How vulnerable is too vulnerable when you’re in charge?

6a0105362ee2fb970c0120a755ce8c970b-800wiIf I hear one more person quote Leonard Cohen’s “There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in” I think I’m going to lose it. It’s not that it’s not true. It’s just that there’s more to the story. There’s a big difference between having a crack that shows you’re human and cracking up to the point of breakdown. And after the last retreat I facilitated, I worried my hairline fracture had quickly become a fault line.

Vulnerability has become a pop-darling these days thanks to the work of Brené Brown and others like her who have tried to dust off its shameful stigma and hold it up as a vital practice for cultivating trustworthy leaders. (Brown calls vulnerability “the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”) Many Christians have acknowledged the necessity of vulnerability thanks in large part to timeless works like Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer, Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness, and Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets. Buechner has particularly harsh words for ministers who trade authenticity for anecdotes.

You could say I profess vulnerability for a living. I’m a writer of the Christian-memoir variety which comes with a nauseating wave of discernment about what and how much to share about my life. But so too do I facilitate retreats for faith leaders wondering the same thing; how can I minister openheartedly without my life being an open book? Put another way, how can I be “appropriately” vulnerable without feeling unsafe, untrusting, or unprofessional?

It was the first full retreat I had ever co-facilitated. Two seasoned facilitators, both decades older than I, joined me in leading thirty ministers from across the country and Canada looking to build relational trust in their congregations. While we spent most of our time in a large learning circle, we broke into smaller groups for more intimate sessions, like the soul story process.

The soul story process is an activity designed by Susan Banyas to encourage honest sharing and holy listening. Each person in the group gets five minutes, uninterrupted, to share a story from their soul. While they are sharing, the rest of the group is listening for an image that story elicits. It could be a literal image mentioned in the story or one that comes to the listener unannounced. Once the person is finished sharing, the rest of the group takes another five minutes to paint a picture – with watercolors so as not to encourage perfectionism – that they then give to the focus person. Interpretation of the image is discouraged so as not to subtly coerce the focus person but instead each person, one-by-one, offers his or her painting as a gift, explaining only that, “This is a painting of a child’s crib” or “This is barbed wire holding together a heart.”

For this particular soul story session we were to reflect on a time in our ministry when we felt lost, starved, cut off from the root that animates our calling. I decided to tell a recent story from my writing life in which differences had become divisions between me and a collaborator. It was, as Buechner would say, a real “flesh-and-blood account”, one that was still painfully unresolved and one that still ran circles in my mind on crazy-making days. Later, I wondered why I didn’t choose something else, something that I had a better handle on rather than something that was “manhandling” me.

 Vulnerability Lesson #1: Choose stories or anecdotes to share that you’ve processed first in private. You don’t have to have perfect clarity before sharing publicly but it helps if you’ve had time to examine it with a trusted confidant.

There was a break between the time when we reflected on the story and when we gathered in our small group to share. I wandered out to the back porch of the retreat center and sat in a rocking chair with my laptop propped open. I hadn’t checked e-mail since we arrived and thought I could do a quick clean-up of my inbox before the soul story process began. A recent comment on a blog post was waiting to unravel me.

Vulnerability Lesson #2: Protect your inner sanctuary from attack before sharing by entering a space of quietude.

 I wish I had spent our break in prayer, silence, or Scripture as I prepared to lead my small group to potentially painful places for us all. Instead, I was wiping away the angry tears that had begun welling in my eyes, fixated now on how I could respond to the comment after the session with grace and maybe even a little holy fire. When it was time to begin the process, I came back inside, welcomed each group member to the circle, and took a shaky breath.

It began well enough. Someone shared, and then another person shared, and I was beginning to relax into my chair as we moved from listening to painting to giving our images away like balloons to an unknown sky. We were halfway through the third person sharing when the door to our gathering space opened and one of the facilities managers walked in. “Erin, I need to talk to you.”

Vulnerability Lesson #3: Protect your outer sanctuary from interruption once you’ve begun sharing by drawing appropriate boundaries.

By God’s grace, I was able to say firmly but calmly, “I will need to talk to you in five or ten minutes.” For someone like me who is often a wuss-on-the-spot but a bear-in-the-aftermath, this was no small gift to find my words in the moment. I waited for the person sharing to finish, left the room, dealt with the issue at hand, and returned. Still, the confrontation left me even more rankled than ever and I hadn’t even shared my own story yet.

Vulnerability Lesson #4: If you feel emotionally unsafe when it’s time to share, you risk inviting harm to your own soul or even doing harm to others. Don’t be afraid to course-correct; you can always decide to share more later.

In the end, I didn’t have enough self-awareness to change direction and instead shared my story as planned. By the end of my allotted time, tears were fogging my eyes and doubts were clouding my thoughts. I wondered if it was hard for my group members to paint through the nagging questions they had about me. Who is this woman? So young? So naïve? So fragile? What does she know anyway about ministry, about life, about living openheartedly?

I was astounded by their responses. The pictures were dripping wet with compassion. Somehow they each saw through the fear and the anxiety and the anger in my story and made out the truth of my words. Even though I was sure I had crossed the line between a facilitator with an open heart and one who was just falling apart, in that moment, they became ministers to me.

It is a hard balance in ministry between being a leader who invites vulnerability and being a leader who is so vulnerable s/he needs constant consoling from those s/he serves. Jesus modeled the kind of vulnerability we’re all after; openhearted enough to be affected but surefooted enough to be effective. Very often, I need help in discerning how I’m holding this leadership paradox. When I later recounted my “misstep” with one of my co-facilitators, she said to me without a lick of pity, “Erin, I wouldn’t have done a thing different.”

When we risk leading with vulnerability, we risk leading from our wounds. To be sure, our wounds are unavoidable. Like shadows or cracks, we carry them with us wherever we go. But like shadows or cracks, they are not the whole story. The flesh is more substantial than the shadow. The vessel is more prominent than the crack. Our gifts are brighter than our wounds.

Whether in life or ministry, we lead openheartedly when we lead with our whole selves but so, too, do we become whole by turning toward the light.

6 responses to “How vulnerable is too vulnerable when you’re in charge?

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I know you are helping so many out there with your stories, your shared vulnerability. This is a good role model for minitry as well as parenthood.

  2. I LOVE this line, Erin: ” Jesus modeled the kind of vulnerability we’re all after; openhearted enough to be affected but surefooted enough to be effective.” Pointed and powerful, and i needed your courage for my encouragement today. Thank you for this!

  3. Your timing is impeccable! Last Sunday I preached from a vulnerable place in my recent past, and all I can say to you right now is, “thank you.” Picking up my copy of Wounded Healer for another read.

  4. This is one of my favorite posts you’ve shared, Erin. The question of “how much vulnerability is the right amount” rolls around in my mind all the time as a person in ministry, seeking to foster openness and genuine connections with others in the church. I really appreciate your perspective and find it helpful!

  5. Wow, very powerful writing. I often wonder if vulnerability is only allowed in certain parts of our lives. When in fact vulnerability is always around in every aspect, just varying degrees. Whether we are vulnerable to our feelings or those of others.

  6. I can’t say that I’ve ever truly been in a position of leadership in which I was the person to go to for answers or anything like that, but I can definitely say I know a few things about vulnerability. This post resonates with me very well. Your words are powerful, sensational and full with the strength of the staggering truth. This has been the first post of yours I’ve read and I can very well ensure that it will not be the last. Thank you Erin.

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