The Minister and the Plague of Personal Insecurity
Everyone faces a battle with insecurity to some degree, but insecurity seems widespread among ministers.
By Leslie E. Welk
Consider this all-too-common scenario. I will call it The Fable of the Insecure Leader. A senior pastor developed a reputation for being difficult to work for. People often used the word insecure to describe him. This was ironic because people also described him as gifted. He crafted and delivered excellent sermons. He had a rich singing voice and a healthy knowledge of music. These served him well in ministry. His administrative prowess placed him head and shoulders above many of his peers, a fact clearly evident in his service to his church and denomination.
Associate pastors, however, found it challenging to serve under him. The list of former staff members was long. The list of former church members was multiplied times longer. As a result, the church did not grow; it declined in attendance. Even though he possessed the experience, credentials, and desire to pastor other churches, pulpit committees avoided his résumé once they checked his references. Among his remarkable talents and abilities, he also demonstrated a consistent pattern of insecure behaviors — control, low self-esteem, avoidance, and unhealthy addictions to the work of ministry. He was an insecure leader.
After many years of skirting the issue, circumstances finally brought about an intense conflict. At the end of his emotional rope, he looked to a trusted friend for an objective opinion. His friend honestly communicated the patterns of insecurity he had observed over the years.
The insecure minister began to weep. Through tears he said, “I know it’s true. Ever since I can remember, I have wanted my father to tell me that I am doing a good job. To this day he has never acknowledged anything I have ever done. Throughout my lifetime I have tried to gain my father’s approval and have never received it. This has caused me to become insecure about everything I do.”
This man’s sensitivity to his father had caused him to become so insecure he was dysfunctional. The effects had become severe for him as well as for those who worked and lived around him. This tale is real in too many settings.
Insecure Leaders Are Dangerous.
Leadership expert John Maxwell made this blunt observation in his book, 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader: “Insecure leaders are dangerous to themselves, their followers, and the organizations they lead because their leadership position amplifies their personal flaws. Whatever negative baggage you have in life only gets more difficult to bear when you are trying to lead others.”1
Research and writing on a critical subject such as security psychology is limited in scope. Few books are dedicated to the central theme of personal security; how to attain it; the spiritual, psychological, and social benefits of it; or the negative implications of operating from personal insecurity. Tender Heart: Conquering Your Insecurity, published in 2001by psychologist Joseph Nowinski, bills itself as “the first book to investigate insecurity.”
Insecurity, as defined by Nowinski, effectively frames the issue. “Insecurity refers to a profound sense of self-doubt — a deep feeling of uncertainty about our basic worth and our place in the world. Insecurity is associated with chronic self-consciousness, along with a chronic lack of confidence in ourselves and anxiety about relationships. The insecure man or woman lives in a constant fear of rejection and a deep uncertainty about whether his own feelings and desires are legitimate.”2
Stanley Grenz and Roy Bell, coauthors of Betrayal of Trust: Confronting and Preventing Clergy Sexual Misconduct, address security in terms of “low self-esteem and the need for approval.” They point out how a minister’s insecurities may lead to moral failure.3 John Eldredge, a Christian family counselor and author of Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul, theorizes that male security accompanies the discovery of true masculinity. In Eldredge’s view, all men have a wound that he claims their fathers usually inflict. This wound causes men to relate out of their uncertainty or insecurity until they uncover and heal this wound.4
Biblical Characters Were Not Immune to Bouts With Insecurity
The Psalmist analogized man’s quest for security by comparing it to the drive experienced by a thirsty deer in search of water. “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God. … When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42:1,2). This Psalm reveals the musician’s desperate search for security. He had an intense spiritual need to know God was listening to him. The Psalmist then rejoiced in the fact God was listening to him. As a result, the songwriter was more secure.
Because Moses believed he lacked oratory skills, he became so overcome by insecurity he tried to defer God’s call to lead Israel to someone else: “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue. O Lord, please send someone else to do it” (Exodus 4:10,13).
God summoned Gideon to become a judge over Israel. But his family background, as well as his own position within his family, became a point of insecurity. “ ‘But Lord,’ Gideon asked, ‘how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family’ ” (Judges 6:15).
Even the apostle Paul expressed feelings of inadequacy in handling the gospel by asking, “And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).
