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Published Date: August 16, 2023

Featured Articles

Featured Articles

Battling Imposter Syndrome in the Aftermath of Vocational Ministry

“Imposter Syndrome is the result of structural inequality, not individual inadequacy.” —Reshma Saujani, Smith

You’re the right person for this job.

About a year ago, I wrote these words on my bathroom mirror following a therapy session.

In January 2020, I gave up my dream job, the role of youth director, in order to leave an abusive church. I entered the corporate world and immediately began forming a nonprofit and producing a podcast.  I endured a decade in complementarian church spaces that said things like, “We value women and want them to use their gifts.” At the same time, they said women could not be pastors. I believed what they told me, that the title didn’t matter as long as I could do what I felt called to do. It did not take me long to discover that the title very much mattered. 

In the lull of the Los Angeles city-wide COVID shutdown, I rose early in the morning and stayed up late, carving a new dream into reality. Somehow amidst this, I also managed to write an entire novel and see it published a little over two years later, all while working full-time at my day job. I had always been a high achiever, but what I accomplished in those two years of lockdown surprised even me. I decided not to question this unexpected gift, riding the train of high capacity as long as that engine was firing.

But in fall 2022, the engine ran out of coal, sputtering and crashing to a halt. I am familiar with the symptoms of burnout, and this was one of the worst episodes. After encountering another abusive person connected to the nonprofit I founded, I experienced a depression so severe it led to minor physical impairment and obtaining antidepressants from my physician.  Because I’d depleted all my internal resources by working at a pace no normal human could sustain, my body could not handle the new trauma. It caused me to take a month off from the nonprofit that was, at the time, only two years old.

And, for nearly two months, I couldn’t write. At all.

“I know where it comes from,” I said to my therapist. “This drive. This frenzy to achieve. I was held down for years. Really, my whole life. I often said I was working at 50 percent capacity, that nobody had any idea what I could do. All I’ve achieved in the past few years proves I was right. I think I’m just so happy to be free.” This was why I waited until my body literally shut down to make any adjustments to my schedule and care for my body in her limitations.

I have difficulty relating to the Instagram posts that encourage folks to be satisfied with “good enough.” For a decade in church ministry, “good enough” was never good enough. I had to work circles around my male counterparts to get any sort of opportunity. I had to be excellent. I had to surpass. I had to stand out as gifted—but not so gifted or sparkly that it threatened my male coworkers and bosses.

At a summer camp, I stood in the center of the stage when they called up the youth pastors (most of them men) to pray for them. Yes, I may be denied the title pastor, but I’m a woman and I am a pastor, doing the same work as all these male pastors. Yet afterward, I felt like a fraud, like I wasn’t supposed to be on that stage.

Because in the eyes of many, I did not belong there.

“They held me back. Shut me down. Shamed me for wanting the things the male pastors wanted.” This subject wasn’t new to my therapy sessions. My anxiety about the leadership role I’d given myself through founding a nonprofit rose up on a regular basis. I didn’t want to be like many of the male leaders I’d known, who put on a good show and pretended everything was fine, but who showed up after the work was done by other staff and volunteers, while they patronized me for having ideas and wanting to try new things. I wanted to lead through the gifts that made me, me. I wanted to create a different sort of environment, one where people were free to fail and explore—no matter who they were.

But even in that, I felt the shame flood my system—like I was doing something wrong for wanting to do something different. As I sat in therapy, with the shame swirling up and down in between my ribs, the words, “How dare you!” popped into my brain.

No one had ever said these exact words to me. But the message was louder than any words. Like the time I told the woman executive director at a church I worked for that I wanted more opportunities to teach. She responded, “Even the pastors don’t get all the teaching time they want.” Why did it matter that the pastors didn’t get enough teaching time? Why couldn’t she acknowledge my desire and help me find opportunities instead of responding like I was asking for the moon? The message felt clear: How dare you ask for something the pastors are scrambling for, when male pastors come first?

How dare you want to teach and lead when that’s a job suited for men?

How dare you want a career when women were meant to be wives and moms?

How dare you have opinions and ambition when you’re supposed to be quiet and small?

How dare you step outside of your box?

How dare you suggest the world could be better?

As these messages dripped down over a lifetime, and the erosion of my confidence resulted in crippling fear every time I dared to pursue a dream. Often the shame and fear accompanied even the dream itself—before I put any action behind it. If I fail, it’ll confirm what they believe: that women can’t. That women shouldn’t.

I wanted to be a pastor, but they told me I was the wrong gender. The system embedded these messages in my bones. Is it any wonder I often feel like there is something wrong with me when I try to do something new? When I dare to start an organization where I teach and lead?  

There isn’t a magic spell or a special potion for undoing the messages that lead to imposter syndrome for women. But what has helped me navigate these voices of shame when they demand the spotlight on the stage of my internal chorus is the opportunity to sit with someone else battling the same thing. I gain strength from looking someone in the eyes and confidently telling them that if something is causing them to downplay their gifts, it’s probably not from their Creator. In these moments, I am also speaking to myself. If something is causing me to be ashamed of the voice I use to raise awareness about injustice, then it’s probably not from my Creator.

A few months later, after another therapy session, I added the words, “I will not be ashamed of my dreams” beside the words “You are the right person for this job” on my bathroom mirror. Little words I speak to myself. Over and over until these words become louder than the shaming voice that says, “How dare you.” Though I don’t think the shaming voice will ever disappear fully (I spent decades in spaces that reinforced this voice), I can acknowledge its presence while slowly whittling away at its power. I can acknowledge this voice is not from God. I can acknowledge that imposter syndrome is not, and never has been, my fault.

A couple of years ago, I changed “Youth Director” on my resume to “Youth Pastor.” I was a pastor, though the system never acknowledged it. I now teach every week through the podcast of the nonprofit I started. While my journey of navigating imposter syndrome is not over, I believe it takes courage and strength for anyone to continue to pursue their desires, even while the voice of shame mocks them.

I will not be ashamed of my dreams.

Related articles:  
When Religion Hurts: How Complementarian Churches Harm Women 
The Consequences of Soft Complementarianism 
It’s Not Easy Being a Woman Professor: Subverting Sexism in Higher Education 

Photo by Taylor Smith from Unsplash.