Like my elementary school days where the mark for “Talks Excessively” was a staple along with my letter grades, I always received negative marks for my “Leadership Style” when it came to doing ministry. And the comments that followed were also the same every time: You are too honest and open with people under you. You are too vulnerable for a leader. You lose all credibility when you openly discuss your own sin and destructive habits.
I tried to change my personal style for the church, which wanted me to be slick, polished and all together, but I couldn’t do it. Why? Because it wasn’t true. I was the furthest thing from slick. My life was messed up. Even as a leader, my life looked as chaotic as the lives I was being paid to lead.
Some call it a generational thing. Maybe it’s modernism versus postmodernism. All I know is that I need to be true to myself. And as I have been doing so—now as a church planter with no staff above me to give me an evaluation—I am finding that the peoplet I serve as pastor are relieved in the way we approach things—with vulnerability and honesty.
The problem with a lot of leadership today is that it does seem too slick and too polished. Leaders want to impress so that their church community will admire and look toward them for direction. In the process, though, that mentality has gone too far, and they actually become unapproachable because their lives don’t mirror the lives of those in the community. They appear to be people who don’t struggle with sin. They have happy wives with happy children and live in their happy homes.
So the paradigm for leadership must change in the Church. Leaders must begin to see themselves as people alongside others on the journey to God. Credibility is not earned in presentation but in the scars. You gain the attention of people when they know that you have been there and are still with them when they are there.
The Starting Point
“I need to talk right now.” My senior pastor had called me on a Friday night, desperate to talk to someone because he had nobody else. As a workaholic, there had really been no other friends for him to turn to. Now at a major crisis point, he called me to meet in the early morning hours at an all-night diner.
As we sat there, he confessed to me sins that he had been dealing with. He also opened the floodgates of family issues, marital problems and things that had been festering for decades. As the man pushing me to change my leadership style, I realized that his own had left him alone and crippled.
Leading honestly has to begin internally. We have to be honest when we look in the mirror. I can’t run from my own sin and my own issues and expect to be vulnerable with people. Generally, we feel the need to be slick to have credibility. But it also helps us mask what is really going on inside. It is unhealthy both for the leader and for the community we are called to.
When teaching, I never hesitate to discuss my own weaknesses or sins, and my favorite stories to tell are the embarrassing ones about me. There is something freeing about not needing to have it all together. We have been taught for far too long that leadership is meant to be lonely. We are deceived into hiding out behind stories about other people.
But we are all fallen. We just all haven’t admitted it yet. We are meant to share life with each other. We are not meant to handle things on our own, even as leaders.
Ultimately our goal is leading people to God, right? But so many can’t see their need for God because they are deceived about their own condition. I have found that it is in the times when someone else is being open about their sinful condition that it clicks for a lot of people to begin to be open as well. While it’s OK to set boundaries for how much you actually tell, there needs to be an openness that communicates your own humanity to the people you are teaching.
The New Credibility
Everything I have experienced shatters the notion that a vulnerable leader is one without credibility. Instead, the result has been the opposite. For a generation tired of the attraction-based model of ministry—only the best singers and speakers presenting things while we consume them theater-style—the vulnerable leader is a welcome change. People want someone they can relate to. They want someone who lives the same life they do and is with them on the journey of needing redemption along the way.
When you begin to lead honestly, you begin to create a culture of freedom for both yourself and the community you are called to. For the leader, the result is the freedom from having to hide, pretend or put on the right face. For the community, they are free to trust a leader who is with them on the journey. The result, in both cases, is healthy.
Matt Connor is a freelance write and pastor at The Mercy House in Anderson, Ind.