Is the church a safe place to lay bare your soul?
That is the question posed by my friend Tanya Marlow in a recent article on the PremierChristianity blog. You can read it here: http://www.premierchristianity.com/Blog/Can-you-wear-a-bikini-to-church.
She asks a number of uncomfortable questions: can I show my whole self here and still be loved? Which would you find more vulnerable - turning up to church dressed in swimwear or admitting to your home group that you have a problem with alcohol; would I still be welcome if people knew my faults?
Tanya concludes with a plea for pastors and leaders not to communicate or model that we have to be perfect. Surely if they are prepared to model vulnerability it becomes so much easier for everyone else: “ If a pastor can lay bare her or his soul, with all its cellulite and sin, then the church may feel they can also be honest.”
I think that’s a crucial question. I agree with Tanya that upfront leaders need to take the lead in vulnerability. We are meant to be the chief repenters and forgivers. How is anyone else meant to know how to do it unless they can see us? The apostle Paul was not afraid to tell people to follow him as he followed Christ, nor to instruct Timothy to let people see his progress (1 Tim 4). Which implies both that Timothy though a leader wasn’t the finished article and that others would be helped in their walk with God by seeing the growth in his. Tanya’s plea is that more of this approach in church leaders is immeasurably helpful to their congregations.
So the answer is obvious, isn’t it? Of course pastors should model vulnerability and transparency. If the church isn’t a safe place for them to bare their souls it clearly can’t be safe for anyone else to do so.
Then why don’t we see more leaders doing so? If that should just be normal church life why is it even necessary for her to write the article? I think the trouble is that many leaders already feel that they are the most exposed people in the church. Church leaders (especially sole leaders) can easily become the focus of the people’s aspirations and hopes for both the church and their personal spiritual lives. Not only so, they can also easily become the sole focus of every piece of dissatisfaction and criticism (and seeing as you can’t please all the people all the time there is never total satisfaction).
Add to that three other things:
1. The church might have an unspoken assumption that your job depends on not sinning (or you secretly fear that they might)
2. The church might own the house you live in
3. The expectations placed upon you as a leader are frequently unmeetable or mutually contradictory
All of which makes additional self-exposure - especially if it also has anything to do with your family - an almost impossible ask emotionally. It is more likely to lead to wearing of masks and withdrawal for the sake of self-preservation. Why show so much more of yourself than anyone else in the church if the likely consequences are potentially so damaging?
As Tanya put it to me in conversation “Catch 22”. A vicious circle in which the church wants more vulnerable leaders who create a more open and honesty culture for everyone else while (probably unintentionally) maintaining conditions that prevent it. What’s the answer? Should leaders model vulnerability?
Yes, of course we should. However a church has no right to expect it if they create conditions that make leaders insecure:
1. Believing that they should be sin-free rather than walking in repentance and faith just like everyone else
2. Having a culture that regularly criticises rather than honours leaders (a la Hebrews 13:17)
3. Not surrounding those who are already in the most exposed positions in the church with supportive and loving team. Leadership is never isolated in the New Testament. Never expect isolated leaders to lead from the front in this area
4. Not ensuring they are being spiritually well-fed. It is quite possible for leaders to give and give and never receive and for the church not to realise they are running dry
5. Expecting the impossible and still thinking leaders will be fresh enough to be open, honest and authentic
So my addition to Tanya Marlow’s article is that if you want a church full of love and acceptance where you can be honest about yourself, your hopes and your struggles with sin then you have to have leaders who are encouraged in the Lord and not crushed by the weight of responsibility, unmeetable expectations or fear of criticism. If we want a church that mirrors God’s unconditional love then they need to be recipients of it too.