Jarrod is a doctor. Aaron is a rock climber. Doug is an aspiring writer. Ty is a guitarist. Sarah is a high school teacher. Ben is a high school senior. Amy is a stay-at-home mother of three. I am a youth minister.
Well, these statements are only partially true. Jarrod is also a husband. Aaron is also my brother. Doug is also a talented illusionist. Ty is also a high school sophomore. Sarah is also a mother. Ben is also a son and brother. Amy is also a wife and a gifted teacher. I am also a father and husband.
Trying to define these eight people (including myself) was difficult. I had to determine what word(s) would best describe the person’s characteristics. Obviously I didn’t do a great job in the first paragraph, because in the second paragraph I was able to add to the descriptions. These additions fill in more pieces to the puzzle and allow you to better visualize what the person would be like.
What Defines You?
When being introduced for the first time, how do people describe you? This answer will vary depending on who is introducing you. If it’s your spouse, your description might be based on characteristics from your marriage. If a student in your ministry is describing you, then you might be defined based on the latest youth event. A colleague might define you reflective of your work habits.
What defines you is based on who is defining you. Even your personal definition of yourself will be different than any other. I tend to define myself as a youth minister, husband, or father. But is that all you need to know to know who I am? No. There’s much more to who I am than these three characteristics. Recently, understanding who I am has become a difficult journey. I like thinking of myself as a youth minister, but that description doesn’t carry the same weight after being out of full-time youth ministry for an extended period of time.
A Changing Viewpoint
I think it’s easy for your full-time job to shape how you define yourself. When you spend over 40 hours a week working on cars, it’s easy to say "I’m a mechanic." When you spend every day teaching third graders, you immediately define yourself as a teacher. Spending day after day typing on a computer, using words to create a story, leads to telling people that you are a writer. Planning youth events, writing lessons, spending time with students and partnering with parents will lead a person to say you are a youth minister. But do any of these jobs truly define you?
As I passed my year anniversary of being out of full-time youth ministry, I started to question my understanding of who I was. Since high school, I’ve believed (and still believe) God was calling me to be a youth minister. He provided me with the passion and ability to minister to students and teach them about Christianity. I enjoy working with students, even when it’s a struggle. I believed youth ministry would be my lifelong career—no "moving up the ministry ladder." These thoughts stayed strong, until I lost my job.
Being told I wasn’t performing to the leadership’s standards was a huge blow to my ego and confidence. Being a youth minister was all I knew and all I wanted to be. Why would God take that away from me? Surely, this was a temporary setback and another ministry would come along quickly. I couldn’t understand how God would give me the passion, ability, and desire for youth ministry and then allow the professional rug to be pulled right out from under me.
I was seeing other youth ministers change positions relatively quickly and believed I would be no different. Two months went by and opportunities began to fade away. By six months, I had sent out dozens of resumes, had several phone interviews, and been to a few in-person interviews. But none of these positions were for me, either. At the end of these six months, I still held to my belief that youth ministry was my calling. But as the next few months came and went—including a position that seemed like a great fit to 98% of the people involved, yet led to nothing—I began to become more depressed.
Stuck In a Hole
As I write this, I’ve been out of full-time youth ministry for eighteen months. And I think I’m finally at the point where being a youth minister is not my definition of who I am. Do I still desire to be involved with youth ministry full time? More than anything! But I’ve been learning a lot about getting wrapped up in defining myself by the things I do.
Being defined by what you do starts at an early age. When talking about their kids, parents define their children by how they meet developmental milestones. During our school years, we are defined by parents, friends and teachers as a "good student" or a "bad student." How well, or not well, you play sports impacts "who you are" in high school. In college, you’re defined by the people you hang around with and the clubs you’re a part of. And for most of us, we carry this process into our career. This cycle could continue until you die, but it doesn’t have to.
During this ministry hiatus (otherwise known as an unpaid sabbatical) I came to this conclusion: You learn who you really are when who you think you are is taken away. I think this is what happens when people retire, their children all move out of the house, or some other event upsets the normal. I think we define ourselves into a hole when we limit who we are to the things we do. When something comes along and knocks us loose we have a chance to see the bigger person we’ve been missing.
A New Definition
For over 10 years I placed myself in the youth minister hole. Being a youth minister was who I was, it was what defined me. Then I got knocked out of that hole and without the ability to be a paid youth minister, I struggled with who I was. My identity was wrapped up in my ability to serve as a full-time youth minister. So I started asking questions: What defines me? How do I feel when I’m not in youth ministry? Why do I feel this way? Is God truly enough?
It was that last question that hit me the hardest. Was God, and God alone, enough for me? I struggled with this question for a long time. In my mind, being a youth minister was my way of offering the most value for who I was. Take that away and I didn’t have much to offer—or so I thought. My attitude changed when I allowed myself to realize God doesn’t define me based on the things I do.
How are you defining yourself? Are you a mother, father, youth worker, husband, wife, student…or something more? If you define yourself based on what you do, then you’re seeing yourself from a different perspective than God’s. God sees us as his children—children so loved that Jesus was sent to die for our sins. God doesn’t love you because you can draw on a canvas, sing in harmony, or minister to middle school boys. God loves you because you are his child, created in his image.
Adding adjectives and nouns to this definition takes away from who we are. God doesn’t ask us to add anything to his definition, so why do we spend our life trying to prove our worth to God? I cannot answer that question for you, but I know why I have a tendency to do it. I struggle to feel worthy of God’s definition, so I spend time modifying my personal definition to fit who I think I need to be. What I should be doing instead is focusing on God and how to know him better.
How would you answer the same question I struggled with? If everything you knew about you was taken away, would God be enough?