As I read Mandy Smith’s The Vulnerable Pastor, my spirit turned to the words of the Apostle Paul:
“God said to me ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Paul is up against a wall. By his own powers, he cannot heal or liberate himself. He tries and tries to find relief, but still lives with pain that embraces body, mind, and spirit. He calls upon God but receives no clear solution or relief. Life is still difficult. Amid his limitations, he receives the greatest antidote, the grace of God that fills us with a power and wisdom greater than our own, enabling us to face what can’t be changed and transform for the good what is in our power.
Paul discovers the grace of interdependence, a countercultural reality that brings healing and wholeness to the most desperate situations. In North America, we celebrate the self-made person, the rugged individualist. This even infects ministry. As pastors, we want to be self-sufficient. We want to give and not take. Weakness is seen as detrimental to our ministries. We want to be able to be healthy and whole on our own. We forget that we are part of an intricate web of life that sustains and empowers us. When we forget our connections, we fall into self-righteousness and salvation by works. We lean on our own wisdom, discarding the greater wisdom moving in our lives, whether or not we want it or are aware of it.
Smith recognizes that in vulnerability we find healing. It has been said that the only empirically verifiable doctrine in Christianity is the reality of sin. Surely sin is empirically verifiable and experienced by every pastor. We feel alienated from our spouse as we go to the pulpit to preach a sermon on love. We judge the addicts and complainers in our midst, and overlook our own addictions and complaints. We think ourselves free of temptation until we succumb to it – whether in socially acceptable forms such as workaholic behaviors, or more embarrassing forms such as envy, competition, gossip, pornography, or small-mindedness.
We think we are on our own, with no one to help us. Yet, God’s grace is greater than our sin, and our desire to be the self-made pastor.
Healthy ministry is grounded in recognizing our limits and the wondrous grace of interdependence, grounded in our relationship with God and supportive companions on the way. In recognizing our weakness, that is, our need for wisdom, power, and companionship, greater than our own, we learn to trust the resources of the universe and our Creator. We learn to let go of control, and make time for Sabbath. We learn to let go of indispensability and trust the efforts of others. We learn resign from divinity and let God be God, guiding our lives and the congregations we pastor. This is not passivity, but trust in God and God’s incarnation in persons of good will around us.
Over the years, I have led seminars and written a number of books on pastoral excellence. Through the leading small groups of pastors and meeting individually with pastors in spiritual guidance sessions, I have discovered that ministers find their greatest joy and fulfillment – and health – in ministry, when they recognize their vulnerability and need for grace. For healthy ministers, grace is not an abstraction, but embodied in reaching out to other pastors, meeting with a counselor or spiritual director, spending time with and trusting the good will of spouses and partners, and trusting God to provide for their deepest needs. Healthy ministry is always about us, not just me. Lifelong ministerial excellence is the gift of grace, spiritual practices, and trust in God’s never-ending.
Mandy Smith has given us a wonderful guide to pastoral well-being and faithful excellence. She has discovered that our limitations are the womb of possibility and that when we are weak, we are strong in God.