Can leaders be truly vulnerable?


In current discussions about the challenges facing the church, there is often a call for ‘strong leadership’. Sometimes this is explicit, but more often it is implicit: we need pioneering, courageous, risk-taking leaders who will help make the step-change that the church needs to address key issues.

This approach raises a key pastoral, ministerial and personal question which is in danger of being passed over. In a culture of ‘strong leadership’, is there any value in leaders being vulnerable? Indeed, is it still possible? In the latest Grove Leadership booklet, Emma Sykes addresses this vital question.

Emma begins with a striking account of her own experience of vulnerability in ministry.

I was in my second year of curacy, loving ordained ministry, enjoying all the new challenges and feeling like I was starting to settle in. Then, one gloriously sunny day, on my day off, just as we were rushing to get out of the house and I was shouting at the kids to get their shoes on, two policemen came and knocked at our door. After some confusion, bewilderment and incomprehension it came to light that my dad had taken his own life that morning. To say that it was out of the blue does not come close to the impact it had. Later I described it as a vast earthquake, and one that had many aftershocks.

Three weeks later, still working through the personal tragedy and scraping the surface of understanding, it became the focus of my first sermon back at church. It just so happened that the passage for that Sunday was from Luke’s gospel, the story of Jesus raising the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7.11–17). Of course I did not have to refer to my own personal tragedy, but at the time it dominated everything I did. In the sermon that day I shared the pain, grief, bewilderment and doubt I was facing, whilst seeing how Jesus had stepped into the bleakest of places to bring glimmers of hope.

Emma goes on to recount the surprisingly positive responses to her own sharing of vulnerability, and the way it opened up issues for many of her listeners. She looks at some key points of vulnerability for church leaders, and make the important distinction between resolved and unresolved vulnerability.

The primary focus of this booklet is on times of unresolved vulnerability. These are current situations we are struggling through and need help with. How do we navigate these as authentically as possible?

To help answer this question, I want to focus on three areas: the value of being a vulnerable leader; the impact that it has on those we lead and minister to and with; and how an understanding of our own leadership contexts and style can enable us to be more appropriately vulnerable leaders.

Emma then offers a theological context for thinking about vulnerability, including seeing this as interwoven in the ministry of Jesus.

Jesus was vulnerable. There is the obvious human physical vulnerability of being born as a fragile baby in a politically hostile world. However, more significantly in relationship to leadership, there are times when he chooses to be vulnerable physically, emotionally, mentally and psychologically so that God’s greater purposes can be displayed through him. The most profound example of this is in the Garden of Gethsemane—Jesus at his lowest point…

If Jesus knew his friends were going to be disloyal and desert him, why did he ask for their help? Why did he allow them to see him in such a vulnerable state? The answer perhaps is that there is nowhere in our own depths of emo- tion, struggle and vulnerability that Jesus has not experienced. If Jesus longed for his friends’ support at a time of intolerable anguish, then how much more should we. We are not called to repeat Jesus’ unique moment of suffering, but what Gethsemane shows us is that anguish and vulnerability are part of the normal Christian experience. The challenge is to remain there with ourselves and others and wrestle in prayer, waiting for God’s redemptive response, and for his will to be done.

Gethsemane is pivotal because it is not just about seeing Jesus at his most vulnerable. It is also the point where he makes the choice to face his own death so that God’s transformative purposes for the whole world could be fulfilled. Simon Walker expresses it in this way: ‘Jesus’ death on the cross stood as a rebuke to all attempts by the church to establish God’s kingdom through the use of power, whether physical, economic, political or military. There can be no shadow of a doubt that at the heart of God’s purposes to transform the world is the way of vulnerable self-offering.’ As leaders, God can use our inevitable vulnerabilities to transform our lives and the lives of those around us.

Emma then offers a well-thought-through framework for considering vulnerability in leadership, drawing on three key thinkers in this area. She also draws on her own research on the impact of vulnerability, and the way the perception of leadership is changed.

There was an overwhelming consensus amongst the participants that church leaders who share stories are ‘being real’; it ‘humanizes them.’ For some this showed that the leader trusted the congregation. Some alluded to this trust as leading to reciprocity of relationship; they were not people to whom a leader ministered, but they were together, ministering with. The implication is that if you trust another person with vulnerability, then you are also giving worth to that person. This is interesting from a psychological perspective, where relationships are seen as fundamental to being human: that for people to grow in understanding there needs to be a mutuality in relationship, to be seen to be an authentic person of equal worth to another. It would appear that this is no less true of leaders and their congregations.

The final section sets out some practical guidelines on showing vulnerability in appropriate and responsible ways, including locating it within the right theological framework.

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 22.51.50One of the striking comments from the research I did was when someone recounted hearing a story from a church leader that ended in despair and hopelessness and how that led them as a listener to feel despair and hopelessness. As Christian leaders we have a responsibility to be authentic, to be honest, but also to live and proclaim the hope of the gos- pel. This does not mean denying that there are doubts and uncertainties, times of bewilderment and silence, but it does mean recognizing that we live in the light of the eternal hope. This is how we can encourage others and be the embodiment of hope, perseverance and faith whilst also acknowledging we live in a world where that is still being played out. As John Ortberg puts it, ‘You never know what might happen on the third day. I cling to that. I put all my hope in a third-day God. But I live in a second-day world.’21 Or, as Paul would say, ‘Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known’ (1 Cor 13.12).

