What is your attitude towards weakness?

Many of us in leadership seek to eliminate weakness from our lives, thinking we must always appear strong and competent if others are to follow us. Some will be tempted to hide their weakness, especially in public; if we are honest, we may admit that we have grown to despise weakness, in ourselves, and also in others. So a book about vulnerability in leadership may not be all that appealing, and yet ‘The Vulnerable Pastor’ by Mandy Smith is well worthy of our attention as it raises for us the important question of authenticity in ministry.

The premise of this book is that all of us have limitations, and that rather than being a hindrance to effective ministry, our limitations can actually be a help – if we allow them to draw us to God, and are willing to be vulnerable enough to share them with others. Smith writes, ‘I confess that I am vulnerable. Not simply that I feel vulnerable, but that I am inherently susceptible to weakness, inadequacy.’ (p14). Such acknowledgment of our limitations actually causes us to depend more on God, the true source of our power, and releases others to also share their fears, creating a space for us all to be human and for God to be God.

This vulnerability, for Smith, is at the heart of ministry and she states: ‘If feeling our own weakness makes us rely on God, and if the best ministry grows from reliance on him, then our weakness is a ministry resource.’ (p15) This becomes the lens through which she not only understands authentic ministry, but through which she sees the whole of church life.

Vulnerability with God (getting over ourselves)

Smith begins by sharing her deep sense of inadequacy and emptiness as she stepped into leaderhip within her church (University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio), causing her to ask the question, ‘How does one lead with vulnerability?’ Her journey meant that she had to face up to the false ideas she had harboured of God, to identify the lies she had believed, and to name her fears. She found strength to continue because of her sense of call and in learning the ‘way of weakness’. She states: ‘When we see how God is able to show his power in our weakness, not in spite of our weakness but because of it, we are no longer ashamed or afraid.’ (p35) This means that Christian leaders can be human again, and show a human face to the world.

Smith asserts that if we are to pastor vulnerable human beings as vulnerable human beings, we have to unlearn the habits of putting on a strong front. She challenges the culture that avoids weakness by her own ‘weakness confessions’, identifying the things that make her feel weak such as time, understanding God, parenting, longing, her body. Then she explores ways by which she seeks unhelpfully to overcome her weaknesses through control and hard work. The need is to break the cycle of superhuman expectations and to accept our smallness.

Inadequacy makes us aware of our need of God, and every experience of weakness can become for us a place of grace. His grace is sufficient for us, and his power made perfect (expanding to its full erasure) in our weakness (2Cor 12:9). We are emptied so that God can fill us. The gut-level instinct to call out for help (Save me!) is what connects us to God. Our stories of salvation are not distant memories but ongoing stories of his deliverance.

Few things make us more vulnerable than our emotions. We need to develop empathy if we are to connect with others, but this means being aware of our own emotions, and being freed of gender stereotypes (women are emotional, men are not). Tears are perceived as weakness, and leaders must be strong, so we may suppress our emotions. If we allow ourselves the vulnerability of emotion we will find new ways to connect with each other and God. Smith writes, ‘How a leader handles his or her own emotions will shape the culture of the church.’ (p65). Some key areas to be explored are times of darkness (depression), feelings of grief and loss, the experience of doubt, a sense of frustration and times of discomfort and pain.

A deep sense of vulnerability will of course affect how we pray. Sometimes all we have to give are wordless sighs, but the Psalms give us permission to be honest before God. They are ‘an outpouring of a raw human spirit, written in a rough hand.’ (p79). We can bring our intense and negative emotions to God because he can handle them.

We can dare to be vulnerable before the Bible too, allowing ourselves to open up to its truth, and allowing Scripture to read us. This means we are not to analyse it like a lab technician, but to allow it to work on our hearts, and be ‘under the knife’ ourselves (Hebrews 4:12-13). ‘Suddenly this living and active thing is doing surgery on us,’ she says, ‘inviting us to rest in a place where we are naked and laid bare, where we allow it to make difficult cuts, to judge the thoughts and intentions of our hearts.’ (p92).