Perhaps the most vivid biblical example of insecurity is King Saul (1 Samuel 8:1 through 31:13). Because of his insecurity, Saul became paranoid, abandoned his trusted relationship with David, threatened David’s life, consulted a witch for guidance instead of God, and failed the people of Israel leading them into near destruction. Saul’s failure to deal with his insecurity, among other spiritual and emotional issues, ultimately caused him to take his own life.
Insecurity is an intermittent, but common struggle for everyone. King Saul’s insecurity, however, became dysfunctional.
If insecurity is to some extent unavoidable, the key question is: at what point does insecurity become dysfunctional? When insecurity becomes so intense and lasting that it seriously undermines our self-esteem and interferes with our ability to enjoy life, to build and to keep satisfying relationships, and to achieve our career potential, it is dysfunctional.5
Insecurity and Vulnerability of Leaders
When former President Richard Nixon faced the stresses of the Watergate Scandal during the early 1970s, a lifetime accumulation of personal insecurities manifested with a vengeance. Nixon not only began to exhibit bizarre personal behaviors stemming from distrust and paranoia, but in the process he also placed his cabinet and an entire nation at risk. People told stories of how he held late night conversations with oil paintings of past presidents that adorn White House walls.
In 2000, Erwin Hargrove, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University and author of the book, President as Leader,appeared as a guest panelist at a University of Illinois conference on Personal Ethics and Political Leadership. He reflected on Nixon’s politics and ethics: “While Nixon was a skilled politician, his personal insecurity eventually became clear to the public through his actions.”6 Nixon’s insecurities became the undoing of his presidency and shook America.
People often refer to the insecurities of others in day-to-day conversation. In a back office of the church people vent their frustrations concerning the behavior of a senior leader or fellow worker. Amazingly, during one short coffee break people form an ad hoc psychological evaluation team, identify the presenting issues, assess the root causes of the problem, and propose a plan to remedy it. The plan, however, rarely progresses outside of the room and tends to remain in the realm of gossip.
Nevertheless, it is uncanny how often our common-sense psychology leads people to attribute the undesirable behavior of others to personal battles with insecurity. People might say, “What a bully that guy is,” or “Did you see the look on his face when that team member presented a different point of view?” What we are really saying is, “That person is insecure.”
Patrick Lencioni, in his best-selling book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, identifies the absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results as the five nemeses to success within the most artfully constructed teams.7 Any or all of these impediments can conceivably be traced to the dysfunctional insecurity of a leader or team member. Such behaviors may not only sabotage a team, but the entire church body.
Why Insecurity Seems Evident in Ministers
Everyone faces a battle with insecurity to some degree, but insecurity seems widespread among ministers. This is odd because ministers are some of the most capable and gifted professionals. They should be filled with confidence, especially since they believe they are fulfilling a divine calling and have vast spiritual resources at their disposal.
Most ministers could be described as caring, compassionate, multitalented, visionary, articulate, influential, passionate, well-trained, and sensitive. Yes, very sensitive. Ironically, this may be one common reason why pastor/leaders fall victim to insecurity.
According to Joseph Nowinski, interpersonal sensitivity is a seedbed for insecurity: “Sensitivity is part of our temperament. People are born with a degree of sensitivity that they carry with them throughout their lives. Insecurity is the result of subjecting an innately sensitive person to abuse, rejection, or traumatic loss. The age at which these things happen, as well as how severe they are and how long they go on, is what determines how insecure a sensitive person will become.”8
People who answer the call to pastoral ministry usually do so out of a heart of love, compassion, and desire to help others. Words like empathetic, transparent, and emotionally sensitive become synonyms for pastoral care. Church members applaud these traits as those they love most about their pastor. This only encourages greater emphasis and expression of these traits in the minister’s behavior. What other people think becomes the pastor’s filter for decision making, and a minister often becomes someone he vowed he would never become — a man-pleaser instead of a God-pleaser. Danger can lurk behind strength, and interpersonal sensitivity is no exception. Left unchecked, hypersensitivity can lead to dysfunctional insecurity.
