Lesson 1 Accept Your Identity

Matthew 10:1-4; Mark 6:7-13; Luke 6:12-16; John 1:40-42

Becoming comfortable with being called a leader is an intimidating adjustment for many younger Christians. Even some seminary students tell me, "I don't really think of myself as a leader." They aren't yet comfortable with the mantle God has placed upon them. God-called, ministry-committed graduate students sometimes have a hard time accepting that they are supposed to be leaders.

These students readily identify themselves as being ministers, servants, missionaries, counselors, pastors, or active in various other ministry roles. But what they have a harder time accepting is that they are leaders. Part of God's call to leadership is to accept your new identity—a new definition of who you are and how you will live. Learning to lead begins with accepting your identity as a leader, even though you may not yet know all it will entail from the beginning.

Modern readers often view the lives of biblical characters backwards—from the end of the story instead of the beginning. We assume too much about their understanding of God's initial work in their lives because we have the benefit of spiritual hindsight. Because we know "the rest of the story" when we approach the biblical text, it's easy to assume that Peter knew from the start that he would be a great spiritual leader because of the remarkable leader he proved to be. That assumption isn't necessarily accurate. Until Peter met Jesus, he'd been more concerned with catching fish than kingdom leadership.

Andrew and Simon were brothers who operated an extensive commercial fishing operation with multiple boats and partners. Andrew wanted his brother to meet Jesus. He wanted Simon to experience the life-change that such a meeting could produce. He may have also wanted his brother, a business owner, to use his talents for different purposes. "We have found the Messiah," Andrew told Simon. Soon after that declaration, Andrew introduced Simon to Jesus.

Jesus met Simon (imagine the life-panorama Jesus might have visualized—knowing who Peter would become) and named him Cephas (Aramaic), which is translated Peter (Greek). Cephas, or Peter, means "the Rock." Jesus is identified as the Messiah, Simon as the Rock. Those are powerful titles describing unique roles for both men. While Jesus fully understood them, Peter didn't yet grasp all that Jesus meant by either title. Both titles reveal identity. Peter would come to fully understand Jesus' role as Messiah during the next three years. He would also begin a lifelong journey of understanding what it meant to be the rock of the early church.

Jesus inaugurated his relationship with Peter by giving him a new identity. Jesus changed Simon's name—a dramatic beginning to their relationship and a clear indication that Jesus intended to relate to Peter on new terms. Names have the power to shape character. I have a Native American friend who has both an Anglo name (to function in American culture) and a tribal name (related to the expectations his people have for him). Calling him by his tribal name evokes his heritage and motivates him to be a man of character and initiative. Calling him by that name is a call to action.

Names also have the power to reveal character. This is one of the reasons God is known by so many names in the Bible. God's nature is too complex to be described with only one name, so he has dozens of names, both descriptive and proactive. When Jesus changed Simon's name to Peter, he created a goal for Peter to mature toward and an expectation of progress for his disciple.

While the full impact of his new name wouldn't become evident to Peter for many years, it must have struck him as powerfully significant that Jesus would change his name at their first meeting. What did this mean? Why such a dramatic declaration? He hadn't assumed his leadership identity or any specific leadership role; that would come much later. Nevertheless, when Peter met Jesus, his identity as a leader was both revealed and shaped by the new name he was given.

Beyond this initial encounter in which Peter was called as a leader, it's also evident Jesus intended him to be the leader of the original twelve disciples. Whenever the Twelve are mentioned in the Bible, Peter is always listed first. Similarly, when small groups of three or four disciples are mentioned, Peter is usually mentioned first or portrayed as the leader. Peter was a leader of leaders.

Many younger leaders have a more difficult time accepting this assignment—leading leaders—than even answering the simple call to lead. Yet God expects some to be leaders of leaders. This is the only way any organization, including the church and other ministries, can grow. Whether it is a church-planting movement, an inner-city recovery ministry, or a suburban mega church—all large organizations require layers of leaders to enlarge their impact. God calls some to lead, some to lead leaders, and some to lead many leaders.

Why is a leadership identity so hard to accept? There are four common reasons young leaders struggle to accept their new identity.

First, some struggle to accept their identity as leaders because of false humility. They believe that "I am a leader" is a prideful statement. It isn't. Agreeing with God that you are a leader is simply accepting and affirming his assignment for you. In a sense, denying your role as a leader is prideful, since you make yourself the final authority and reject God's plan for you. Accepting your assignment demonstrates humility, not pride.

Related to this are the struggles that some younger believers have with formal expressions of authority or organizational structure. Both are sometimes (wrongly) considered impediments to true spiritual community. I have noticed recently that some younger ministry leaders seem determined to do everything by collaboration, conversation, and coffee. That's an overreaction—a leadership cop-out—that limits kingdom growth. Have you noticed leading technology companies, who employ so many post-moderns, have no trouble creating structure and expressing authority through making decisions that result in worldwide impact? So why do we? Why is this postmodern aversion to leading through structure mostly evident among younger ministry leaders? Don't buy into the myth that true community lacks structure or is inhibited by formally recognizing some people as the leaders.

Younger leaders may also struggle to accept their new identity because they feel inadequate to lead. Inadequacy isn't a disqualifying characteristic. If it were, God wouldn't have any leaders. Younger leaders often idealize the character and skills required to lead. They measure themselves by the more mature leadership qualities of their mentors. What younger leaders fail to realize is that their mentors were much like them when they were the same age. They had limited skills and were still working through character formation issues. God calls and uses imperfect people in leadership. Don't be intimidated by comparing yourself to those far more experienced than you are.

Lastly, younger leaders may resist accepting their new identity because they fear the responsibility it brings. While learning to lead, new leaders observe their mentors and the responsibility they bear. The load can seem overwhelming. God is gracious, however, in doling out leadership responsibility. He has a wonderful way of matching leadership responsibility with leadership development. As you grow in your capacity to lead, God will increase your leadership responsibility proportionately. Don't fear the burden of leadership. God will give you responsibility in proportion to your readiness to shoulder the burden of leadership.

God also works through the burden of leading to increase your capacity for leadership. For example, as a young pastor, I had to pray and trust God for several hundred thousand dollars for a church building program. Later, in another ministry, I grew to trust God for a few million dollars. Now I am responsible for a multimillion-dollar budget and am attempting to develop new projects that require millions more. God equipped me for this present challenge by growing me through those earlier leadership experiences.

Simon became Peter, the kingdom leader. The fisherman became the rock. Meeting Jesus and accepting his new identity changed everything for Peter. It's the same for you. You have sensed Jesus directing you to lead his people, to take new responsibility. Accept your new identity. Get comfortable wearing the leadership mantle. Commit to the journey of discovering the full meaning of your new identity.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Have you fully accepted your identity as a leader, or are you still in the process of doing so?
  2. What barriers do you need to overcome to accept your identity as a leader?
  3. How is your leadership identity developing or changing at this point in your life?