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.”