Vulnerability behind the scenes (being true to ourselves)

Smith suggests that this acceptance of our humanness with its vulnerability should shape our church culture, producing what she calls ‘a healthy and vulnerable ministry culture.’ (p104) Ministry should be shaped from our human limitations – if God gave the church to humans, he must have a way for humans to do church. As humans we need each other, so church must be collaborative, equipping and transparent; because humans are flawed it will need to be experimental, flexible and comfortable with process (messiness). A playful culture will help reduce stress, and it will help if we can become comfortable with uncertainty as we seek to follow God into the future.

All this will affect how we recognize and develop leaders, and maybe cause a collision with accepted leadership norms where the standard of leadership sets the bar pretty high. ‘When we think “leader”, we often visualise strong, otherworldly people. While we admire that kind of leader, very few of us are qualified to be it. And few Biblical leaders would qualify either.’ (p122) Every weakness may feel like a disqualification, but if we allow our inadequacy to drive us back to God in deopendency then it becomes an opportunity for ministry. Leadership that grows out of a deep need for God’s leadership looks very different. People are crying out for leaders who are approachable, transparent and real. We should be willing to take risks with emerging leaders, walking alongside them and helping them to grow through their challenges and frustrations.

Pastors must learn to use their time wisely and not be driven by the ‘shoulds’ that they have internalised. We are not to follow the world’s culture of consumerism and productivity, but step out of the rat race of hyperproductivity. If doing church means ruining health and families we are doing something wrong. She says, ‘God has commissioned humans to run his church. Do we think he doesn’t know our limitations? There must be some way for us to do his work as humans.’ (p139) This will involve creating healthy rhythms of life (daily, weekly, annual). A central aspect of this life-affirming approach is Sabbath-keeping.

An important aspect of this approach to ministry is to redefine what we mean by ‘success’, often measured by buildings, bodies and budgets. Perhaps faithfulness is a better measure. She writes, ‘Faithfulness takes our eyes from the surface level and draws them to health and deeper motivations.’ (p150) Another word might be thriving – thriving things grow and bear fruit and reproduce. A ministry exists to bless, and to continue to bless, but in a way that is sustainable: ‘We give in a way that allows us to keep giving, year in and year out. We care for ourselves – as individual servants and as an organisation – in a way that enables us to keep caring for others.’ (p154) We need not strive in our own power, but play our part as God draws people to himself. Faithfulness can be maintained as we know what his part is and what is ours – from that rest comes much fruit, fruit that lasts.

Vulnerability with an audience (practicing in public)

Smith’s approach affects how we teach and preach as we seek to live out the things we believe. Based on Acts 2:42, Smith shares several core practices that help with this: ritual and rhythm of life; process and tension; generosity; hospitality and patience. Leaders are seen as facilitators of this development in the lives of others. Teaching is about a process of discovery that invites people into a process that the teachers themselves engage in. Often there are post-sermon testimonies, or questions for use in small groups and practical ways for people to engage with the message. There is a place for sharing personal struggles, but care should be taken less we under-share or over-share. In preparation we seek not otherworldly enlightenment but to embody the truths we share – our lives become a testing ground for the sermon – a willingness to let scripture into our own story.

How can vulnerability help us to reach those outside of church? Smith dislikes the overuse of the word kingdom, finding it too much associated with power and ruling others. She prefers to see the kingdom in the way in which the king meets our deepest needs as human beings. Our own yearnings and questions are connected to those of all human beings and can be the point of contact. Our own hunger holds the clue for how the world hungers. We can name our weakness and bring it to the world. The church can get along fine without cultural power. It’s our need for God that points others to him. Our call is to admit how much we lack, how much we yearn

We have this treasure in earthen vessels (2Corinthians 4:7). She writes, ‘If we had perfect, powerful forms through which to express this treasure, we would seem to be expressing our own power …. But this glory is housed in human bodies so that it will be obvious whose power is at work. Weakness and failure can become an invitation to rely on him and the fuel for inward renewal.

Smith concludes; ‘This honest, vulnerable approach shows itself true to in Scripture, in our hearts, in our churches, in the world.’ (p195)

The Vulnerable Pastor by Mandy Smith (IVP 2016)