Safeguards for the Vulnerable Leader
Last week I spent a few days teaching a class called The Vulnerable Leader, with doctor of ministry students at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas. This was the second year I have had the privilege of spending this kind of intense time with other practical theologians considering the challenges of effective leadership for the future of the church, and I found the experience this year similarly enriching.
In developing the class, it was my intention to make the case that the church has largely trailed corporate America in styles and patterns of leadership. While we’re still practicing an authoritarian style of top-down leadership we copied from corporate America in, say, 1950 or so, much of corporate America has moved on to embrace a more collaborative, engaged kind of leadership. These old patterns of leadership in which we’re often stuck are not sufficient for the leadership task at hand.
Not only is vulnerable leadership the way of the future for the church; I like to think it was our style of leadership in the first place — you know, given Jesus and his example and all of that.
As we delved more deeply into the topic last week the concern was raised, as it should have been, about the limits of vulnerability. Where are the lines for appropriate vulnerability? We’ve all been in the pew when the pastor’s illustration causes everyone to cringe. And even worse, most of us can recount situations in which pastors were inappropriately vulnerable, resulting in boundary crossing abuse.
Because of that question, it seemed very important to set some rules for vulnerable leadership, rules by which we as pastoral leaders might gauge our disclosure and action and use our vulnerability for what it can be in its purest form: a powerful tool to build community, cast a vision and welcome the kingdom Jesus came to show us.
Thinking about self-disclosure? Here are some guidelines for measuring your judgment:
1. Sharing this moves my community to deeper connection. What’s my motivation for sharing? Brené Brown says that moments of self-disclosure or vulnerability are like tiny points of light. Our goal should always be to create multiple points of light — yours, mine and ours — so we’re connected to each other like a string of lights, and casting a brighter light together.
2. I’m sharing with people who have earned the right to hear my pain. Leadership is an art in every expression, and judgment about vulnerability and appropriate disclosure isn’t any different. There are some things you can share with people who have walked the journey of life alongside you that you flatly shouldn’t be sharing with a first-time visitor to your church. There are appropriate venues for deeper sharing, and healthy contexts in which different expressions of vulnerability are powerful and effective. Not sure? Ask a wise advisor for perspective.
3. I’m sharing from my scars, not my wounds. I borrowed this from Nadia Bolz-Weber, because she’s 100 percent correct. Pastors, your congregation is not your gathered weekly therapy session, and you hurt your congregation when your sharing bleeds all over them. On the other hand, healed over scars are tough; they’re badges of honor that say: I survived, I learned something, I have wisdom to share.
4. I have a leadership objective in my sharing. This rule speaks to the context of vulnerable leadership. An excellent leader should always be looking ahead, scanning the horizon for the next place the people are headed. Through thoughtful, mature vulnerability, a leader can often open new possibilities of consideration for her people, help them begin engaging an issue, move them to a place of shared experience from which they can courageously embrace new direction.
5. I can speak of my experience with humor or levity. If you can’t laugh about your experience, don’t talk about it. Harken back to rule No. 1 in preaching class: don’t use illustrations in which you are the hero. Part of vulnerable leadership is talking about weakness, admitting the need for help, apologizing for mistakes. Every one of those categories is filled with self-deprecating humor. Laughing at yourself helps your people know you’re a real human being, just like them, and shared laughter always, always draws us closer together.
6. I feel confident my people can hear this without being harmed. In the same way that levels of vulnerable leadership are practiced within the context of relationship, the effective leader must always be thinking about the issues presenting themselves within the community. There is a time and place for everything, as my grandmother always used to say. If your vulnerability will prematurely lead your people to places they cannot yet tend in healthy ways, you’d better take a step back and think again.
7. I am actively tending my own issues elsewhere in healthy ways. This is one rule that shouldn’t even have to be on this list, it’s so obvious. Alas, we pastoral leaders are notorious for neglecting healthy practice in our own lives. And, as we all know, there is no possibility of exercising effective vulnerable leadership if the leader is not tending his health with rigorous discipline. That looks different for everybody of course, but whatever it is — therapist, spiritual director, coach, doctor, personal trainer, colleague group — find it and use it.
A vulnerable style of leadership, where the leader is authentic and collaborative, has to be the way of the future for the church. It’s a more sophisticated style of leadership than traditional authoritarian models; it calls for a certain artistry and investment other models do not.
It also calls us to invest our lives and to risk whatever illusion of safety and predictability we’ve managed to build around our pastoral personas. It can hurt in the way of the one who invited us to take up our cross and follow him.
And it can give substance to the kind of transformation the church was born to lead.