I’ve been thinking a lot about “unworthiness” lately.
It’s a simple enough concept that likes to burrow deep in every part of your identity. Slap the words, “not good enough” in front of all my hats and you get the idea. Not a good enough wife. Not a good enough Daughter or sister. Friend. Worker. Writer. Not a good enough Christian. That last one has stuck to my ribs more this last season. A few months ago, I stepped down as a ministry director and my husband and I decided to leave the church we’d been a part of for the last eleven years. It was a church I grew up in, for the most part. I went to Youth Group at this church, led multiple ministries and met lifelong friends. I have slept on its floors, mopped its kitchens, and even got married on its stage.
There’s a lot to unpack why I left this last church, and it starts with the churches I went to before.
I’ve gone to church my entire life. Prior to this last one, I’d been in kids’ classrooms and vacation bible schools at a few places. I had just moved up to the youth building at my mom’s church, which had scriptures painted over the black walls in bright colors. Every week, they’d ask what my name was. Every week, they’d forget, but I’d come to expect it. After service, I used to stretch out on the sanctuary chairs and scribble on connection cards while my mom prayed over people. They always seemed to be crying. Sometimes, my sister and I would fish her keys out of her purse, jingle them until my mother would nod, then we’d lock ourselves in the car. It was always so stuffy, like the inside of a tissue box no matter what time of year, and just when the sun-baked air would lull us to sleep, I’d hear my mother’s fist tapping the glass and see her long fingers point towards the lock.
When I was with my dad on weekends, we’d go to church on Saturday nights and he’d buy us a slice of pizza each from whichever ministry happened to be fundraising before dropping us off at class. I remember one week, the check-in desk was covered with shiny, plastic name badges. Each had a picture. The volunteers asked for my name, and I told them, but I knew I didn’t have a badge because I didn’t remember my picture being taken. They asked if it was my first time, but we’d been going to that church for a few years. They said they were taking pictures again the next Sunday, but my dad said he only had me every other week. That day, every kid in class had a shiny, plastic name tag and I had a paper sticker with my name scrawled across in marker; a visual reminder I was an outsider. I don’t remember going to that church after that. The youth pastor at the next church was pretty great, though. I remember him smashing a watermelon with a baseball bat as a sermon illustration, but I don’t remember what the point was.
“That day, every kid in class had a shiny, plastic name tag and I had a paper sticker with my name scrawled across in marker.”
And church existed like this, in strange, unattached visits where I always felt like a forgotten child at a party for adults, until about ten years ago when I walked into an elementary school on a Sunday morning with my mom. I’d never known church outside of the confines of a traditional building, but that day, church happened in a gym. The pews were lunch tables with the tops folded in half to make chair backs, the worship lyrics were projected onto a screen and the stage was unfolded from a storage container kept in a church member’s trailer throughout the week. It was strange for me, but my mom liked the grassroots-feel of the group so we kept coming back.
Worship was conducted by the lead pastor on guitar and a guy sitting on a percussion box, who I never learned the name of but will always remember as “box-guy.” My mom would stand up, hands-raised with the congregation while my sister and I crouched in the back, the screens of our DSs lighting up our faces. They were finding God, we were finding gold, glory and digital joy. There were other kids in the back and sometimes, we’d sneak out together to the playground and talk about video games and anime in the painted outline of a foursquare until a parent would chase us back inside. That was how I met two of my best friends but that’s a different story.
The youth room was a closet and the table we sat around barely fit inside. If someone on the end wanted out, we’d all have to stand up. Every week, the youth leaders brought a dozen doughnuts. “Bring you’re friends!” they’d say. “We have so many extra.” But we never did because the handful of us would get two each. We had incentive not to bring friends. It paid off though; in that awkward, cramped space, I couldn’t fade into anonymity like I had at larger churches. Eventually, we moved into the school’s library, where I’d stare at a taxidermied eagle instead of reading scripture but at that point, I had a name without wearing a name-tag.
“I had a name without wearing a name-tag.”
High school hit like a pillowcase full of textbooks. While each year brought new classes, new teachers, and new schedules, youth group was a consistent group of people I’d check in with weekly. That mattered. Adults poured into me and encouraged me to step out and try new things. I don’t remember exactly how it started, but at sixteen I began volunteering and I got to know church in a way I never had before.
CHURCH IS A BROKEN SYSTEM
No system involving people is perfect because people aren’t perfect. We bring our strengths and our flaws to the table whenever we get involved. Now, I firmly believe that if you’re going to benefit from a healthy system, you should, to your best ability, try to pour back into that system. Serving is a great way to give back, get to know other Christians, exercise giftings, and learn how to love well. Of course, everything has its place and even the best things can rot in our hands if we don’t tend to them well.
Being involved with anything means learning about its problems. It’s true with people, companies, pets, plants and especially churches. Every church has its share of disorganization: volunteers not showing up, lack of training, lack of communication, faulty curriculum and equipment… I could go on but the list is as endless as the mistakes I make daily. Like any institution, these goof-ups tend to happen behind closed doors. We “hide it from the kids” and the congregation members benefiting from these services are none-the-wiser that Brenda had to sprint to the grocery store because Lucy forgot to get crackers for communion.
