Pastoral Competence: Accepting Your Success

How comfortable are we with our success? How competent do we perceive ourselves to be?
What strange questions to ask, given the Christian emphasis on humility. Isn’t it wrong to understand ourselves as effective, competent, and successful pastoral leaders? How we answer these questions directly influences the quality of pastoral leadership our congregations will experience.

We were to the last session of Leadership Coaching, reviewing the client’s progress. She is a Lead Pastor in a sizeable church, about 7 years into this call. She has served diligently and faithfully, with great effectiveness. This pastor is competent – no question about it. Yet, her self-perception as a competent Lead Pastor lags behind the reality. This contributes to exaggerated work hours and hyper-vigilance, with great difficulty relaxing and trusting that things are going as well as they are. I invited her to expand her self-perception, integrating her competence more fully.

Several years ago I noticed this tendency in clients; a tendency to discount their competence and success. Was this simply being humble? No, it’s a psychological dynamic which can undermine effective ministry if left unaddressed.

It turns out that our self-perceptions lag a couple paces behind reality. In fact, this is even more so when it comes to success than when we fail or make mistakes. We human beings are quick to integrate negative experiences into our self-perceptions, yet slower to enlarge our self-perceptions to include success. That’s what I saw in this Leadership Coaching client. She is far more competent and successful than she perceives herself to be.

Now, why would this be important for clergy and church staff?
Enlarging our self-perception to where we accept our success equips and empowers us, while denying our success will derail future effectiveness. The dynamic at work here is that we live in ways which confirm who we perceive ourselves to be. Our brains are always seeking alignment. Though we are not consciously aware of it, we are consistently ordering our behavior to confirm what we believe about ourselves. Pastors who believe God has given them what they need in order to serve well, unconsciously live into that belief. Pastors who perceive themselves as “less than” also live into their belief.

This dynamic directly influences ministry in two ways.
First, pastors who accept their competence, lead more effectively. These pastors are positioned to go through the doors which God opens. These pastors practice the spiritual discipline of hope, believing they and their churches can do what they are called to do. These pastors proactively engage opportunities as they come with minimal hesitancy. These pastors put fear of failure in its place, believing themselves equipped and meant for effectiveness and success. Because these pastors have integrated effectiveness into their self-perceptions, they lead in ways congruent with this view. As a result, their churches enjoy success or effectiveness oriented pastoral leadership.

Second, pastors whose success-quotient lags behind, subtly resist success and effectiveness. Now, few of us consciously resist success. Yet unconsciously our brains continue to order our lives for consistency with our self-perception. These pastors hesitate when growth opportunities requiring bold leadership present themselves. These pastors grow uncomfortable, feeling discombobulated, when success and effectiveness happen. These pastors actually undermine themselves, sabotaging their good work when their success levels exceed what they expect of themselves. These pastors find themselves asking, “Why does something always interrupt progress when I’m on the verge of leading at a higher level?” or “We can’t do that because I’m not that kind of pastor (meaning that successful or effective).” Because these pastors perceive themselves as less competent than they are, they limit their leadership effectiveness. As a result, their churches experience a less competent and effective pastoral leader.

So what’s the shape of your self-perception? Can success, effectiveness, and competence be found in the internal picture your hold of yourself? If so, give thanks to God for the grace to accept the gifts God is giving you. If not, ask God for the grace to more fully accept the gifts God is giving you. May we do all we can to serve as effective pastoral leaders, even accepting ourselves as competent and successful, for God’s glory.

Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA
Helen