This feels to me like a really significant contribution to thinking about ministry and leadership in a time of change. You can order it (post free in the UK) from the Grove website.

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10 thoughts on “Can leaders be truly vulnerable?”

  1. This sounds like a wonderful contribution to this important but often lacking conversation in ministry, I will buy it! It is also great to have an example from the Church in the UK. I have recently read ‘The Vulnerable Pastor’ by Mandy Smith (from the US context), which is also excellent, and I would recommend as another good source for reflecting on this topic.

    I have to say I have been blessed to have received honest and helpful input about this at my training institution from a variety of people, whether lecturers or guest speakers who are involved in pastoral ministry and leadership too. I feel equipped (as I can be) heading into curacy to grapple with both vulnerability and hope and also were to go to find my own pastoral support.

    Thank you Emma!

  2. emma sykes that was truly amazing, especially in te light of mental health awareness week which deals with relationships. brings to mind 2corinthians 9= my grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness, thank you god. thank you emma. seems very “right” for me now!

  3. My own journey suggests to me that it is only in the terrifying risk of vulnerability that life breaks through. Maria Dawns book on Weakness, started my explorations.

  4. While, in a perfect world, we would like our leaders to be well balanced – both tough and tender in the appropriate situations – I think there is an area where toughness is essential for effective leadership: having a thick skin. By this I mean not showing your personal vulnerability when faced with honest but challenging comments; leaders may indeed feel vulnerable in such a situation but showing it is probably a self indulgence which needs resisting.

    Most of us must, at some time, have come across leaders whose thin skin meant that we refrained from saying what really needed to be said; and such a situation inevitably leads to a kind of limbo where resolution of a problem and renewed progress cannot happen. And lack of resolution inevitably leads to lowered expectation which then causes worsening morale all around; and of course this can then feed into greater feelings of vulnerability for the leader…

    None of which is to suggest that vulnerability is a negative thing (it isn’t), it’s just a case of knowing when to reveal it or share it with others.

  5. Ok yeah sure, a bit of vulnerability helps leadership, for the reasons you and Emma give. But let’s not overplay it. Leadership is obviously mostly about strength, that’s why you’re in that position, and to be effective you need to be the rock when others falter. Let’s not forget that while Christ was crucified in weakness he lives by God’s power:

    He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you. (2Cor 13:3-4)

    Christians are understandably prone to an idealisation of weakness, and while it has its place, we do need to be a resurrection people too. And we need effective leaders whose vulnerability is contained within appropriate limits, and who also can cope with the sometimes immense pressures of ministry.

    • ‘Leadership is obviously mostly about strength’ – really? I’d say leadership is about knowing and playing to your strengths (and working with other people with different strengths), but also about clear vision, courage, and building relationships. Yes, leaders need to be effective, and able to cope with pressure and criticism, but that doesn’t necessarily mean being (or pretending to be) super-tough. It takes strength to admit to vulnerability, and wisdom to know when to seek help (or even withdraw from some aspects of ministry for a while). We can take steps to build up our resilience, but only if we acknowledge that we need to do this. Maybe the key questions are who do we expose our vulnerability to, and in what context?

      • I am not sure you have read your bible particularly attentively. Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Samuel, John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, Jesus – utterly vulnerable by choice – all these and so many more were vulnerable and yet God’s power in and with them brings them and the people who follow them and God through…Weakness does not always look like strength and yet is is – because God’s power is made perfect in humanity’s weakness….it’s not about our strength (or lack of it), but about God’s.

  6. I felt that this paragraph was misleading:

    There was an overwhelming consensus amongst the participants that church leaders who share stories are ‘being real’; it ‘humanizes them.’ For some [note this is no longer an overwhelming consensus] this showed that the leader trusted the congregation. Some [again, we are talking now about an unspecified proportion] alluded [this is an ambiguous word] to this trust as leading to reciprocity of relationship; they were not people to whom a leader ministered, but they were together, ministering with. The implication [so this is not what people have actually said] is that if you trust another person with vulnerability, then you are also giving worth to that person [though of course you can give them worth in other ways not involving vulnerability, e.g. by praising them and trusting them with responsibility]. This is interesting from a psychological perspective, where relationships are seen as fundamental to being human: that for people to grow in understanding there needs to be a mutuality in relationship, to be seen to be an authentic person of equal worth to another [now it looks like unless you are vulnerable you can’t treat someone as of equal worth, which is absurd]. It would appear that this is no less true of leaders and their congregations [how this conclusion has been reached is a mystery, since the overwhelming consensus at the start of the paragraph on sharing stories making leaders more human was soon lost into references to ‘some people” and implications and allusions].

    Personally, I want a warm, friendly effective leader. Too much manifest vulnerability will be off-putting and, frankly, a bit annoying. But that isn’t to take away from Emma’s main point about the value of appropriate vulnerability, it’s just to push a little on quite how much is appropriate.


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