding of our strengths, passions, abilities, and gifts. In the process, we hope to discover our weaknesses and shortcomings.

Apparently, James and John did not practice self-reflection. Jesus says as much with his response “You don’t know what you are asking!” Perhaps James and John listened to their mother who thought her sons were God’s gifts to the world! Or they misunderstood their place in kingdom by choosing, instead, to adapt the ways of the world – the ways of power, prestige and possessions. Or they simply let pride have its way in their lives. Whatever their reasons, they didn’t understand themselves or the kingdom.

Now if James and John failed to practice self-reflection, I am pretty sure I have done the same. Perhaps you have as well! Yet, self-reflection is central to effective pastoral ministry for a variety of reasons. One is that self-reflection is a key to authenticity. He writes, “All too often, when people aspire to leadership, they want to emulate someone else’s style. They want to be like Jack Welch or Ronald Reagan or Abraham Lincoln or another recognizable leader. Although we all learn a lot from the example of others, your leadership must come from your core. You cannot determine the leader you are without first figuring out who you are. Your leadership needs to be rooted in the real world and reflective of your views, life experiences, and professional path.” (14)

Let’s paraphrase that quote: All too often, pastors emulate someone else’s style. We want to be like Andy Stanley or Mark Batterson or Bill Hybels or Rachel Evans or Bishop Jakes or another recognizable leader. Although we may learn a lot from the example of others, our pastoral ministry must come from our core. We cannot determine the pastor we are without first figuring out who we are. Our pastoral ministry needs to be rooted in the real world and reflective of our views, life experiences, and spiritual gifts.

I grew up in the shadow of RC Sproul, Bill Hybels and John Maxwell. I would hear those guys and emulate them. But God didn’t call them to my ministry! He called me! And my responsibility is to reflect on how my strengths, gifts, experiences intersect with my ministry context. I will find synergy in that intersection! 

Look again at the first servants of Christ. They were not poured like molten plastic into a mold and formed into replicas of the ideal. Each one was called by God and each differed from the others. Galbraith Hall Todd wrote, “John had depths of affection and a mystical, metaphysical trend of mind. Peter had a vigor and ruggedness and a commanding personality. Matthew had the precision of a tax collector. Zacchaeus had wealth to share with the less fortunate. Simon the Zealot had the fiery nature and the ardor of the political crusader that could add zest to the apostolic band and preserve Christ’s cause from the morbidity of a staid conservatism and traditionalism. Mark had youth and eagerness for action. Luke had medical skill, a trained intellect, and a penchant for the meticulous research of a scientific historian. The ministering woman had sympathy and tenderness and undaunted faith. Mary had the contemplative and pensive nature which makes a responsive listener. Martha had a servant heart and a strain of the managerial. Paul had tremendous mental and moral power, a broad education, cosmopolitan horizons from his youth, and an undying spirit. (The Gamblers at Golgotha, 1957, pg 13)

Who are you? Why has God called you to serve him? What do you bring to your ministry context? What should you be doing now? What must you do? What must you not do?

I have discovered those questions easier to ask than answer. Self-reflection is difficult. It encourages us to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge our limitations. It requires that we ask ourselves personal questions, the answers to which will force us out of comfort zones. It requires that we acknowledge our blind spots and seek insight from others! It encourages us to seek honest feedback from peers and friends.

Those challenges may explain why we as pastors don’t like to engage the practice of self-reflection. But still we must if we are to be the person our Triune God has created and called us to be.  

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