Today’s church faces great uncertainty and risk. To be alive and well calls for trusted leadership.
Imagine two lists: One contains the qualities that a pastor should have, and another that includes the attributes most pastors would say they wouldn’t choose to lead the church today.
What might we include when it comes to “must-haves?”

  • Dynamic communicator
  • “People person”
  • “Task oriented”
  • Effective fundraiser
  • Inspiring team leader
  • Vision caster
  • And, of course, HUMBLE servant

And we could go on. I’ll leave it to you to think about those we’d prefer to set aside.

Could it be that one term could find itself not just in, but even atop both lists?  If so, it might be “vulnerability.”

In her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené Brown takes us to Teddy Roosevelt in 1910.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

In the introduction Brown riffs on Roosevelt’s words, which she says perfectly capture why we find being vulnerable such a hard thing to do.

“When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make.”

Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience.”

Maybe you recognize yourself here. As a minister too often I expended energy covering up inadequacies, hiding limitations, presenting a false façade. I realize that was built on an assumption that I had to be the smartest one in the room.

When a leader shuns such vulnerability, he or she tries to do everything alone.

Lolly Daskal, executive leadership coach, writes,

“We all know the mythology of the lone wolf leader—the one who has all the answers, who never compromises, who doesn’t trust anyone else. In the real world, though, the best leaders know when to ask for help and make use of wise counsel. They know they can’t accomplish everything on their own and work instead to find the support system that will help them become the best leader they can be.”

I’m convinced that trusted leadership begins here. Leading with vulnerability takes tremendous courage.

Here’s what it may look like—

Trusted leadership asks questions rather than simply giving answers. Educators and psychologists agree that people who ask good questions are much more likely to be intelligent and innovative than those who always have answers. Always having “the answer” is often nothing more than a cover for low self-esteem, a fear of vulnerability, and a need to dominate a conversation.

Remember Jesus as a little boy sitting among the teachers, “listening” and “asking questions.” As Jesus did, so must we.

Trusted leadership builds strong, engaged teams. Leaders who present themselves as always having “the answers,” close themselves off to others. None of us, in recognizing our vulnerability, should pretend we are able to “go it alone.”

When we ask others — “Can you help me with this? What are your thoughts on this issue? Are you willing to work on this together with me?” — we are expressing our vulnerabilities in a courageous and positive way which opens the door to curiosity and engagement. Trusted leadership builds strong, innovative teams by listening and asking more questions.

Trusted leadership fosters a culture of healthy and constructive feedback. It takes great courage to invite discerning feedback. However, pastors (including ministry staff) do not always appreciate criticism—however gentle, appropriate and constructive it may be. In fact, what I observe is that, often, anyone who offers feedback, is labeled a troublemaker and then marginalized. Trusted leadership doesn’t insulate themselves with only “yes people,” counting on them to tell them what they want to hear.
The Bible is filled with examples of people of little or no particular status giving honest feedback to leaders. Think of Nathan and David, the Old Testament prophets and political leaders of Judah, and Paul and Peter at Antioch.

One way to build such a high trust culture is to have a group come alongside the pastor and staff on a regular basis. One solution might be to invite discerning members to form an advisory group (whether formal or informal), to meet regularly to give feedback about what is being overemphasized and what is being neglected in terms of the church’s ethos or culture.

Whatever the approach, every pastor would do well to consider who speaks truth into your life. If so, are you willing to listen with humility and to ask questions that broaden perspective and engage others?

It could be that not only your effectiveness as a leader depends upon such vulnerability, but the church’s future as well.

Bill Owen
Dr. Bill Owen is a Congregational Consultant and Coach for CHC after a 32-year pastorate at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Cross Plains, TN, just north of Nashville. Bill is an experienced, certified leadership coach. He also works as a cognitive coach among educators, particularly secondary school teachers with a focus on innovation and personalized learning. He brings these skills and experiences to his work with and love for congregations and ministry staff development. He is a consultant for CHC and the coordinator for CHC-Southcentral.