By Sue Magrath | Sacred Mountain Ministries
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about vulnerability lately. I have to admit this has come up because I finally jumped on the Brene’ Brown bandwagon. See how vulnerable I was just now, admitting that I have, until recently, eschewed an author that people have been raving to me about for literally years? But seriously, I think that vulnerability is particularly difficult for clergy. Finding the right balance between vulnerability and over-sharing is hard. Discerning what is acceptable to share and with whom is equally troublesome. I mean, boundary training teaches us to be circumspect about these things. And yet, the desire to be known and understood for who we are is universal.
When Gregg Sealey and I started talking about what the goals for the Clergy Wellness Task Force should be, one of the things at the top of the list was to create a culture where help-seeking behavior and vulnerability were the norm and not the exception. For far too long, clergy have let shame get in the way of the vulnerability that is required in order to ask for help. It’s hard to dredge up the courage and the willingness to admit that we’re not perfect. As Brene’ Brown spells out, we too often shut down that courage with questions and statements like these:
“What will people think?”
“No one can find out about ___________________.”
“I’m going to pretend that everything is okay.”
“Taking care of them is more important than taking care of me.”[i]
And yet, time after time, Brown relates experiences in which she shared something that exposed her to possible judgment or criticism, only to find that her listeners identified completely with her story. My guess is that you have had these experiences as well—times when you dared to speak your truth and had people say, “Me, too!” This kind of sharing and the feeling of being fully received by others can be a release from shame, allowing you to move on from the sense of isolation that arises from keeping your perceived flaws to yourself.
Often, these kinds of revelations can also be a catalyst for healing in the people who hear your story, identify with it, and realize that they are not alone. What a gift this is to others! And the gift you receive is understanding and support from those who have been there and know what worked to help them resolve (or accept) the issue, grow from it, and move on.
Nonetheless, there are times and places for clergy to be vulnerable, and it’s good to have some guidelines for that. In my work, I have seen clergy who used the pulpit to process pain or loss in ways that were not healthy for them or the congregation. Two good questions to ask yourself are, “Who’s it for?” and “Am I preaching from the wound or the scar?” If you are telling your congregation or a church member something in order to meet your own personal needs, that is not a good thing. You would be better off sharing those needs with a therapist, spiritual director, a trusted clergy colleague, or a good friend. An open and unhealed wound is not best shared from the pulpit. However, sharing from the scar means that enough healing has happened that you can see and share the wisdom you gained from a painful experience.
In this column over the past couple of years, many clergy have dared to be vulnerable and share stories that reveal their struggles with health issues, anxiety, depression, spiritual darkness, self-doubt, and troubled relationships. Some have related a story in which they revealed something to a parishioner who received comfort from knowing their pastor could be an understanding support person for their own similar situation. Their courage has been a gift to us all. They inspire us to be courageous, too. They help us to realize how alike we are. Nobody is perfect. We are all human and worthy of love and acceptance, flaws and all.
If you have a story to tell, the Clergy Wellness Corner is always looking for new material, and we would love to hear from you. Dare to be vulnerable! (Contact Sue Magrath at firstname.lastname@example.org.) But if you are struggling and need a safe place to talk about it, check out the Helping Professionals Directory on the Board of Ordained Ministries page of the conference website.
[i] Brene’ Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, Hazeldon, 2010.
Sue Magrath is a spiritual director and retreat leader living in the Seven Rivers District. She also coordinates efforts such as the Clergy Wellness Corner to support the health of spiritual leaders in the Pacific Northwest.