from venting to vulnerability: why me (and your pastor) might be telling the truth too much or too little

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Monday, January 24th, 2011


from venting to vulnerability: why me (and your pastor) might be telling the truth too much or too little

you know those times when you just keep getting hit over the head from multiple, disconnected directions about an issue or value or lesson you need to learn?

yeah, this is a post about that.

it all began friday with a blog post from one of my favorite authors, don miller. the post, titled how wise is honesty, looks at two of his friends—musician derek webb and author max lucado—and their very different different levels of open honesty. what particularly caught my attention was his closing thought about pastors. miller writes,

What I’m wondering is how honest do you want people to be? If your pastor is steaming mad one night, venting to his wife about what some jerk at the church said, do you want him to tweet about it? Do you want to know? And if you don’t, is it because that wouldn’t be wise, or because you want to think your pastor is somebody he isn’t?

i encourage you to read the entire post. i spent the weekend thinking about the questions he raised quite a bit and then, as another punch to the gut about honesty and vulnerability and all related things that have been stirring in my brain (and heart), my twitter friend sara beth, tweeted this:

Take 20 minutes and watch this TED talk; I absolutely needed to remember the power of vulnerability… than a minute ago via Tweetie for Mac

yes. yes. yes. yes. yes.

before you read anymore of my ramblings, go view the video of brene brown’s ted talk about the power of vulnerability (and make sure to read don miller’s blog post).

first of all, what’s particularly compelling to me about this issue, in general, is that i’m a very open and honest person (long time blog readers and twitter followers are chuckling at the understatement…) much like brene brown, i believe in the power of vulnerability and authenticity and transparency. again, watch the video. she says it better than i can. 🙂

moreover than just a pure personal compulsion, i am particularly interested, as a pastor, in the pastoral implications, as suggested by miller.

let me be clear and candid: pastors tend to be the most closed and guarded group of people you can find.

quite frankly, pastors are literally taught to be this way. they are told that people will abuse your vulnerability and that any cracks will be widened. they are taught that transparency ruins structures and disallows pastoral control and power to flourish. they are told that coming alongside people with your fears and struggles and temptations and doubts will lessen their ability to speak “objective” truth into peoples’ lives.

and they’re absolutely right.

and that’s the beauty.

and the struggle. and the heartbreaking reality. and the constant internal conflict.

and the very thing that allows you to create authentic relationships with people. to truly shepherd people. to have real life insight into peoples’ lives. to be jesus to others.

now, i don’t want to sound flippant about all this and assume pastors are just shady and secretive and power-hungry. there’s basically two issues at play with lacking pastoral vulnerability and honesty.

on one hand, you truly do have a relatively large percentage of pastors who have been deeply hurt because of their attempts to be honest and vulnerable. i can relate to this, to (fittingly) be completely honest. as a person who truly does believe in the power of vulnerability and honesty (and tries to practice it), i’ve been burned bad many times by people who i never thought would have taken advantage of a perceived weakness. it’s hard to bounce back from that type of betrayal. it makes you withdraw and want to discontinue exercising the kind of trust and courage it takes to be vulnerable. i believe many really good pastors simply fall in this category.

on the other hand, though, is the group of pastors who are truly hiding something. i’m not talking about them necessarily being serial killers or living a tiger woods-esque secret life (thought some certainly do/might), but they certainly don’t want others (particularly their church members) to know their true self. if they knew, they would lose their power and pristine image and everything they’ve tried so hard to build. this is really the unhealthy and abusive form of dishonesty that i’m most heartbroken by.

so why do these pastors do this beyond the surface things i’ve mentioned? well, i’ve had my theories, but brene brown helped to put succinct words to my suspicions. in her ted talk (that you have watched, of course), she lists 4 things we do to avoid vulnerability and authenticity (which is rooted in fear and unworthiness).

[my thought in italics]

1. we numb :: there’s a particularly high percentage of obesity and unhealthy living amongst pastors. just one of many forms of numbing our inadequacy and fear.
2. we make the uncertain certain :: wow. could this scream pastors and religion any more?? this is why pastors rant and rave and prove their points and draw lines and demand strict adherence to their ways.
3. we perfect :: again, could this be any more fitting of many pastors? the insane need to be perfect in our dress and talk and family appearance is a huge source of control for many pastors.
4. we pretend :: much like the need to be perfect, pastors tend to fake it if they know inside that they aren’t able to live up to the standards that they think they should have.

so what does brown say is the solutions to these things? how do i think pastors begin to embrace honesty and vulnerability and authenticity? two simple things:

1. let ourselves be seen :: even if it’s baby steps to baring yourself, this is a starting point.
2. believe that we’re enough :: it’s time to drop the false premise that pastors should be perfect and without blemish and powerful and all-knowing. when we drop that load of crap, we can begin to believe that we’re enough, just as we are.

so, let’s embrace honesty. let’s draw appropriate lines, but embrace a raw vulnerability that allows us to be transparent, sharing in the realities of the people who attend our churches. it’s a beautiful, scary, freeing, frightening, incredible thing that i believe would truly transform the lives of both pastors and their churches.