Vulnerability in the Pulpit

I love to talk about preaching (or teaching or talking or lecturing, or whatever you prefer to call what I do every Sunday morning). When I get with other pastors I nearly always ask what they’re currently preaching or about their process. This post is about preaching. Read at your own risk. (HA!)

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“Did you ever imagine that what we call ‘vulnerability’ might just be the key to ongoing growth? In my experience, healthily vulnerable people use every occasion to expand, change, and grow. Yet it is a risky position to live undefended, in a kind of constant openness to the other — because it would mean others could sometimes actually wound you (from vulnes, “wound”). But only if we choose to take this risk do we also allow the exact opposite possibility: the other might also gift you, free you, and even love you.

But it is a felt risk every time.

Every time.” [emphasis in the original]

– Fr. Richard Rohr (w/ Mike Morrell), The Divine Dance

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Sunday morning, I grabbed a mostly-blank red journal off the shelf for a project I’m starting to work on. I wanted something small that I could keep with me and collect ideas as they came.

When I opened it, my eyes fell on a page where I had written the following title: “Things that are messed up in my head right now,” and on the page was a list of things I was struggling with in the late winter of 2015. Most of the stuff on the list I’ve worked out, worked through and am in a much better place. (Example:  “Tired,” was a big one as we neared the end of our house-building project.)

I showed it to Jennifer, and I shared the list with a friend Sunday night in an unguarded moment. But today I ripped it out and threw it away. It’s too vulnerable. Even reading it all this time later makes me feel bad stuff inside. And while I felt a certain sense of accomplishment reading the list, it also represented some of the most broken, fragile places inside of me. Places I’d rather just hide most of the time.

The real truth? Sometimes I choose vulnerability, but other times I hide.

Like everyone else, I can vacillate wildly between “I want to be vulnerable,” and “I want to hide.” And sometimes, even mid-conversation, mid-sermon, mid-writing, I find myself changing my mind about how safe I feel and how vulnerable I choose to be. Or I regret sharing too much, or not enough.

But, I think the only pathway to growth is vulnerability. (I know I’ve said this before. But I have to keep reminding myself, so I’ll keep saying it in case it’s helpful to anyone else.) The only way to find my truest self is to say the true stuff with people who can carry the weight of it with me.

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I think church is supposed to be this kind of place. It’s supposed to be the kind of safe place where we can say our truest thoughts/feelings/intuitions about God, ourselves and the world we inhabit.

Everything I’ve said up to this point, I’m sure I’ve said before, but here’s the real point I’m trying to get to in this post — I think pastors are supposed to lead the way. We’re supposed to model what it means to live in an appropriately vulnerable way with our church. And, beyond that, I think we’re supposed to model it in our private lives as well, being appropriately vulnerable at the right times with the right people. Being gutsy. (But not foolhardy!)

This is what I love about recovery groups. They jump right past the images we all want to project and get to the vulnerability, “My name is _____, and I am an alcoholic.”

But, as Richard Rohr notes, this “always feels like a risk. Every time.”

The day I’m writing this is my study day. I intentionally keep my calendar clear on Tuesday mornings. I stay as quiet as possible, with as few interruptions as reasonable. I study the text, and then move towards teaching the text.

The temptation – every time – is to keep it clinical, theological, “factual.” But, deep in my bones, I don’t think that’s the “job.” I think the “job” is to take the text deep inside myself first — to pay attention to where the text is speaking to me, to ask what the text means in my context and then, with an appropriate level of vulnerability, to invite others into the same experience.

But that feels risky. Every time.

My friend Ryan Phipps – built a meme. And I love it:
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My hope is that somehow I can do both: I can be elegant and vulnerable. In some ways it’s easy to elegant. It’s easy to stand in the pulpit, and give the appearance of knowing everything cold and having it all figured out. But it’s simply not true. So, if I have to choose, I’ll choose vulnerability over elegance. (At least when I feel brave.)

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  • Thanks so much for this. I’ve started a Brene Brown study I bought last year on Udemy. Perfect timing. I would love to talk some time because I have some practical tools to help with this. I pm’ed you on Facebook a week ago but maybe that was too forward of me…(vulnerability..yikes). I would love to sit and chat again at your convenience. 🙂