Yet a fundamental aspect of Christianity is the flawed nature of humans. We need a savior because we are messed up. What’s the point of all this if we can do it ourselves? And while we try to hide our flaws and preserve our images, Christians cannot believe they are perfect while also believing they need a savior. They must be open about their failures. I’ve heard many sermons about people who were addicted to drugs, shunned from their families, separated from their children before turning their lives around and that’s amazing, truly it is, but these messages are almost always past-tense. It’s okay to have struggled before you were a Christian, but after? Not so much. You usually don’t hear Christians open up about struggles they are currently facing on the pulpit. “I’m getting a divorce” is not a great opening line for a sermon. Attention grabbing, yes, but you’re going to loose people.
It presents a strange duality: vulnerability about sin demonstrates honesty and integrity, but it also chips away at any credibility of being in a pastoral-ship position. There are blaringly horrible mistakes that should cause the congregation to pause –like these three pastors running a child trafficking ring– but what I’m talking about is transparency with ailing mental health, navigating familial struggles, or discussing praying ceaselessly without hearing from God. That stuff continues to happen even when the title, “pastor” parks in front of your name, yet we expect inhuman perfection from anyone behind a microphone.
That unreasonable sentiment extends beyond leadership; even opening up in the lobby seems impossible. Doubting? I feel like others will say if I opened up. Angry? Afraid? Well, you should read your Bible. You should get on your knees and pray and cry and listen to the watered-down Christian Music Radio. God will meet you in a Chris Tomlin chorus. Work harder and harder and harder and God will bless you. You know he died for you, right? There are deeper conversations to be had, but they’re usually in small groups. If you’re lucky, over coffee with someone who laughed at your off-color joke in the lobby instead of side-eyeing you like the SNL church lady. That trope exist for a reason. It’s strange, as Christians, that the place we feel least authentic is the house of God. What if it wasn’t like that?
“It’s strange, as Christians, that the place we feel least authentic is the house of God. What if it wasn’t like that?“
BROKENNESS REACTS TO BROKENNESS
Church is full of broken people loving God in our unique, imperfect ways. We learn to love from other broken people, and too often, our refuges are poor coping mechanisms. We numb ourselves with entertainment to escape work, with work to escape relationships, and with relationships to escape ourselves. Each are fundamental and lovely aspects of existence that God has gifted to us, but our failure to set boundaries lets the weeds choke out the fruit. Somewhere in our pursuit of content, we forgot to include God.
Church gave me a community that cared and demonstrated God’s love- good.
My broken, insecure self believed I had to work to earn that affection- bad.
My perceived value in my relationships was rooted in what I could contribute as opposed to my identity in Christ, and my unworthiness and constant pursuit of validation convinced me to focus tirelessly on my end and my end only. Relationships are two-way. Know when to give and when to receive. There is a time and place to be vulnerable in church relationships, but opening up while serving doesn’t work.
- Don’t verbally dump your mortgage anxiety on the three-year old waiting for goldfish crackers in Dixie cups. It’s not appropriate, loving, or helpful to the kingdom of God. You’ll also get an upset three-year-old, which is pretty much the worst.
- Do attend service, enjoy worship and ask for prayer. If you can’t receive at your own church (which is a red flag, but situational variation always creates exceptions), take a day off and check our another church for a change. Chances are, you have at least one friend that’s a pastor. Maybe see them in action for once instead of promising to “grab coffee” and never following up. If you’re the one in charge and your church will implode if you’re gone for one day, that’s a huge red flag and a sign you need to reevaluate your church’s model.
Understanding that churches are relationship-based instead of transactionally-centered is vital in addressing our unhealthy expectations of ourselves as servants of Christ as well as others operating within the kingdom. We don’t approach our volunteers hoping to wring every drop of service out of them before tossing them aside (at least, we hope we don’t) yet we do this to ourselves constantly when we don’t schedule breaks. Leaders and volunteers alike must give ourselves spaces to be vulnerable and open, to process with trusted brothers and sisters that love us truly and accountably, to exist without the expectation of entertaining a congregation or presenting ourselves as having it all together. To be “off.”
Serving became my crutch. Here was a community that I loved in constant need of helping hands. There’s always something. Always. I’d never had a community like this before and didn’t know how to be a part of it without giving constantly. And instead of taking time to process the root of my insecurities, or why I felt like I had to earn the acceptance given freely to me, I pursued to pay back this validation through performance. Anytime I was at church, I was serving. I was permanently stuck in volunteer mode. Even when I was “off,” I was still at full attention and searching for fires I believed I was the only one equipped to stomp out. I was addicted to being useful. There are benefits to that kind of addiction, and the joy of feeling useful coupled with temporary performance high would numb my insecurities. Busyness was a shield to deflect guilt. If I turned down serving when I had nothing scheduled, I’d feel bad, but I could say “no” shamelessly if it conflicted with other serving responsibilities. Every block of my day had to be spent on work, school or volunteering, or I was wasteful.
Instead of serving because I was valued, I served to feel valued.