In his book, Search for Significance,Robert S. McGee looks at insecurity through God’s eyes. He suggests that insecurity creates a performance trap that turns people into approval addicts. The teeth of the trap include symptoms such as perfectionism, avoidance of risks, anger, resentment, pride, depression, low motivation, sexual dysfunction, chemical dependency, success identity, and hopelessness.9 Approval addiction includes some of the same symptoms as performance trap, but added to the mix are manipulation, codependency, avoidance of people, control, repeating of negative messages, and hypersensitivity.10 Any of these symptoms is an impediment to successful relationships and effective ministry. In combination, they are crippling.
Insecure people are self-conscious and often see themselves with a critical eye. They are easily wounded. Once they are wounded, they have a hard time healing. Insecurity breeds a lack of confidence, and insecurity easily shakes any existing confidence. Insecure people create high expectations for themselves and others. These expectations are often unspoken. Insecure people have a hard time accepting normal human flaws and faults, both in themselves and in others.11
Insecurity and Self-Assessment
As pastors consider the topic of insecurity, a normal question arises: How do I measure my own level of insecurity?We first confess our insecurity to Jesus and ask Him to help us bear it. He has experienced every temptation and emotion known to man, and He overcame them all. We can also consult with members of Christ’s body, a trusted professional, or friend. Tools are available that can provide additional insight to our temperaments and relational styles as leaders. We, however, must be vulnerable enough to take these tests and subject ourselves to intense scrutiny. These instruments are most effective when someone who is trained in their use administers and interprets them, thereby providing insight into the results.
When insecurity indicators surface, healthy ministry teams characterized by openness and honesty allow ministers to pursue help and wise counsel, without fear of repudiation. As team leader of the Northwest Ministry Network of the Assemblies of God, I have attempted to model this attitude personally and corporately. We encourage our team to lead with intentional authenticity and transparency. Counseling resources are now more accessible because the Network invests thousands of dollars each year to provide counseling assistance for ministers.
Moving From Insecurity to Security
Preventative measures to curb dysfunctional sensitivity in ministers are preferable to remedial steps. However, people of all ages, many of whom have already developed deeply ingrained life patterns — including insecurities — receive ministerial credentials. For this reason, I pose another question: Is it possible to migrate from dysfunctional security to healthy security? The answer is yes.
John Maxwell gives three suggestions for improving security: (1) Get to know yourself better through proven test instruments or the input of trusted friends; (2) make sure to give credit to other team members for accomplishments; and (3) get help from a trained therapist for your own benefit and the benefit of those with whom you work.12
Joseph Nowinski identifies four basic steps that parallel Maxwell’s three.13
- Work to change expectations for you and others. Assume people are trustworthy until they prove otherwise, rather than assuming they are not and looking for evidence to support that bias.
- Learn to unlock emotions. An honest effort to change expectations will lead an insecure person to experience emotions that are otherwise blocked.
- Change your approach to interpersonal conflicts and differences. Dysfunctional insecurity often causes a person to retreat from conflict and internalize it without resolving it. An insecure person must resist the fight or flight options, and deal with conflict more constructively.
- Listen, learn, and compromise. Listen to criticism or disappointment and keep it in perspective. Learn from the other party what they expect of you, such as an apology or changed behavior. Compromise or assume a posture that will not create winners and losers. Choose solutions that are healthy for both parties.
The Final Analysis
As followers of Christ we know He is our greatest source of strength and confidence. We echo the words of the apostle Paul, who in his own insecurity made a bold declaration: “And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (2 Timothy 1:11,12).
Leslie E. Welk, superintendent, Northwest Ministry Network of the Assemblies of God, Mountlake Terrace, Washington
1. John C. Maxwell, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 121.
2. Joseph Nowinski, The Tender Heart: Conquering Your Insecurity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), 23.
3. Stanley J. Grenz and Roy D. Bell, Betrayal of Trust: Confronting and Preventing Clergy Sexual Misconduct (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), 51.
4. John Eldredge, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), 59–75.
5. Nowinski, The Tender Heart, 27.
6. Scott Koeneman, “Personal Ethics and Political Leadership,” University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs, http://www.igpa.uiuc.edu/events/confHighlights/feb2000/default.htm (accessed March 25, 2005).
7. Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), 187–190.
8. Nowinski, The Tender Heart, 89.
9. Robert S. McGee, The Search for Significance (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2003), 29–40.
10. Ibid., 53–62.
11. Nowinski, The Tender Heart, 103–107.
12. Maxwell, 123,124.
13. Nowinski, The Tender Heart, 171–188.