Church leaders are people. This means they possess both strengths and shortcomings. On some days, they fulfill their calling and serve really well. And then there are the days when everything falls apart. Eugene Peterson observed, “Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors.” Our pastors come with flaws.
That is not always easy to remember. We compare one minister to another and often have selective memories. Our expectations differ from those of other congregants. We want our pastors to please everyone. Simultaneously our concerns are considered the foremost criteria by which we evaluate our ministers. The way in which pastors choose to lead becomes more complicated when we consider the scene beyond the local context: celebrity pastors, excellent podcasts, and en vogue models of leadership influence our understandings of success. Those models can be too narrow.
The dominant and prevailing understandings of pastoral leadership are insufficient. That’s why we need other voices, not only for the sake of pastors trying to find their place but also for congregants. There is more than one way to be a healthy congregation, and more than one way to lead. It is hard to remember that sometimes.
Mandy Smith serves as lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry (InterVarsity Press, 2015). Her book is a welcome addition to the broader conversation concerning church leadership. She is forthcoming about her experiences and provides an alternative way of understanding the pastoral task, which includes a profound reliance on God, an openness to the Spirit at work in the congregation and community, and what I’ll describe as holy patience with oneself as God works out his purposes within the life of the minister.
I’ve read a number of church leadership books, and I found this one unique and valuable. Last week I corresponded with her, and asked a few questions about The Vulnerable Pastor.
B: I really enjoyed The Vulnerable Pastor. What led you to write the book?
Most of my writing grows from wishing someone else had written it for me. I’ve felt quite alone in figuring out how to lead and yet still be myself so if there’s any way I can be with someone else as they wrestle with similar questions, it’s my joy to do that. And although it’s risky to put my story out there, it’s worth it for the possibility that I may hear back from readers and find our stories are similar. Although writing can be a solitary task, I see it as one part of a larger conversation. I love that conversation.
B: One of the commitments I found throughout your book was to the practice of prayer, either liturgically, congregationally, or through a cultivated posture of listening to God throughout your day, whether in conversation, study, or through your writing or art. How does prayer shape the work of a vulnerable pastor?
If we claim to rely on him, it makes sense that we would engage with him. I have a tendency to claim to need God but then spend most of my time talking about him, planning to do stuff for him, troubleshooting in my own strength, fretting over things that are beyond me. So part of prayer is the words I say but a big part is just the choice to pray, turning from the way I act when I think it’s all up to me and choosing to take on the posture of prayer. The act itself of turning reminds me I’m not alone and it’s okay to ask for help. I need that reminder a lot. In prayer there is no shame in our human limitation.
B: You spoke of prayer as a reminder that God is with us and responds to our petitions for help, and that prayer itself is a reminder of our limits. I can see how those reminders are helpful for the pastor. How do those reminders influence your relationships with your congregants?
It’s amazing how the things that we think are so shameful and that we try so hard to hide from congregants often become moments of breakthrough when we let them be seen. As much as we think we serve folks by looking strong and competent, it only perpetuates the impression that we live an unattainable kind of holiness. As leaders we don’t want them to see our doubt, our family troubles, our bad days. But strangely enough, and although it’s always uncomfortable, when I’ve said “I have to be honest with you, I don’t have the answers” others have had a chance to offer ideas--or find grace that they also have questions. When I’ve said “I really am struggling today” others have seen faithfulness does not mean always feeling happy. Of course, there are unhealthy ways to rely on folks we’re supposed to be leading but many of our more human moments can be ways to show that we’re all following the Lord together. Then our role is no longer to be the one they rely on. Instead our role is to model reliance on God. In some ways leading by having it all together and looking strong is harder than modeling reliance on God. In some ways it’s easier.
B: Your book is notable because of your willingness to shatter any existing delusions of pastoral invincibility and to reveal how human limitations and weaknesses are present in church leaders. How does this kind of vulnerability help the church become more faithful to the gospel, for pastors and congregants?
If God is not limited by our brokenness, that’s truly good news! Whether it’s to help us live out our call or help us in our parenting or save us from sin, it all feels like the Gospel to me! The world teaches us it’s shameful when we need to rest, get old or sick or can’t fix things or don’t understand. But God is not surprised that we’re human and longs to be shown to us and through us as humans. When we come to terms with the limitations and opportunities in the human nature he gave us, we’re more able to fill our role and let him fill His. And we have a greater appreciation of the work of God-as-human (Jesus) and of God-in-humans (the Spirit).
B: In the latter half of your book you explore how vulnerability informs your teaching and preaching, and examine the relationship between teaching and the overall process of spiritual formation within the Christian community. What do you mean by “process,” and how does your emphasis on process help those in your congregation grow as disciples of Jesus Christ?
In the western world we’re all about product. Productivity has become sacred. On the other hand, in any creative endeavor (including partnering with God in his recreation of ourselves and this world), the process is significant. How we get there can’t be distinguished from where we’re going. I’ve found that there’s a lot of pressure to arrive--to have all the answers, to be all we should be. But there’s peace to be found in submitting to the humbling process of learning a little at a time. It’s a grace actually--as much as we want it all now, our hearts and minds could not take in the fullness of the goodness and beauty of God all at once! The emphasis on process allows folks in our congregation to set aside the anxious work of creating their own personal brand. Embracing the process gives them grace to trust that whatever God is doing in them is a partnership--a listening and responding to the work of the Spirit. The pressure to arrive gets in the way of the journey and once we’re released from it, we are free to enjoy the unfolding of where God leads us, day by day, together.
B: Lastly, what words of wisdom would you offer to those actively discerning a call to serve in pastoral ministry/church leadership? And, since I am married to a woman in ministry, do you have any words of wisdom or encouragement specifically for women?
As we’re discerning a call, we often look at what skills, personality, passions we have and compare it to other people we’ve seen in leadership. But the models of Christian leadership have been very narrow in recent years. We need men and extroverts and management-oriented folks and we also need women and introverts and artists and folks who often feel like outsiders in the church. So my advice to those discerning that call would be: look not only to contemporary spiritual leaders but also to the many models of leaders in scripture--most of whom had good reason to not feel capable (they were too old, too young, too different, not educated etc) and yet were used powerfully by God. There’s supposed to be a moment when something amazing happens and people say “Hmm, that person is not capable of what we just saw. There must be a greater power at work here!” The question is, are we willing to let our limitation be seen so his power can be obvious?
On the question about women: The world’s way of thinking about our role as women often has to do with our rights. Which, of course, is not the way of the Lord. For a long time I thought in terms of “The church has to give women a chance! It’s our turn!” but the more I learn about this moment in the history of the Western church, the more I say “The church desperately needs what women bring!” As women entering ministry we’re often painfully aware how different we are from leadership norms and can feel like second-class citizens. But the natural skills women often have (don’t want to speak in stereotypes here) which the world sees as weak or unimportant--warmth, collaborative skills, listening, empathy, flexibility, patience, humility, community building, hospitality, openness to difference--are exactly what God wants to use to lead the church through its current identity crisis. The more I read scripture, the more I see the depth of God’s heart, the more I see the power of a woman’s emotional and spiritual energy to express that heart to the world.
Many thanks to Mandy for joining me and answering my questions. The Vulnerable Pastor is available at Amazon.