Meet Pastor Dave Feel-A-Lot.
Each Sunday, he talks about his problems from the pulpit. Here’s a typical example.
It’s been a hard week, everyone. You know it’s hard when all your appliances keep breaking—(mild titters from the congregation)—fridge, freezer, washing machine. What did I do, Lord? Just send me some fire and brimstone, it would be so much simpler. (More subdued laughter). But seriously, it’s been difficult because my mum is ill right now, and . . . (begins to choke up) well, do pray for her, she’s going in for surgery next week. Okay, let’s turn to Mark chapter 1 . . .
Now meet Rev. Steve Zipped-Up.
I don’t have a quote from him, because he never shares anything about his life with his congregation. He’s quite a good preacher, but there is never, ever, a reference to anything personal. Nothing about his family; nothing about his interests; nothing about his background. It’s hard, in fact, to work out what he does enjoy in life. Oh, he’s clearly devoted to his God—that’s not in question—but beyond that, most of the congregation knows very little about Steve.
I have attended churches led by both a Pastor Dave and a Rev. Steve. They represent two leadership styles; they offer two radically different ways of approaching the sensitive subject of “vulnerability.” So let’s start with some questions.
How vulnerable should a leader be?
What is healthy vulnerability? What is not?
In a faith which teaches “My power is made perfect in weakness”, just how much weakness should leaders demonstrate to the people they lead? In response, it’s helpful to consider one of the buzzwords in church nowadays: authenticity.
We’re told that authenticity is important. But what is it?
I think it’s a good idea to come at this word with the goal of avoiding its negative. We should never be inauthentic. In other words, we shouldn’t be projecting a false image of ourselves. So, while it’s true that we all wear masks, we should avoid a mask which has little to do with what’s behind it. That’s hypocritical, and we know what Jesus thinks of hypocrites.
But this still leaves us with the question, “What does it mean to be authentic?” It doesn’t necessarily mean that we are required to divulge every personal family secret, does it? Surely that would be unwise. Authenticity doesn’t increase simply by revealing lots of personal details. Instead, I think authenticity increases when people catch a glimpse of our hearts. In the church, that means we should invite people into our spiritual journey. Into both the ups and the downs. We shouldn’t be hesitant about confessing to our struggles. Though I don’t like this expression, I can’t avoid it here: Be real.
Be honest. Show you care.
But of course, this is where we enter the world of vulnerability. If we’re to “be real”, don’t we run the risk that we’ll reveal too much, that we’ll act in ways that aren’t helpful? Certainly. So let’s consider the lives of Jesus and the apostle Paul. Both men were leaders. Both men exhibited vulnerability to their followers. Both have something to teach us.
CONTENT – How much information should I share? How much is too much? What guidelines might be helpful? When we read Paul’s letters, we are made aware of his struggles, but notice that he is often vague about the details. 2 Cor. 12 is a good example.
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.
2 Cor 12.7
What is Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”? We’re never told. He keeps it vague. I think this is very good advice for leaders. When sharing our struggles, we should not go into detail, but instead, we should focus on what we’re learning in order to encourage others. Notice that Paul’s focus is clear: “To keep me from becoming conceited.” That’s the message of this section. There will always be those who want “the gory details”, but they are rarely helpful. They can lead to gossip. The church would not be better off knowing what the “thorn” was. And church members don’t need to know names, dates and other private details. They need to know what the leader has learned so they can learn too.
Elsewhere, however, it’s clear that Paul wants some of his followers to know him at a deeper level. He writes to Timothy about this.
You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me.
2 Tim 3.10-11
Timothy, you have watched the way I live my life. Is that not vulnerability? To invite a follower to observe how you live your life? Yet again, the focus is on what Timothy is to learn about God—"yet from them all the Lord rescued me.”
