The Myth of Indispensability

It’s humbling to discover you’re not indispensable. This unpleasant experience happened to me a few months ago when I had to go on medical leave from work.

The whole thing was unimaginable. Within days I went from having a full-time job I loved to no longer even having a workable scan key to get me into the building.

Most humbling of all was having to encounter the painful Myth of Indispensability. Put simply, this myth says people can’t survive without us. We’re irreplaceable and thus have unlimited job security.

To be honest, it feels good to think you’re indispensable. You feel like a person of exceptional importance, with skills no one else possesses. What an ego trip.

However, humbling as it has been, I discovered in recent months that the world at Inspiration Ministries was quite capable of going on without me. To my deep regret, the suddenness of my departure certainly made things much more difficult for everyone, but they rose to the occasion and life went on.

Is anyone truly indispensable? Perhaps you’re somewhat irreplaceable in your role as a spouse, parent, or grandparent. But in just about any other setting someone else could take your place.

Some of us predicted the quick demise of the Apple brand after the untimely death of Steve Jobs in 2011. But although they lost a great innovator when Steve died, they somehow are doing quite well without him.

Throughout the Bible, we see the Myth of Indispensability confronted…

  • How could anyone replace an amazing leader like Moses? Yet the Israelites’ leadership passed into the hands of Moses’ 40-year understudy, Joshua. Although Joshua must have experienced considerable trepidation at his new assignment, he was encouraged by the Lord to be strong and courageous (Joshua 1:1-9). The result? Joshua took God’s people further into their destiny than Moses has been able to do.
  • Elijah seemed like a unique and totally irreplaceable prophetic voice. “I alone am left,” he grumbled to God (1 Kings 19:10). Yet the Lord told him to quit complaining and go train his replacement, Elisha (v. 16). Not only did Elisha perform many of the same miracles as Elijah, but Bible scholars point out that he seems to have done twice as many as his mentor!
  • Queen Esther appeared to be the only person with even a small chance to defeat Haman’s plot to annihilate the Jewish people. Yet Esther’s cousin Mordecai told her something incredible: “If you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place” (Esther 4:14). Even Queen Esther was replaceable in fulfilling the purposes of God. If she wasn’t willing to step up to the occasion, Mordecai was confident the Lord would find someone else.

The Indispensability of Jesus

Far beyond these other examples, Jesus provided us with the most stunning example of the Myth of Indispensability. On the one hand, He’s the only Person in the universe who truly IS indispensable. His disciples came to understand this, so they must have been shocked and dismayed when He assured them that it would be to their advantage when He no longer walked with them in His physical body (John 16:7).

While the disciples must have wondered how they would even survive Jesus’ physical departure, He told them they would actually thrive. They would do the same works He had done when He was with them…and even greater works (John 14:12).

You see, Jesus was the kind of leader who recognizes the folly of the Myth of Indispensability. He easily could have told His disheartened disciples, “Guys, you clearly suck at this leadership stuff, and things are bound to fall apart after I’m gone.”

Instead, Jesus said just the opposite. He assured them they would receive such great power from the Holy Spirit that they would be able to extend His kingdom far beyond Jerusalem and Judea…to the very ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Notice the stark contrast: Insecure leaders, like King Saul, try to hold on to the reigns of power rather than invest themselves in the next generation. Exceptional leaders, like Jesus, confront the Myth of Indispensability by freely dispensing their lives into the lives of others.

If we are truly “indispensable” in our leadership role, something is clearly wrong. It’s a clear indication that, over the course of months or years, we’ve failed to dispense ourselves into those who are called to carry the leadership baton into the future.

But we’ve all seen churches that end up shutting down after the founding pastor dies or must leave his post for some other reason. And countless businesses have to be sold or shut down when the original owner can no longer provide leadership. How sad. Success without a successor often ends in failure.

So what lessons can we learn when forced to admit we’re not as indispensable as we thought? Painful as this experience is, it’s also amazingly liberating. It leads to an acknowledgement that the government of the universe doesn’t rest on our shoulders, but on the Lord’s (Isaiah 9:6-7).

Facing our limitations and vulnerabilities will also help us focus on the Biblical mandate to train our replacement. We’ll be challenged to greater intentionality in dispensing our lives into the lives of others in the months and years ahead.

When the Myth of Indispensability is shattered in your life, it can feel pretty traumatic. I picture it like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the curtain is pulled back on the “great and powerful Oz.” How embarrassing…

But it’s time to come out from behind the curtain, acknowledging our dispensability and our need for others. Instead of trying to impress people with our own importance, we can transform lives by helping people unleash their own remarkable potential.

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7 thoughts on “The Myth of Indispensability

  1. This is such a wonderful article. It is also humbling and caused me to examine myself to be sure that I don’t grasp ministry or my role too tightly. God always has a replacement for us when the time comes. It’s easier when we give up without a struggle. Blessings!

    • Thanks for your kind words, Jean. Your son John has become a very good friend. Your Bible teachings have sown seeds of God’s truth and encouragement for many decades now, and countless lives have been impacted.

  2. Good stuff, Jim. Now listen: You are not THAT indispensable. Get well and stay well. Truth be told, Apple sucks now that Jobs is gone.

    • Thanks Jim. Good points. There’s no doubt that Apple has lost some of it’s cutting edge creativity with Steve Jobs gone. But somehow they’re still dominating the market, even 8 years later.

  3. Excellent article Jim. When I was in my 20’s I had a mentor who was in his 70’s tell me no one is indispensable and I thought I understood but now almost 50 years later I see how true it is. Keep up the great work!

  4. And the world goes on…Great word, Jim. I like the idea of pouring into others, till they overflow into others etc. The Holy Spirit is the Filler. I’m so grateful for that Truth. Love to you and your family!!!!!!

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