Accepting Vulnerability in the Pulpit
Why It Is A Bad Idea

shutterstock_214609957In the last 24 hours, I have read two posts that have a connection. One is from the Baptist/UCC tradition and one is from the Episcopal tradition.

The first post I read with skepticism. Hard to believe!

Here’s the first link.

Vulnerable leadership can be a powerful tool for building Christian community. But can pastors go to far?

(I’ll get to the second post later, but note at this point that it answers the question asked in this headline.)


This post presents a theory being discussed on seminary campuses that pastors can lead from a position of vulnerability.


In most cases this means that a pastor should talk about personal bouts with depression/mental illness, drugs/alcohol, infidelity, or personal or career failures. Sharing is caring.


I saw this in practice a year or so ago and couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. I happened to visit a church that was voting on a pastor.


The experience was surreal to my outsider’s eyes. The congregation, about to vote on a candidate, was listening to a sample sermon that was highlighting all the candidate’s problems, which were a bit alarming! I didn’t stay to learn the results of the congregational vote, but read later that the call was approved.


A friend with an Episcopal background told me this was a current leadership strategy. Apparently she is right.


The Church Is Looking for Wounded Leaders

There is strength in revealing vulnerability to be sure. It takes a strong person to exercise that strength well. The writer of the Vulnerable Leadership doesn’t spend a lot of time exploring that. She dismisses it with an odd air of acceptance.


“Jesus and his example and all that.”


Coming from vulnerability is not inherently bad. But coming from vulnerability into immediate acceptance as a leader is fraught with potential problems. It’s the leadership—the use or potential abuse of power and position—that congregations need to consider.


The Compassionate Nature of Christ

The post contains a list of seven reasons clergy think this is a good idea. They suggest it follows the compassionate example of Christ. Perhaps we should remember the compassion shown for Judas who succumbed to his vulnerability despite being in the presence of the ultimate mentor every day.


In reality, the seven objectives create a minefield in congregations that assume the candidates presented to them meet higher standards.


Good leaders put other people first. Given the nature of human frailty, this is all but impossible for the vulnerable.


Misery loves company and all that.


A Camaraderie of Pain

Sympathy is an opiate. Vulnerable pastors will find sympathizers. The idea proposes that congregations and clergy work through problems together. But the Church should not forget these things:

  • A pastor is paid.
  • A pastor is the voice of the church.
  • A pastor has authority.
  • And yes, a pastor has power.


Power in the hands of the vulnerable is dangerous.


How Can Church Leaders Think This Is A Good Idea?

The answer may lie in the current vulnerability of today’s denominations. When threatened, hierarchies find comfort in a rank and file that won’t add to their problems. The Protestant tradition promotes independent thinking and conscience among its clergy. But today hierarchy is threatened. Vulnerable clergy are more likely to follow their superiors without question. But how can the Church impose the same conformity on the laity?


Lay leaders are responsible for their congregations. While most members go about their personal spiritual journeys, lay leaders accept the burden of caring for the whole. Their job is not to protect the pastor! They are in a position to see problems developing and are conscience-bound to do right by their congregation. They have no desire to hurt anyone or expose a pastor’s problems any more than needed—but that is likely how the story will be told by a vulnerable pastor.


A change in leadership may be the best solution when things are not going well. Changing pastors is divisive by nature. Unhappy pastors can leave at any time. Unhappy congregations must vote. It gets ugly quickly.


Vulnerable leaders, who feel challenged (and more vulnerable) are likely to surround themselves with sympathizers. Sympathy is an opiate. Finding support beomes the focus of ministry. The congregational atmosphere can become cult-like. Result: a damaged congregation.


A Strategy that Puts Lay Leaders at Risk

Lay leaders gain status in their congregations when they consistently sacrifice for their people over time. They are tested over and over. Presenting congregations with vulnerable pastoral leadership puts these important and long-standing relationships at risk. It is a prescription for trouble.


The second post I read that day, makes it clear where this leadership strategy can lead.

Manslaughter charge prompts church to examine relationship with alcohol

An Episcopal bishop is charged with manslaughter for the death of a cyclist she is alleged to have struck while driving drunk. It wasn’t the first time she had driven drunk—very drunk.


The Church excused her frailties. Hush!


People were asked to vote on her candidacy for bishop without knowing that serious missteps had been forgiven.


The resulting damage is obvious. Will the Church once again brush the dust under the rug?


Advocating for vulnerable clergy puts the needs of clergy first. Poor stewardship. Poor leadership.


How many lay leaders are part of the discussion when these strategies are formed?