Embrace Your Insufficiency in Ministry

How often have you thought, I’m the wrong guy for this?

Right. And wrong. At the same time.

Deep pastoral wellness begins with reckoning—a reality check of sorts. Without complaining, we need an objective view of ministry realities. Gospel service consumes our souls in ways that God counters with offsetting graces. 

Let’s ask God to open our eyes to things we would rather deny, ignore, or escape. Let’s own the truth of this deep end of the ocean in which we swim. Yes, we are in over our heads and treading water. Yes, we are the right “wrong guys” for the job. Yes, we are inadequate.

A call to pastor is a call to insufficiency.

Ironic. God calls us to things we are not “up for.” He sends us into impossibility. He delights in exploiting our weaknesses. Sometimes He even tells us, It’s not going to work!

He told Moses to go to Pharaoh but predicted that Pharaoh wouldn’t listen. He sent Ezekiel to Hebrew exiles but preemptively said they would not hear. He commanded Jeremiah not to be afraid of people’s faces. He prepared Paul to be arrested in Jerusalem. He exhorted John the Baptist not to be offended in Him. In each of these cases and others, God called insufficient people to substantial tasks and prepared them to be let down in the process. Step one—“Follow Me.” Step two—“Be let down.”

Death always precedes resurrection. 

This is interesting when juxtaposed against the modern ministry narrative, which is something like: Step one—“Follow Me,” and step two—“Everything turns out great!”

Christian motivational speech teaches us to aim high, be winners, and get the job done. But in spiritual leadership, the first criterion is “Be weak.” Perhaps you knew from the start that you were insufficient. Or maybe you knew it theologically but secretly believed you would crush it. After all, some aim at immediate celebrity, confident they will quickly rise to it.

On the other hand, perhaps insufficiency is self-evident, having knocked you flat to the ground in stunned dismay. The experience of insufficiency is unnerving and overwhelming. The moment our inadequacy hits us like a wall (and it will), it’s enough to make us want to walk away or render us unhealthy until we do.

We all want to be good at what we do. Who doesn’t desire to succeed? We dream of being useful to God. This is healthy from a biblical perspective, but it is also counter to the breaking, humiliating realization that God’s work is drastically bigger than we are.

Insufficiency is built into gospel ministry, and our weakness is not a surprise to God; it’s one of His unique qualifiers. But the experience of it is dismaying. Our daily acquaintance with insufficiency can grow wearisome.

Insufficiency is permanent. Remaining in ministry means we never rid ourselves of this unwelcome companion. No amount of experience, education, time, or supposed success can quash this ever-present pest. We will know weakness like nothing we’ve ever known.

The normal pastoral call is perpetually reacquainted with the constant, often condemning voice of insufficiency. Sounds like everyone’s career dreams, right?

In my imagination, that voice is the annoying kid in the movie The Polar Express.  I can hear him daily: You will never be a good pastor. Give up while you still can. You’re such a disappointment!

The Paradoxical First Step to Wellness

In ministry, you’re going to wake up every day facing needs, expectations, and spiritual challenges that are far beyond your reach and ability. These things laugh at talent, spit on education, trample experience, and trump every imaginable preparatory strategy. We swim in stormy, deep waters, and they are constantly changing.

You will never feel like the right guy for the job. You will never feel like you’ve got this in hand. You will never feel up to it or sufficient for the needs of God’s people.

Every day you will coexist with insufficiency. You will live with a limp, yet you are called to run your race with patience (Heb. 12:1–2). You will be confronted with strong feelings of finiteness and walk through life with a general low-grade sense of inadequacy.

This is God’s intention and design.

Why?

Insufficiency requires us to depend upon and point others to a sufficient Savior.

Think about it. If we believed we were sufficient, what a disaster it would create! Our ego would project a contrived image, and we would find it impossible to be the saviors we pretend to be. We would exhaust ourselves attempting to live up to our phony images, and eventually, we would become the object of scorn from the people we let down.

We aren’t sufficient. Jesus is sufficient. God’s people need Him, not us. They need us like the Israelites needed John the Baptist—we point to Him.

Insufficiency is built into the faith-life.

How does this relate to a “wellness plan”? It’s a paradox, like many things in Scripture. Most wellness talk attempts to teach us to deny or defeat negative ideas. Most formulas prescribe self-help and self-esteem books and coach us to overcome with positivity. Psychobabble says, Look in the mirror and say, “You’ve got this,” and then go out and build a great church and change the world!

God’s Word essentially says, Repeat after me—“I don’t got this. But Jesus has got me, and He’s got this!” (Grammar intentionally butchered for emphasis.)

Pastoral wellness begins with embracing insufficiency as the ever-present reminder that we are not “the Savior.” Acknowledging insufficiency delivers us from the burden of being the hero of the story.

Now, embracing it does not mean giving in or giving up. It does not mean that despair owns the narrative in your head. It certainly does not mean walking away. Embrace it means reckoning with reality, accepting this new, pesky forever friend, and expecting God to leverage it into His strength.

The truth is that Jesus does not expect us to be sufficient. Teaching this to ourselves and others helps everyone remember that you are not the Savior, Jesus is. He must increase; we must decrease (John 3:30). Decreasing is healthy. It is safe and true. It is a Christlike descent into wellness. We lower ourselves into spiritual and emotional health. We downsize our view of self. It is the only way to sustain a healthy servant-hearted trajectory, and I believe it is the first step in developing a strong core for a steady journey in spiritual leadership.

The Good News of Insufficiency

Embracing insufficiency is not self-deprecation or denial of ability, talent, giftedness, education, preparation, or all other good resources for ministry. It is an objective reckoning with the reality of a gap.

There is a great gulf between the totality of me and the totality of the spiritual needs of those I love and serve. The corrective realization is that there is no gulf between the fullness of Jesus and the magnitude of those needs. Jesus fills the gap.

The infinitude of our assignment—meeting the spiritual needs of people—viewed against the severity of our insufficiency and weakness will create one of two responses: self-centered despondency or Jesus-centered dependence. Self-cynicism simply thinks I can’t do this. But reliant faith experiences a resolved sort of liberation, believing God will do this.

The faith view of weakness is optimistic. Our awareness of insufficiency can either level us or liberate us. If we take it to the wrong place emotionally and psychologically, we will walk away and find a vocation we can handle. Therefore, insufficiency must be processed biblically.

Insufficiency isn’t something we overcome or defeat. It’s something that compels us to release ourselves into Jesus’ sufficiency. His strength makes us free from the soul-crushing burden of trying to do what only He can. This is the first step to being an authentic, visible example of the gospel life—one in which we stop depending on what we can do and begin depending on what Jesus has done.

God’s people do not need to see a sufficient leader. They need to see an insufficient leader joyfully trusting and obeying a sufficient Savior.

This is what it means to live out the gospel so that God’s people hear it in our teaching and see it in our living. We declare it and display it. And they see it not only in a moral lifestyle but more abundantly and clearly in a weak but trusting faith walk. They see us growing up in the gospel—as they are. They know that we run and limp simultaneously, which is okay because Jesus has already run and won our race.

Embrace insufficiency. It’s a pain, but in its annoying way, it also makes you free.

You don’t have to be a savior. Jesus already is.