Much has been made in recent years about authenticity, both inside and outside church life. People long for that which is real, that which is sincere, that which is substance not shadow.
Pastors have responded to this longing in different ways. Some have changed their appearance, sporting new hair (often dyed), new clothes (often trendy), or new ink, in an effort to be more “authentic.” Or “authentic” is how such actions have been interpreted.
Others have written off authenticity as just another example of “conforming to the world.”
Connected to authenticity is vulnerability. Pastors who are vulnerable are seen as authentic, while pastors who are dogmatic or stern are not. Arising from this new church and cultural milieux I was recently asked, “How vulnerable should a pastor be when preaching?” It’s a good question, but answering a different question comes first: What does it mean to be vulnerable? According to Dictionary.com, vulnerable is an adjective meaning:
- capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt
- open to moral attack, criticism, temptation, etc.
- open to assault; difficult to defend
To rephrase the question, per the definition: “When preaching, how much should pastors open themselves up to hurt, the possibility of being wounded, to criticism, or assault?”
It does not sound like such a trendy question when asked in that light. Perhaps authenticity and vulnerability have a dark side.
What about the act of preaching?
When you think about it, though, is not the act of preaching itself an act of deep vulnerability? Presenting the fruit of prayer and study before people who—generally speaking—expect us to speak for God is either an act of gross hubris or racking (if not humiliating) openness. The mere act of preaching opens pastors up to criticism about style, substance, length, interpretive skill, voice, presence, and more. Preaching is vulnerability and easily covers all the definitions provided above.
Anecdotally, when some people suggest pastors be vulnerable, they are not thinking of those concepts. Rather, they think a pastor who admits faults, is open about personal failures, and does not put himself above the congregation is open, authentic, and vulnerable. A pastor who is real.
Some pastors may think of being too open as preaching with an oozing sore on one’s forehead, the clergy-cousin to Chaucer’s cook: unappealing, to be kind; repulsive, to be accurate.
I do not think, however, this is what most people envision as being vulnerable in the pulpit. It is more the idea of honesty about faults and truthfulness about failures; not the ministry ending kind of someone who has had twenty affairs, but of impatience with people, parenting debacles, and marriage woes. It’s the implications of the human condition, redeemed though it may be.
Vulnerability, to me, is about telling the truth about one’s self to others, privately or publicly How vulnerable, then, should pastors be when preaching?
Pastors should be honest, but not graphic, about their personal struggles with sin.
Perhaps you struggle with wanting what others have. You can admit it without calling Deacon Jones by name or his new car by make and model. If you are preaching on Matthew 5:28,
But I tell you, everyone who looks as a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (CSB)
it may be appropriate to mention your own struggle with lust (I have). But there’s no need go into specific details about who’s been sensuously invading your mind over the past month.
Pastors should honestly identify with others who “don’t have it all together.”
Everyone knows people who act like they have it all together when in reality they do not. Life is too messy. I have always been encouraged when a pastor admits having getting-the-household-ready challenges on Sunday morning, being speed-limit challenged, or losing it when a favorite team makes a boneheaded play to blow the big game. Pastors should not excuse their foibles (or straight-up sins), but identifying and admitting them is a way to make sure we do not—even inadvertently—think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think.
If a pastor is especially skilled at tennis or woodworking, they should not paint themselves in a bad light or assume false-humility in an effort to relate. There are plenty of opportunities for commonality without being bogus.
Pastors should be themselves, neither posers nor copycats.
Several years ago I was at a men’s retreat where skeet-shooting was involved. Over lunch one of the attendees mentioned “choke” related to his shotgun. He looked at me like shotgun chokes are covered in Galatians 2 and I should exegete the subject well. When he paused I said, “Man, I really don’t know what you’re talking about.” A friend at the table turned and said, “Thank you for not being a poser. It would have been easy to just roll with it and act like you knew what he was talking about. Thank you for being real.”
God made us as we are and intends for us to glorify him through our personalities, talents, skills as he empowers us. While we can learn from almost everyone, we need not mimic anyone or live behind a false-self (which will lead to ruin). Admitting ignorance opens the door to learn.
Popular business writer, Dr. Brene Brown, suggests, “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” While I would quibble slightly with the word most, her point is meaningful. Maybe a lack of vulnerability has less to do with not wanting to appear trendy and more to do with the possible negative repercussions of opening ourselves to others. Choosing to be open in spite of those possibilities does require a measure of courage.
The wicked flee when no one is pursuing them, but the righteous are as bold as a lion. (Proverbs 28:1, CSB)