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.
One 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.
Follow me on Twitter @psephizo
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?