Samuel said, “Though you are little in your own eyes,
are you not the head of the tribes of Israel?
The LORD anointed you king over Israel.
– 1 Samuel 15:17
I was once standing in the aisle of our local lumberyard when a man approached me and asked, “Do you build pole barns?” I guess I had that pole-barn-builder look about me. “Nope,” I said. “I’m just some guy shopping for nails.”
There have been times when I’ve felt like this in ministry. Are you the pastor? Nope, I’m just some guy preaching sermons. Me? I’m just some guy floundering for credible words at the cancer bedside. I’m just some guy pretending to be a pastor.
Maybe you’ve felt like this. A friend once described her first years in ministry as fake-it-till-you-make it. She felt like she didn’t have what it took to really be a pastor, but she could at least act the way she thought a pastor should. It’s a feeling called “impostor syndrome.” Impostor syndrome is a pervasive sense that while others might merit their position or degree or whatever it is, you somehow slipped in. At any moment the real deal folks will look under the hood and out you as a fraud.
As psychiatrist Carole Lieberman explains, while impostor syndrome is not a diagnosable malady, those suffering from it experience:
an all-encompassing fear of being found out to not have what it takes. Even if they experience outward signs of success — getting into a selective graduate program, say, or acing test after test — they have trouble believing that they’re worthy. Instead, they may chalk their success up to good luck.
Impostor syndrome isn’t about living a double life. It’s not about living immorally while presenting as a fine, upstanding citizen. Impostor syndrome is about self-doubt. And I suspect there are a whole lot of ministerial leaders out there who feel it.
So too, impostor syndrome may be a special risk for pastors and leaders in the rural church. As Stephen Witmer puts it in his forthcoming book on the rural church, A Big Gospel in Small Places (watch for it!): those who serve small, rural congregations are at risk of “a fear that your church may fail for lack of people, or the fear that you’ve already failed because so few come to your church.”
There are psychological approaches that might prove helpful for dealing with impostor syndrome. But from a theological point of view, I see several ways forward:
- Be grounded in your call: Our sense of calling is often part of the problem. Others might seem to have callings that are more authentic and compelling. Their stories might even have a supernatural element. A seminary student colleague from Ethiopia was called into ministry after hearing what he described as an audible voice. In comparison, I felt at the time that my sense of call seemed like something that came out of a committee meeting. Since I didn’t want to be one of those pastors who went but I wasn’t sent, I was a little timid about what it meant for me to be called. Along the way, what I’ve discovered is that a vocation to ministry–or to anything, really–usually has much more in common with the deep, tested longings of our heart than with a supernatural splash. A calling is love, not passion. As a character in Eugene Vodolazkin’s novel Laurus puts it, “passion … really is a form of insanity. But I’m talking about love, which is sensible and, if you like, predestined” (p.194). Being called to ministry will involve a sensible, loving unfolding of our whole lives in a deliberate direction, some of which we choose for ourselves, some of which we don’t.
- Practice holiness: Fast, pray, give. Do the One Thing Needful. Practice the presence of God. Ministry has to flow from God and return to him as offering. Maybe pastors and leaders shouldn’t aim to become a success so much as to become a saint. Something changes when the aim and focus of our lives is on what God’s doing in us rather than what we’re accomplishing.
- Be humble: True humility flows from a generous recognition of our own weakness and faults. We’re generous with ourselves and others because God is generous with us. We recognize the ways that we fail and are honest about them. What else can we do? The other option is to try to hide our faults. But that will only last for a certain tooth-clenching time. When our faults are inevitably revealed, we’ll come off as hypocrites. Humility is about transparency–first to God, but then as it’s appropriate, to others.
Perhaps everyone feels like an impostor some of the time. King Saul, that farm-kid-unexpectedly-turned-king, experienced it. The prophet Samuel revealed that young Saul’s bravado did not come from his robust sense of self, but from a fear of failure, which–who knows?–might have stretched back to his donkey-hunting days (1 Samuel 9:1). He apparently didn’t recognize the absoluteness of the task of defeating the Amalekites–and the gravity of his own calling in carrying it out. “Though you are little in your own eyes,” Samuel told him, “are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:17).
So you’re not alone.
And you really aren’t an impostor.
But hey, what do I know? I’m just some guy blogging away.