Q & R: Vulnerability in the pastorate?
I was a divinity school student when you visited my seminary and gave some lectures a few years ago—I was so grateful to hear you!
I’m back at seminary now working on my Doctor of Ministry, and the area of focus for my project is pastoral vulnerability. Specifically, I’m interested in seeing what effect a more vulnerable preaching posture might have on a congregation’s willingness to be vulnerable with one another. I think a lack of authenticity is one of the greatest threats to the Church’s vitality, especially as millennials and younger generations (hopefully) rise to take the reins. Churches need to be places where we can be who we are—flaws and all—and perhaps breaking down the myth of the invulnerable, “perfect” pastor can help us achieve that vision.
I was hoping to get your thoughts on the importance (or non-importance, or challenges, or dangers…) of this issue for the Church today. Also, any suggestions on sources to read as I continue my research (including some of your own books!) would be amazing.
Thanks so much for your ministry and your willingness to be who God has made you to be. It gives me hope in the Church’s future and encourages me, as a young minister, that there are folks out there with a message like yours!
PS – Our Sunday school class is spending the year reading We Make the Road By Walking, discussing one chapter each week. We are loving it!
Here’s the R:
Great to hear from you. This really is an important question. The impacts of inauthenticity – on the congregation, on young people, on the “nones” and “dones,” and on pastors themselves – are incalculable.
Here are three brief thoughts I hope will be helpful.
1. We probably have a chicken-and-egg situation here. On the one hand, some churches have an unwritten code of inauthenticity, and if the pastor breaks it by being vulnerable and honest, he/she will be fired. On the other hand, some pastors come equipped with a kind of “soul police” mentality that squelches vulnerability in a congregation. But all things being equal, I think you’re right to focus on the power of the pastor to break down invisible inauthenticity codes through his/her own vulnerability. Paul models this powerfully in 2 Corinthians, admitting a whole range of weaknesses and vulnerabilities. And, of course, Jesus models it … weeping at Lazarus tomb, asking his disciples to “watch and pray” with him in the garden, crying out in physical thirst and spiritual loneliness from the cross.
2. I’d encourage you to make explicit some of the “unwritten codes of inauthenticity” you can discern in congregations. In some congregations, for example, it’s acceptable to be honest about having an argument with your spouse, but not about struggling with lustful thoughts. Or it may be OK to admit having lustful thoughts, but not intellectual doubts. Or it may be OK to admit having intellectual doubts, but not voting Democratic (or Republican, or whatever). I can imagine some survey questions that might surface what might be on the “dishonesty contract” in many congregations.
3. It’s a good start to tell humorous anecdotes about our embarrassing moments. It’s an even deeper thing to speak honestly about our natural weaknesses and limitations. Statements like, “I struggle with depression, and am deeply depressed right now,” or “I sometimes think of leaving the pastorate because I’m worried about how I’ll afford to send my kids to college,” or “There are mornings I wake up and I don’t even think God exists,” or “I am chronically disorganized, and it’s my fault the bookkeeper quit,” take things to a deeper level, a level that some pastors and congregants might be uncomfortable with.
It always strikes me how liturgical confessions of sin, if they were appropriately specific rather than vague, would help set the stage for a more authentic community life. But it’s clear that many folks simply say the confession as a meaningless ritual, because they get really ticked off if anyone suggests they’re anything less than perfect!