Pastoral Vulnerability

As we engage clergy and church staff through Pinnacle, there seems to be an increased sense of vulnerability in the pastoral community. No, we don’t mean the courageous choice to share one’s challenges and struggles in appropriate and mission congruent ways. We mean the experience of being in circumstances where one is overly-exposed; vulnerable to unpleasant, unwanted, and even detrimental experiences. We are observing this play out in two primary ways.

Employment Vulnerability – Those who gather statistical information on pastors tell us that forced or strongly pressured resignations are more common than ever. Those in denominational systems with guaranteed jobs are not invulnerable to this experience, being asked to move by their personnel teams. More and more, congregations are looking at pastors like we look at coaches. When we are winning (as indicated by our church scorecard with increases in buildings, bodies, and budgets), then pastors are valued. When our scorecard includes decreasing numbers, then somebody’s got to go, and we all know it’s the pastor who’s not performing well. In describing this, we must acknowledge sometimes pastors don’t perform well and need to go. Yet to view the church and pastors in the same was as we view athletic teams and their coaches, misses the point of being church. Viewing pastoring as an increasingly low security employment endeavor seems to be more common, resulting in employment vulnerability.

Personal Vulnerability – However we feel about it, pastoral ministry includes a very public existence. Leaders in other professions also are in the public view, yet often are not so personally involved in the private lives of their constituents (hospital visits, crises, funerals, personal issues, etc.). Multiple times each week pastors stand before their people, laying out the gospel, while also laying out their personal emotional maturity and psychological tendencies for all to see. All of us are works in progress, with personal weaknesses and underdeveloped parts of ourselves. The difference for pastors is that these are on public display, with the entire church watching and observing week after week. Most disciples in churches realize this, practicing a kind of grace regarding their pastor’s personal vulnerabilities. On the other hand, when job performance or church effectiveness is in question, this is when the psychological and relational tendencies of the pastor become public conversation in the church…leading to the pastor’s demise. Given our larger cultural context of incivility and low regard for leadership in general, it’s not surprising that pastors are becoming more vulnerable around their personal maturity, tendencies, and psychology.

So, if this is the environment in congregations at this point in time, what is a pastor to do regarding increasing employment and personal vulnerability? What can we do to reduce over-exposure and excessive vulnerability?

We can address our personal issues, continuing to grow as people. Do you know any pastors who have not done their personal emotional work in counseling or therapy? Yes, but most of them aren’t in formal ministry anymore.

We can address our leadership deficits, growing in our leadership competencies and skills. Do you know any pastors who do not engage in leadership coaching, training, or other forms of continuing education? Yes, but….well, same as above.

We can accept the public nature of ministry, developing a Teflon coating. When we accept reality as it is, not trying to change the inherent nature of reality, our stress goes way down. When we recognize that ministry does involve some level of employment and personal vulnerability, accepting this as inherent in pastoral ministry, then we stop trying to make it not so. This also can equip us to develop a thin layer of Teflon over ourselves which allows many items to slide right off us into oblivion.

We can accept the leadership challenge inherent in this high change congregational environment. Yes pastoral ministry is more challenging than it used to be due to the high change environment of the church in the USA. During times of great transition, leaders grow more vulnerable. If we try leading our congregation to change, even in healthy ways, our vulnerability will rise. And, if we avoid trying to lead our congregations to change, our vulnerability will rise. Either way, pastoral ministry involves fairly significant leadership challenges at this point in history.

We can develop marketable skills outside of local church ministry, increasing our sense of employment security for ourselves and our families. Plenty of clergy are doing this; developing marketable, non-religious skills. Perhaps we will never need them, yet the emotional safety they bring may allow us to lead with greater courage and effectiveness, lowering our vulnerability.

We can reaffirm our callings, whatever the nature of ministry at this point in history, moving forward in faith with courage. For whatever reason, we are born to exist in this particular place and time. When we are called to be pastors, regardless of the state of pastoral ministry, then we are called to be pastors. So, like so many prophets, priests, pastors, elders, and bishops before us; let us go forward, living our callings as faithfully and effectively as we possibly can. At the end of all things, we want to be able to look back and say we lived out our part of God’s movement, partnering with God in the transformation of this world.

Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA
Mark Tidsworth