There are times when all of us need to unburden ourselves. We need accountability, and we need support. We need to be able to share our inner struggles with people who love us. That’s why we in Living Leadership recommend that all leaders should have some kind of accountability to an individual or group (two or three others) with whom they meet regularly. If we do this, we are far less likely to seek affirmation in inappropriate ways from our community. The well-supported leader doesn’t exhibit vulnerability in order to gain sympathy. The well-supported leader is authentic, but never reveals inappropriate details.
What about motivation?
When preparing to speak to someone (or a group) about something personal, there are three key questions:
What is my motive?
Is this helpful to the people I serve?
Might I be straying into manipulation?
It is extremely easy to fool ourselves. It doesn’t take much before some of us are sharing our inner lives in a way that engenders sympathy or pity. Pastor, that sounds awful. However, when you read Paul’s words about his “thorn in the flesh”, his approach is quite different. It’s clear that Paul has no interest in anyone’s pity. He simply uses his painful experience to teach and encourage. His focus is entirely on what the experience will teach others. Hence the wonder of this verse we all know so well.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
2 Cor 12.9
MANNER – Is Paul an emotional man? Of course he is! He lets rip at times. Just ask the Galatians and the Corinthians who both get an earful. Paul clearly has no problem with revealing just how much he cares. For Paul, it’s all about the truth of the gospel. Hence his explosive letter to the Galatians. The same should apply to us. If we show we care about the gospel, then it’s natural that we will, at times, show our emotions. But again, it’s important to remember those questions above, especially this one:
Is this helpful to the people I serve?
CONTENT – Jesus is rather an exception, since he never had cause to share as we do. He never had to cope with shame or guilt. He did, however, call together a close group of friends and become their rabbi. In the first century, rabbis and their followers spent their lives in close proximity. The whole idea was that a follower, or disciple, would both watch and listen. Wisdom from the rabbi’s teaching was then implemented in the rabbi’s life. And the disciple would watch it all. They were invited into both life and teaching—warts and all. This was Jesus’ vulnerability. It’s one of the things that makes him so extraordinary. He was observed at close quarters for around three years, and yet his followers never found any sin in him. He stood apart.
But just look at him as he approaches the cross.
And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.”
Right as he enters his period of greatest suffering, he shares with his friends. He opens himself up to show them how difficult it is to walk the path before him. That’s vulnerability of the highest order. Again, in John’s gospel, in his high priestly prayer, his heart is entirely exposed. Here he shows his vulnerability because he offers himself so completely to those he loves.
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.
(It’s worth reading all of John 17)
The vulnerability of Christ is not about his struggles with sin, it is expressed most often in the way he communicates his love. He invites his followers to see his heart. When he says he loves them, they believe him. Completely. Because he’s authentic.
MANNER – How did Jesus deal with his emotions? By displaying them. He wept, he was angry, and at times, he was disappointed. How interesting that at his lowest moment, he wanted his buddies to be near him. Yet when they fell asleep, he didn’t throw a pity party. He was always true to the emotion running through him. Sadness. Disappointment. Joy. Even anger. Those money-lenders certainly felt the sharp edge of his tongue. He demonstrated the whole gamut, then, but without any intention to manipulate.
So there you are on Sunday and the story you’re telling starts to pull on your emotions. You choke up. That’s okay. It’s okay to cry once in a while. It’s not okay to weep in order to trigger pity or sympathy. That’s manipulation. But as long as your focus is on the good of your people, their growth, their benefit, and as long as the story is intended to teach them something valuable about the God they serve, then a few tears are not a problem.
Later, you’re telling a story about something from your past. It involves some school friends, but you decide to omit names and dates. You leave out the exact details, because they will only distract people from the message of the story. Instead, you focus on what you learned from the experience, and best of all, you speak about the grace and mercy of God, his provision, his goodness, his enduring love.
So when the story is over, there is just one focus: the Lord Jesus Christ.
You have shared something intimate and painful, but the listeners are left gazing at the cross, at the one who brings healing and who walks with them through their struggles and their temptations.
Your vulnerability has been given a purpose: To glorify God.
That’s as it should be.
*Other leadership titles are available, but the writer of this post likes alliteration.