Authenticity, vulnerability, and transparency are the buzz words marking good sermons today, but it is a slippery slope from being real to, “Did she just go there?” This quickly leads to losing the purpose of the message or losing your ability to give future messages. Navigating this terrain takes spiritual maturity, courage, and a heart in tune with the Holy Spirit.
One might naturally ask if it is worth the risk. Maybe it is better to keep your cards close to your chest, never letting them see you sweat. This creates an us versus them mentality, tending toward an air of superiority. When we open up, people see us as one with them. We, too, struggle, fall, and we get back up. Sometimes we fall back down. We have faith and we have doubts. This vulnerability says perfection is not the goal–growth is.
Yet we must lead. We set the example for the flock. How can we expect other people to exhibit strong faith if we don’t have it? How can we honestly call people to a holy life if we are not living a holy life? The Apostle Paul says, “I will boast in my weaknesses.” I will show you my struggles so that you might see Christ work in me.
How vulnerable is too vulnerable? Can you be too real? This is not a question to be answered so much as a tension to be managed. Consider the following guidelines when wrestling with vulnerability, authenticity, and transparency.
How public is it?
If the matter is well known in the community, it is prudent to simply admit it. Ask for prayer, move on. If the matter is not public knowledge, then you must assess whether speaking about it publicly is helpful to the congregation. Does it enhance the point of the message, or is it simply a distraction? Does it draw attention to Christ or to self? If it is a matter of prayer, save the unveiling until the end of the service.
The pulpit is not a time for group therapy.
Simply venting personal frustration, grieving loss, or wrestling with your self-image is not helpful to the congregation. To admit one is frustrated, grieving, or wrestling with different issues can be helpful if that enhances the message of the day. The focus is not on you, so much as it gives context to the message of the day.
Never expose another person.
You can only share your personal stories. Sometimes your story will involve other people (especially family members). Always get permission to include another person in your story.
If the matter is too heavy, be willing to take some time off.
One of the greatest gifts you can give to your congregation is the permission to be broken. Allow the church to minister to you. Share the matter confidentially with the board. Have them represent you to the congregation. “Pastor Jim is going to be taking a few weeks off. Let’s all pray that this will be a time of refreshment for him.” Sometimes we simply have to call a time out.
As ministers of the gospel, we are called to embody the message of Christ. This means we speak the Gospel–not out of a dead text book, but from the Living Word of God as it is lived out in our own lives. Life happens to all of us. Helping people to appropriately see how you, as a real person of faith, are navigating troubled waters can be healing. Just be careful. It can be a slippery slope.