I grew up in a church that didn’t support women in ministry. So when God started tugging my heart toward vocational ministry, it took me a long to time to understand what was going on. With no visible examples of women leading in the church, I had a difficult time picturing what church leadership could look like for me. Thankfully, in college and graduate school I was exposed to many different kinds of leaders, women and men who helped change my paradigm and encouraged me to boldly step into my calling.
Shortly before graduating from seminary, I was invited to serve at a church that was supportive of women in ministry. I was so excited to be in an environment where I wouldn’t have to question whether I would fit in as a woman leader.
Am I Fit for Pastoral Ministry?
I loved my new position and poured my heart and soul into serving. God blessed my efforts, and I quickly knew without a doubt that I was exactly where he wanted me to be. Despite this, I soon found myself struggling with my calling again. Rather than worry about my gender, I worried about my personality, strengths, and interests. Looking around at the other leaders in my church, I saw bubbly, energetic, and fun people. They were outgoing and emotionally engaging. Everyone seemed to be drawn to their lively personalities. I, however, am an introvert who’s driven and goal-oriented. As I compared my leadership with theirs, I felt like I didn’t fit, and I thought that if I were more like them, I would feel accepted. No matter how hard I tried to be like the bubbly, outgoing leaders around me, though, I came across as inauthentic and trying too hard. There really isn’t anything worse than people trying too hard to be something they’re not. It’s just plain awkward for everyone.
I started to believe everyone around me wanted me to be more outgoing, laidback, fun, and adventurous. It didn’t help when a well-meaning elder told me that I would be perceived as more "pastoral" if I made an effort to chat with more church members on Sunday mornings. The thought of flitting around the room and talking to people all morning felt overwhelming and downright painful. I felt so defeated after our meeting that I seriously questioned whether I was the right kind of person for a pastoral role.
I genuinely wanted to be welcoming to others and get to know people in the church. I know this well-intentioned elder was simply challenging me to get out of my comfort zone a little and be more open to meeting new people. But I allowed his comment to confirm my fear that I wasn’t the right person for the job. I was no longer content with simply serving others as the person God had created me to be. I was trying to be someone else entirely, and the effort was robbing me of my joy.
God Didn’t Make a Mistake
Finally, I reached a point where I knew something needed to change. I was going to burn out if I couldn’t find a way to be myself and authentically live out my unique calling. Faking it was way too exhausting. Through self-reflection and Christian counseling, I slowly began realizing that God didn't make a mistake when he called me into ministry. He knew who I was—my gender, my personality, my strengths and weaknesses—before he placed that call on my life. He wasn't asking me to change my personality to fit the expectations of others or my perfect picture of what a pastor “should” be.
Everything started to shift one afternoon at a local coffee shop when I had a meeting with a woman from our church. Sensing she was a safe person, I let down my guard and shared who I really am, my real life struggles and joys. She responded similarly, which led to a rich and honest conversation. We ended up talking and laughing for hours.
With my confidence boosted, I was determined to find other ways to allow my real self to come through in my ministry setting. It wasn't easy to do at first, but slowly I started being more honest about my struggles and strengths when appropriate. If a coworker asked me to be part of something that would force me to put on an act, I politely declined and offered somewhere else that I could serve more authentically. For example, when asked to be an emcee for our women's tea, I explained that wasn't really where I thought I could serve best, and offered to be on the prayer team instead.
I also started sharing more vulnerably when I had the opportunity to preach on Sunday mornings. This can be tricky, but I did my best to walk the line of sharing my own insecurities and the areas of my life where I have had to reevaluate. Sharing so vulnerably in front of the church was a little scary, but it helped the church members see me for who I am.
Finally, I told my supervisor that I wanted to find more ways to use my unique gifts, and I asked permission to step away from those activities that were not a good fit. I struggled with this conversation, because I didn’t want to seem like I simply was trying to do less work. When I explained the ways I thought I could more fully use my gifts, however, I was received quite well. To help, I found other leaders and volunteers who had strengths in the areas where I was stepping back and asked them to fill those roles. Many times, they were just as thrilled to use their unique gifts to fill that need as I was to pass along the opportunity.
As I began to open up and be myself more and more, I noticed that others in our church started to reach out and open up about similar struggles. As it turns out, there were many in my circles who felt like they didn't fit the mold either. When I stopped putting on an act and admitted I didn’t always feel like I fit in, these people felt safe to truly be themselves, too. I finally began to feel like I was known and loved for who I am.
Once I stopped trying to be someone I wasn’t, I could step into roles that fit my strengths. I was able to use the gifts and abilities God has given me to serve his people well. No, I’m not the best person to greet people during the morning announcements or oversee the icebreaker at the women’s retreat, but I can plan and execute a leadership-training program effectively and teach new membership classes with confidence. I’m never going to be as funny as the engaging women’s director or as talented as the emotionally inspiring worship leader, but I can use the unique gifts God has given me to serve our church to the best of my abilities.
I still don't feel like I fit the typical mold of a leader or pastor, and I probably never will. I do believe, though, that God knew what he was doing when he placed me in a position to serve him. The church is made up of people who are multifaceted, complicated, and unique in the most interesting and confusing ways. We need all kinds of leaders to serve and minister to this diverse group of individuals we call the family of God.
It still can be a little awkward and uncomfortable to be different. It takes a lot of strength to be true to yourself when you feel pulled into the current of expectations, stereotypes, and comparisons. But it’s always preferable to be true to who God made you to be, truly living into your unique calling and purpose—not the calling and purpose of someone else. It’s our joy and privilege to fill these distinct shoes that only we can fill. We may not always fit in with those around us, but we can learn to love the person we become when we authentically live into the calling that God placed, very intentionally, on our lives.
Jessica Charney is a wife, mother, pastor, and teacher. She lives with her husband and daughter in Sacramento, California, where she also serves as an adjunct professor for William Jessup University. You can learn more about Jessica by visiting jessicacharney.com.