Arise to a Renewed Sense of Self
Reflecting on insecurity, identity and pastoral leadership.
In 2012 I moved from San Antonio, TX to Seattle, WA to start a youth pastor position. I thought I was simply going to help lay a sturdy foundation for a healthy and long-lasting youth ministry. What I didn’t realize was that God wanted to completely shake me to the core and teach me a healthier sense of self.
Upon arriving to my church I quickly realized that I was working with some of the most talented pastors and lay leaders in the nation. They are international speakers, authors, professors, social entrepreneurs and more. I was very intimidated. This feeling of uneasiness was intensified by the fact that I was a white man from the south learning how to pastor thoughtfully in a multi-ethnic church in the Pacific Northwest. My students were regularly plagued by systemic injustices that usually tilted in my favor. I was used to feeling like the expert in the room. I no longer had the answers.
Feeling defeated, I went to my supervisor and told her, “You are a very talented team. I am honored to be here. But I don’t know what I can do for you.” She looked at me with a combination of kindness and strength and responded, “Coby, we didn’t hire you for what you can do for us. We hired you for who you are. Go be Coby.” My mind went blank. I had no idea what it meant to be who God created me to be.
Struggling to Embrace Me
I don’t remember exactly when it was, but as a child I began struggling with insecurity. I quickly learned that when I did well in football, choir, and academics people would feed my ego with compliments. I played high school football in Texas for a successful program. The thunderous applause from the hundreds of fans felt good. I got addicted to the attention I received under the Friday night lights. I needed the applause to tell me I was a person of value.
The relentless need to get my self-worth from the cues of others followed me into ministry. If I’m honest I spent many years trying to convince me and all who were around that I was a person of worth because I was a competent youth pastor. While my insecurity drove me to accomplish many things and appear successful, my soul suffered. I was afraid to be me.
I felt a bit like what Brennan Manning describes in his book Ruthless Trust;
“Is there anyone I can level with? Anyone I dare tell that I am benevolent and malevolent, chaste and randy, compassionate and vindictive, selfless and selfish, that beneath my brave words lives a frightened child, that I dabble in religion and pornography, that I have blackened a friend’s character, betrayed a trust, violated a confidence, that I am tolerant and thoughtful, a bigot and a blowhard, that I hate hard rock?”
“Sensing that if I bare my soul, I will be abandoned by my friends and ridiculed by my enemies, I remain in hiding, borrowing from the cosmetic kit to put on my pretty face. I veil my unstated distrust behind a cheerful countenance, mask my fears behind sanguine pretense, and present a false self that is mostly admirable, mildly prepossessing, and superficially happy. Later, I hate myself for my flagrant dishonesty.”
What a miserable way to live. But I know I’m not alone in my warped view of identity and worth. We live in a culture that connects worth to performance. As a college athlete I met many talented and “tough” football players who were deeply insecure. Like me, their insecurity had driven them to great success. They longed for somebody to say, “You matter!”
When I got to Seattle the people in my new ministry context didn’t play that game. Though they expected hard work and desired excellence, they did not connect worth to performance. Inevitably their approach didn’t scratch my insecure itch. It made me antsy and uncomfortable. I was forced to rethink every aspect of my calling and my identity.
From Dust to Dust
A breakthrough came when I was asked to preach at our Ash Wednesday service a couple of years after I made Seattle my home. My text was Genesis 3:19, “For dust you are and to dust you shall return.” As I attempted to prepare a sermon that would wow the congregation those words slowly seeped into the deepest crevices of my being. I realized I needed to live in a paradox of sorts. On the one hand I needed to embrace the fullness of who God created me to be, blemishes and all. On the other hand I needed to recognize that successful ministry isn’t about me or my competency as a pastor. Indeed it is God who saves, redeems, transforms and brings reconciliation, not me. I am simply called to be a faithful steward of the sphere of influence God has given me.
Slowly God began to reshape and renew my posture of leadership and my sense of self. I am shifting from trying to be the expert to trying to be a constant learner. I am shifting from trying to fix people’s problems to learning the power of mourning with them while pointing to Jesus.
To be clear, I haven’t conquered my insecurity. I think its residue will always be with me. But I’m learning from my mentors, my spiritual director and from authors like Parker Palmer to see my insecurity as a friend who reminds me that I cannot live life alone. This friend reminds me that I desperately need the power of the living God. This friend also reminds me I need an interdependent Christian community around me.
Friends, hear the good news! You were lovingly created from dust by a personal God. One day, you will return to dust. Meanwhile be faithful with what you have been given. Commit to being a lifelong student. Lean into your insecurities. You just might find the presence of God.
Raised in Houston, Texas, Coby Cagle is the assistant pastor of youth and college ministry at Quest Church in Seattle, Washington. Coby is a 13-year youth ministry veteran with degrees from Rhodes College and George Fox Evangelical Seminary. When he isn’t challenging seventh graders to one-on-one, he enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring with his wife and two children.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.