Thomasina stood up among a group of fellow pastors to tell us her vision for herself. “I am committed to self-regulation and to be the pastor my people need me to be.” As we dived deeper into her vision, it became clear that she had a bad case of imposter syndrome. Highly successful in the world of education and administration, somehow her gifts had been unwelcome in the church. While she thought more self-regulation was the answer, I doubted that would solve the problem. Too much self-regulation translates into self-suppression. Then we can no longer express our gifts or passions.
I’ve seen imposter syndrome—the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved—afflict pastors all across the country. I think the core of the problem is bad theology. It’s time to break it.
Thomas Merton writes that at the core, we are in deep and inescapable contact with the Divine. Paul tells us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. The Psalmist writes that there is no place we can go that God is not. The ancient writer of Genesis tells us that we are made in the very image and likeness of God.
Then came Augustine. We have him to thank for the gift of original sin. Original sin is the concept that while God made us good, we “fell” from that grace. Only something outside of ourselves can fix us. And only if we are somehow repentant enough. The question is how much is enough? Most of us deal with “never good enough.” You don’t even need to be Christian to absorb this theology. It’s part of our culture. It’s transmitted to us in silent invisible ways we don’t even know about. It eats away at our very bones like a cancer.
Here is the outgrowth of this bad theology: God’s love is conditional. We believe we are never really good enough. We are separate from God. We are on our own. We don’t belong. We are “other” to God.
Thank goodness Jesus didn’t have to deal with this bad theology. He might have dealt with imposter syndrome too. Can you imagine? “Beloved son, me? Nah, not really. You’re well pleased? I doubt it. Don’t you think I need to do better first?”
As I teach apostleship to church leaders, it’s clear that Jesus wasn’t weighted down by any sense of original sin. More importantly, neither were the apostles. We see no hint of imposter syndrome in them. They were free to learn from Jesus, to try out the stuff that he taught them, to wrangle for first place, and to even develop the faith of Jesus so that they could perform miracles alongside him. Jesus would have had a hard time empowering and authorizing them—tapping into their sense of agency—if they had been hindered by a persistent sense of unworthiness.
We are called to co-create miracles with Jesus. To do that, we need a better theology. One that doesn’t trap us with the idea that we are never enough, or that we are separate from the very God who gives us life. Rather, one that empowers us to recognize our inherent goodness, the innate divinity within our humanity, and our essential oneness with God.