So That We Are Not Imposters to Ourselves
Lately, I’m thinking a lot about pastors with imposter syndrome, pastors who are imposters, and the fine line in between.
Every pastor probably battles imposter syndrome of some sort. Right? Wondering if they misheard the call. If God is still pleased with their service. If they love God and his people enough. If who they are and the holiness of their vocation is congruent. I think about the imposter syndrome I have just as an author. And every time I’m introduced to speak. When all the best or exaggerated things are said about me and inside I am cringing. Or all those times I find myself sitting on a panel, once again the only person without a PhD. Why am I here? Who wants to listen to this uncredentialed, middle-aged woman? I think there’s been a mistake!
Credentials can certainly help fight imposter syndrome. Advanced degrees. Ordination. When doubts about your real self creep in, at least you can defend your vocation with these titles. But there’s another kind of agency—an implicit agency—that helps me when I’m battling imposter syndrome. It’s what keeps me from seeking that advanced degree. As much as I respect and learn from the academic world, I want to speak, engage, and contribute as one from the pews, or one looking for a pew. As one of the many that the work of academics and pastoring is to trickle down to serve. Representing that voice matters to me and gives me a different kind of agency to contribute.
But I’m also thinking a lot about real imposters. The church is weary and breaking down from disillusionment. The imposters are too many to number. And this week, I’ve been sick over the revelation of another imposter behind the pulpit. Once again, I find myself looking at the good he’s done, questioning what was real, as I hold it next to unfaithfulness, spiritual abuse, and sexual deviancy. Was it all a charade? What parts of the good were real? How many times have I now not only seen in the broader church, but personally know and have been affected by defenders of orthodoxy, eloquent preachers, supposed defenders of women, and educators or workers against spiritual abuse who turn out to be hustlers? Manipulators? Cowards? Bullies? Oppressors? Needing other women to do their work for them and puff them up?
Lord, why?! Is anyone fit to lead us? Is anyone trustworthy? How does someone preach on something so beautiful while living a double life? Was he for real? What is real, Lord? Who is real?
Synchronically (a word I’m borrowing from Julia Cameron to signify those perfectly timed God-gifts), I happen to be reading Renita Weems’s Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey Through Silence and Doubt. And it is so refreshing. She was brave to write it. Weems is a professor and an ordained minister writing about real life. About long periods in her ministry and career where she felt God withdrawn from her. When God was silent. She writes about her struggle with doubt, the ministry, and with the biblical text. And since she is going through this as a wife and a mom, that part of her story is included. I’m down to the last thirty pages, wanting to go slower because I will be sad to lose this book as a daily companion. But the truth is, I will probably devour the rest of it after I’m done writing this.
At first, I found myself questioning whether Weems should reveal this much. To “go that far” in her sharing. Are pastors allowed to have these thoughts? These dry spells? And is it right to keep ministering in God’s name during them? Since the book was published in 1999, I know she survived it. But man, Weems would be eaten alive in many of the circles I’ve worshipped in, stripped of any authority (not that she’d ever gain it, as a woman) to preach and teach, a total loss of vocation and titles. Disciplined. In the world where authority figures never apologize, never say they are wrong, and certainly never show weakness. Only enough to feign humility, anyway. Maybe they’d call her an imposter.
And that’s just it. She’s real. And saying it out loud. In doing this, Weems humanizes the pastor and the academic. The wife and the mother. But she doesn’t betray her vocations. She confesses her own struggles in faith, prayer, attitude, temptation, selfishness, and distance from God—as a woman, wife, mother, writer, professor, and pastor— while leading us closer to our own selves and to God. A mystery is revealed if we listen. For God. With and in it. What a gift this book—this way of living to get to the real—is for us all. It forces you to pay attention. To the questions buried deep inside us, the fears we are masking, and the desires we are stuffing down. The real ones. Not the superficial ones that we replace them with. So that you’re not an imposter to yourself.
And that’s where we all need to start.
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