Minister or Fraud?


Imposter_5194

Over the course of the past ten years, my cache of ministerial experience has changed in so many ways. I’ve served in four different ministry settings, learned how to navigate my denomination’s search and call process, finished seminary, been ordained, written and/or edited two books, fallen in love with group after group worth of kids and their families, and fallen in love with preaching the Good News. Through a theological lens, I have been fruitful – and through the lens of the world, I’ve even been moderately successful. But I’ve never been able to enjoy that fruitfulness or success.

Why no sweet taste of satisfaction? Why no celebration of a job well done? I’d like to blame it on a well-developed sense of humility. But the truth of the matter is that praise scares the heck out of me. Praise feeds the monster in the recesses of my brain that hisses: “If you don’t lay low, everyone will know that you’re a fraud!” And with that voice comes the gnawing suspicion that eventually I will slip up and those around me will realize that I’m an imposter.

For a long time, I only shared this fear with the closest and most trustworthy of friends.
And, more often than not, they shushed me.

“Don’t say that!” “Don’t go there!”

Every once in a while, a close friend and colleague would lower her eyes and whisper her understanding. But most of the time…well, most of the time I just felt crazy and secretly incompetent.

But last week I experienced a facebook miracle. A fellow young clergy woman posted a story from Sojourners on her feed with a title that jolted me to attention: “Professional Women and Imposter Syndrome.” After a paragraph recounting her own imposter-fears, Julie Clawson states:

“Forbes magazine recently posted an article on the high number of professional women who constantly feel like they will be called out at any moment as frauds. They are convinced that they are nowhere near as intelligent as everyone seems to think they are, and so it is only a matter of time before they are revealed as frauds.”

As I read (and compulsively re-read) those words, reality slowly sunk into my bones: I am not alone, and we are not frauds.

But once this miraculous information had finished washing over me, I read on. And there was much, much more. As it turns out, imposter syndrome is not only real – it also helps us to contribute to our own undoing in the church. The article continues:

“Impostor syndrome causes women to dismiss praise, add disclaimers to their statements, and constantly feel less intelligent or mature than their peers.”

Ugh. All those moments over a decade when it felt as though I had no pastoral authority…all the times that it seemed like my thoughts and opinions were being dismissed as less valuable… they weren’t simply about church members not liking or supporting women in ministry, and they didn’t occur solely because church members and leadership didn’t trust my judgment due to my age. By listening to the hiss of “imposter,” I might have added the words, “but that’s just my opinion” when weighing in on a board issue. Or, by believing that fraudulent feeling, I may have brushed off praise for hours of preparation with an “it was nothing.” And, because so many church members trust me, they believed those disclaimers.

This is not to say that sexism isn’t alive and well in the church. And this is not to say that ageism isn’t woven throughout many of our structures (far too many!). These and many other “isms” really do strip young clergy women (and our church members) of our authority, dignity and self-worth. But they don’t do it alone. Sometimes we are complicit in our own destruction – and “imposter syndrome” is one of the ways that we participate in that messy hurtful business.

Unfortunately, miracles don’t always work immediate and permanent change in our lives or our psyches. I still hear that hiss, especially when things are going well. And I still catch myself speaking the language of disclaimer. After all, my facebook miracle only happened last week!

But I’m getting better because I have a new mantra-haiku:

“I am not crazy.
I am not an imposter.
I am not alone.”


14 replies
  1. Robin
    Robin says:

    Thank you!!! I had no idea this was a real syndrome…thank you for putting into words my secret fear, the thing that looms above me as I sit at my desk and try to do the work of ministry. It is good to know I am not alone…and that I am not crazy!

    Reply
  2. Ellen L-D
    Ellen L-D says:

    Thank you so much! I too came across Julie Clawson’s words and they caught me out and touched a deep truth inside.

    Reply
  3. Betsy T
    Betsy T says:

    Oh, my God, I had NO IDEA that other people felt like this and that it had a name. I’ve been waiting and waiting to get called out as a total fraud for so long, figuring it was only a matter of time before the rest of you (actually smart and successful) people found me out.
    I even went to a women’s college, so I am no stranger to claiming my voice. I just figured that someone would figure out what a dunce I was, any day now.

    Reply
  4. Sarah K.
    Sarah K. says:

    Lara, this is such an interesting piece. My own sense of feeling secure in my role definitely ebbs and flows. Sometimes I feel full of authority and confidence and other times I want to hide under a table! Thanks for this.

    Reply
  5. mary allison
    mary allison says:

    i remember hearing a lot about female imposter syndrome 8 or 10 years ago and also feeling so relieved that i am not the only one who think’s i’ve got the world fooled. but lately, i’ve been trying to dig up info on the phenomenon with much less luck. i’m so glad to hear this is still being talked about because it’s such a real and present force among women.

    Reply
  6. mihee
    mihee says:

    this is so encouraging.
    the other day i heard someone yell out, “pastor,” i guess they were trying to get someone else’s attention, but i actually turned around! strange feeling…i’ve never done that before – identified myself so subconsciously as a pastor. in the past, whenever i heard that i looked around for the “real” pastor, wondering where he was standing…
    at the same time, i imagined having to explain to the person who was trying to get her pastor’s attention why i turned around, and just the potentially difficult and long drawn out conversation (“oh you’re a pastor? you look so young-female-clueless, etc”).
    thanks for reminding me i’m not alone in this identity struggle!

    Reply
  7. Joanna
    Joanna says:

    Thank you for this article–and the links to other articles. I certainly have my moments of feeling like a fraud. Our church is in a bit of a transition time right now and I need to really watch my verbal disclaimers. This is a good reminder.

    Reply
  8. revdebmatt
    revdebmatt says:

    I read this post the day before I saw Alice in Wonderland – the new one, where she is 19 and returning to wonderland. Alice feels like an imposter, and is called an imposter, multiple times.
    Sometimes I think no matter what I do, I will always feel an imposter in ministry as long as I’m young, and as long as I’m female.
    Even when I’m claiming my authority, I still have to brace for multiple comments that are surprised I have some. Which doesn’t help for owning and claiming that authority. Vicious circle, that I’m not sure my older female ministry partners have figured out either.

    Reply
  9. anon
    anon says:

    I’m o.k. claiming my voice as an intelligent woman, as a leader, and as someone well trained in the role of pastor.
    But I still feel like a fraud because I don’t read the Bible every day. I don’t pray like I “should.” I don’t feel God’s presence working in my life like some of my church people tell me God works in theirs.
    For a while I took comfort in the thought, “maybe this is just some dark night of the soul?”
    Then, last week, I went to visit a clergy friend’s wife in the hospital. I wasn’t sure if I should kind of treat it like a pastoral visit since they don’t have a pastor (since he is clergy) or if it should just be a friend visit. That made me realize there is a big difference between the two. A friend visit means I don’t offer to pray. Other than saying grace before a meal I’ve only prayed with/for one of my friends, and that was because she called looking for pastoral care, pretty much.
    I’d like to think this is just some syndrome…but I worry that I really am a fraud as a person of faith.

    Reply
  10. Abby
    Abby says:

    Me, too! I had the same experience reading those articles. As maternity leave rapidly draws to a close, the imposter voices have a whole new set of arrows to shoot…

    Reply

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