After all, how could I lack value when I was volunteering twenty hours a week? If I served more, loved more, gave more, eventually I’d feel full and I’d prove everything others invested in me was worth it. Rather than being sustained by love and finding value in who God made me, I toiled through serving wearing a yoke of inadequacy. A lot of Christians loosely quote Matthew 11:28 by saying, “God provides rest for the weary” in response to other Christians voicing their exhaustion. They may jokingly say, “rest in heaven” but that’s not biblical. Not at all. It only took me burning out multiple times to realize that God implemented the sabbath not only so we would honor Him, but to prevent us from worshiping work. Failure to restrict work with sustainable boundaries empowers it to define you; and it will define you.
Overtime, I allowed my professionalism to replace authenticity until I forgot how to be vulnerable in God’s house. I was no longer a beloved child of God; I was a permanent worker always trying to show how together I had it. It was like wearing a dress shirt and slacks all the time, and I had no idea how too change. I had to exist in my Sunday finest, or everyone would see how much I didn’t belong and how unworthy I really was.
BROKENNESS DOES NOT NEGATE VALUE
Of course I’m not perfect. Of course. But being “unworthy” hits harder somehow. No matter how hard I work, how much I succeed, I’m not even passing. My faults reveal the need for a savior and my solo efforts can never rectify my failures. I know that. How that truth manifests is a different story. Unworthiness is two-faced. The insecurity of never doing enough, never being enough, is rooted in the belief that I am capable of earning my own salvation. I wouldn’t chide a kid for their inability to do my taxes because it’s an unreasonable expectation. (I barely know how to do taxes.) Being disappointed they didn’t pick up their toys is a different scenario. The disappointment in my “unworthiness,” then, must be rooted in an underlying expectation that I can do it myself. I am capable of earning my salvation. I do deserve everlasting life. I can cleaning my room. Maybe not that last one. Not any of them, actually, obviously, and that’s the point.
I always feel lacking, like I’m not a good enough wife. Friend. Daughter. Employee. Christian. Like I will never measure up to my potential. And I know that I am a person of value, that I am loved without bounds, treasured by those surrounding me, but I also know I am full of darkness and narcissism and all the slimy things I keep locked away. There is a balance between knowing I have value and acknowledging I have fault, and I’m going to be working on that my entire life.
The real question is not about my unworthiness or my acceptance of fault, but whether I will accept the offer of grace, and with where I’m at in life, I feel like the church I grew up in was not a conducive environment for me to process that reality.
Why exactly did I leave the church? What were my motivations? There’s a whole slew of reasons to leave a church: theological disagreement, failure to connect, the worship was too much, too little, or the lobby coffee tasted like the thin, Styrofoam cup I chugged it out of (obviously the most valid). Christians know how to say “no.” They just don’t usually do it directly. “I’m not feeling fed,” they’ll say. “I’m just not feeling called to this church.” “I’m moving into a new season.” I’m not going to discredit any of these reasons- they carry different levels of validity, and I relate to each in my current situation- but I will point out that they’re framed in a way to project overt spirituality and preserve our carefully crafted images. We know that leaving a church will make us look “less Christian”, whatever that means, so we serve up carefully tailored phrases to deflect doubt away from our relationships with God and onto the church we’re leaving. Pretty brilliant strategy, but it also reflects our blatant desires for approvals.
I stepped back from church because I need to reevaluate my relational framework. Specifically, I need to review my understanding of God’s love and grace, internalize this reality, and move forward in other relationships knowing my value is not dependent on performance. I am unworthy and I am loved. Serving became my default coping mechanism, and in its absence, I’ve come to recognize how much I’ve neglected my emotions, my relationship, and my need for rest. My expectations of myself and my levels of productivity were unhealthy and not sustainable.
The decision to step back from institutional church for a time was not to isolate- if anything, the break of service has freed up my schedule more for genuine fellowship. Instead, I removed myself from a system that exasperated my addiction to productivity and unintentionally fed on my unhealthy definition of self-worth. Some addiction recoveries, such as alcoholism and other substance abuse, involve complete abstinence, but others are more complex. We need food and friendship to survive as well as technology and financial stability to navigate the modern world. Cold turkey doesn’t work with those addictions. Similarly, workaholism requires dealing with the core motivations behind our relationship with work as opposed to dropping off the grid, however tempting that seems during this political climate.
These past two weeks, my husband and I have started visiting other churches. We’ve always had a list of churches we wanted to visit, churches led by friends and family, but we’d always put off these visits because we’d been too busy volunteering at our own church. In the coming weeks, we will visit the church of dear friends we met through youth group eons ago, that of our previous youth pastors, the church that employs my soon-to-be brother-in-law as youth pastor, and the church led by the couple that mentored my husband and I.
Perhaps most humbling about attending other churches after stepping down is that I met this extended family through my previous church. The community I’ve surrounded myself with grew out of the church I left. My life would have gone a completely different direction had I not been a part of my previous church and met these people so dear to me. And now, after serving in seven ministries, after attending the same church for eleven years, I can walk into multiple churches where people smile authentically when they see me and know my name without a name-tag.