A Five-Word Pastoral Manifesto

I perpetually felt like a pastoral failure because I wasn’t a very good Jesus substitute.

POST UPDATE: I wrote this in the fall of 2019, before the tsunami of misery that has been 2020. But now more than ever, this essay may have the potential to bring healing and hope to pastors and other organizational leaders, not to mention moms, dads, and anyone “feeling it” these days. The heart of this post is that you are not the Christ—and that is very good news, indeed. I pray it will set you free and help you rest.

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Photo by Aaron Burden.

A Cursed Robe

In April 1995, upon my ordination into gospel ministry as a pastor, I received a “Geneva gown” that was endued with a curse. There wasn’t anything inherently sinful with the robe. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to wear clerical garments. But as I began to put my arms in the oversized sleeves and button the garment from my neck to below my knees, something happened.

That morning, walking into the service and ascending the pulpit to lead a thousand congregants, I was no longer McKay, the ordinary disciple of Jesus who loved to tell bad jokes and dance to 80’s music.

I was no longer an ordinary Christian.

I was a pastor. A minister. A man of the cloth. Born upon a pedestal and conferred with a robe.

It was the correct size. But it didn’t fit. I had never been more uncomfortable in my life. While the robe was not heavy on my shoulders, it felt like the weight of the world upon my heart.

I do not think I was consciously aware of how that affected me or would affect me in the years to come, but that moment was a line of demarcation between my life as one of the guys and my new life as Jesus substitute for the people of God.

Isn’t that what a pastor is supposed to be?

Pastor as Vicar?

The term Vicar comes from vicarious. For many believers it seemed, the pastor is functionally a vicarious Jesus. In Protestant circles, we do not use the term, Vicar. We typically use Pastor. But I wonder how many of us think or expect, Vicar — a vicarious (substitute) Jesus.

I want to be clear. No one ever said, “We expect you to be a Jesus substitute.”

That is just how it felt and what sometimes was implied when people expressed disappointment that I didn’t meet expectations of being at a certain event (I lacked omnipresence), or knowing about a particular problem in their life (I lacked omniscience), or making the right ministry decision (I lacked omnipotence).

I perpetually felt like a pastoral failure because I wasn’t a very good Jesus substitute.

Bearing the weight of that expectation was a curse that no one should attempt to bear. But I attempted it, anyway.

Bad idea.


How did this affect me? I’m sure you can guess.

My reputation as a good person and a good pastor became preeminent to me. This meant that I could never be vulnerable with my sins and struggles. I had to “keep up appearances.”

I could hide McKay the sinner in public fairly well. At home, not so much. I felt like a fake. I felt alone. And I felt ashamed.

Furthermore, I developed a need to be self-protective and found it difficult to have real relationships with ordinary “non-robe wearing” Christians. This affected my leadership style as well. I could not reveal weakness, inability, lack of knowledge, or anything that would make me seem vulnerable to critique. I had a hard time admitting when I was wrong.

I needed to be right. I needed to be a competent, able, righteous leader. The result is that people never really got to know me — the real me. The insecure, desperately grace needy pastor who was trying to be a Jesus substitute.

Over the years and through hours of counseling, prayer, and personal reflection, I have learned that I have much to unlearn about my misguided understanding of pastoral ministry.

This has led to five words that now serve as my pastoral manifesto.

A Five-Word Pastoral Manifesto

In the opening chapter of John’s Gospel, the apostle introduces two individuals: Jesus and (another) John, Jesus’ cousin (the one known for baptizing).

John the Baptizer grew famous as a preacher in those days, and I suppose it could have gone to his head. He could have begun to think that he was important. Indispensable. He could have convinced himself that he could really help the people and begin carrying a mantle of mini-savior.

But he resisted. How? With a five-word mantra of sorts that I’m sure he had to repeat time and time again. It actually is denial as much as it is a confession.

Peter had denied knowing the Christ. John denies being the Christ, repeating the mantra unreservedly and without hesitation, “I am not the Christ!” (John 1:20)

This is the John who said, “I must decrease. He must increase.” His job was to point people away from himself and to Jesus.

There may be less glory for the preacher with that confession, but there is much more freedom. I am not the Christ. I do not have to fulfill his job description.

I can’t save anyone’s marriage or children. I can’t be the hope of anyone’s problems or fears. I can’t bear the burden of a broken world. But Jesus can.

I am not a hero. I am not “all that.” I am not the Christ.

There is only one Christ. And his name is Jesus.

What I have discovered is that the true Christ gives burdened pastors a new robe to wear. A better robe. It is super light and gives great freedom upon those who will put it on.

That robe is not a Geneva gown, but a garment woven of Jesus’s very own righteousness. For me to wear. To enjoy. And in which to boast, as I preach not myself, but Jesus as the crucified and risen Savior-King.

From Now On

This means that from now on when I wake up, I will speak those five glorious words: “I am not the Christ.”

  • Before leading a staff meeting, “I am not the Christ.”

  • When meeting with a congregant for counseling, “I am not the Christ.”

  • When expected to be at multiple evening events in one week, “I am not the Christ.”

  • Upon discovering that you didn’t know about a specific “pastoral need” in someone’s life, “I am not the Christ.”

  • When someone leaves the church because you let them down, “I am not the Christ.”

  • As I walk into a denominational meeting, “I am not the Christ.”

  • As I step out on the stage to preach, “I am not the Christ.”

  • And standing before my Father in heaven on the last day, “I am not the Christ. But Jesus is. The one who loved me and gave himself for me.”

It is when I am clear on who I am and who I am not that there is freedom. Here there is a renewed joy. Here, watching our pastoral burden roll away into the tomb, we find the calling of pastor to be the best job in the world.