“When so many are disillusioned by a manipulative or dogmatic church, how refreshing will it be to find the church lead by those who know how to listen and don’t need to control? When women lead in these ways, it not only encourages women, it also frees men to lead in new, whole ways. I’ve watched it and it’s beautiful.” — Mandy Smith, author, The Vulnerable Pastor
This month at the Patheos Book Club, we’re talking about the new book The Vulnerable Pastor by Mandy Smith. We asked Pastor Smith about the inspiration for her book, what “vulnerable leadership” looks and feels like, and what it’s like to be the only female lead pastor in the North American Christian Convention.
What led you to write The Vulnerable Pastor?
In the book I tell the story of attending a large conference for Christian leaders where I collided with leadership ideals that looked nothing like me. That triggered a 2-3 year wrestling process to figure out how to bring together my theology, my own story, and leadership models. That wrestling included a lot of journaling, part of which I shared at an Epic Fail pastor’s event and which then became an article (published in Leadership Journal in 2014). The response to those showed me I’m not alone—we’re all asking the same questions. I met so many pastors who feel inadequate and so many potential Christian leaders who aren’t stepping into their call because of un-scriptural ideas of leadership. I realized maybe all the wrestling I’d done and all the freedom I’d found wasn’t only for my own sake and sensed it was time to share it in a book.
You are the one and only woman pastor in your conference. Do you think women are more naturally inclined to be vulnerable leaders and thus seen as weaker and not as effective as male leaders? How have you struggled not only with being a woman in a man’s world, but also embracing a counter-cultural style of leadership?
There are other female pastors in the movement but I’m the only female lead pastor, as far as I know. But I don’t think that will be the case for long. I do think that, generally, women are more comfortable being vulnerable—partly just because of biology—and so that can shape the way women lead. But I also think that women feel pressure to set aside those natural leanings to conform to expectations of leadership. There are some traditional leadership styles that look like strength which I think actually come from weakness, as leaders struggle to maintain the appearance of control. And there are things that look weak in leadership—being collaborative, asking questions, expressing feelings—which are actually true strength. So the hope is that “strength” and “weakness” can be redefined.
I am still very conscious that I don’t fit the norm in various ways and I would be lying if I said I never feel self-conscious. But the freedom has come, not from trying to figure out where I fit in the culture’s messed-up models but by seeking God. And it’s uncomfortable to find him pointing to the example of Christ—who wants to pour themselves out? And yet, at the same time, it’s what the Church has always done. I used to think women needed to lead for the sake of fairness but I now believe that the Church needs our humble, organic leadership style for the sake of the mission. When so many are disillusioned by a manipulative or dogmatic church, how refreshing will it be to find the church lead by those who know how to listen and don’t need to control? I believe that when women lead in these ways, it not only encourages women, it also frees men to lead in new, whole ways. I’ve watched it and it’s beautiful.
You believe that being a vulnerable leader is actually more faithful to the gospel and our lives as Christians. Say more about that.
If, when we say “vulnerable” we don’t only mean feeling vulnerable but truly being vulnerable then we’re talking about the human condition—our finite state. All our efforts to be invulnerable are often the very ways that keep us from knowing our need for God. When we feel uncertain, our power, privilege, wealth and technology promise to fill the void. But, when all our efforts to control life have failed and humans finally acknowledge their vulnerability—stop trying fill their own needs, stop trying to be God—then they will remember again how to need God, not only to get through life but to fill their deepest spiritual longing. And the connections to the Gospel there are pretty clear. It’s amazing how we can grow up in church, know all the right doctrines, serve and tithe and follow the rules and yet still not really remember how to just tell God, “I need you!” But receiving his Good News kind of depends on it.
What does a leader look like if they’re not the typical powerful, has-everything-together leader?
Tearful and joyful and comfortable in their own, human skin. Prayerfully and painfully aware of their need for God—personally and to fulfill this impossible call. They’ve stopped trying to be the one people follow and instead they’re comfortable being an example of how it looks to follow God. So our example is no longer our own, perfect selves but our faithfulness. It means we’re more comfortable asking questions, and sharing our failures. We’re more willing to invite people into the process with us and instead of feeling pressure to say, “Here’s the five year plan!” we say “Let’s listen for God together and who knows what he’ll do!”
Why do we put so much pressure on our leaders, pastors or otherwise, to always have the easy answers, feel God’s presence, and have political power?
Honestly, I think that we don’t really want to be asked to engage in a process that’s messy. We want relief from pain, three simple steps, leaders who can just fill in the gaps so we no longer have to watch carefully for God or learn to follow Him. But this puts unrealistic expectations on leaders and forgets that leadership in the church is not the same as running a business. It overlooks the fact that we’re following a God who likes to be mysterious and reveal himself one step at a time.
What opportunities do an emphasis on vulnerability in leadership provide for the church and other parachurch organizations?
Ironically, this approach is empowering. When we know we’re jars of clay, we feel the need to welcome the power of God’s presence. It makes us more collaborative, more creative, more engaged, less afraid of difference or failure. And when we engage with the world around us, it’s refreshing for folks to encounter Christians who, instead of offering arguments or easy answers, can say, “I’m still figuring this out but this God has changed my life!” When we’ve faced our own failings and limitations, we can look people in the eye, in their pain and say, “I don’t have all the answers but I’m learning to be comfortable in the mess. Can I be with you?” What a blessing to our witness!
Are there limits to our transparency as leaders? In other words, how vulnerable can we be as leaders? Is it ever important to not be vulnerable in certain situations?
There is certainly healthy and unhealthy transparency. It helps to ask: Am I choosing to share or not share for their sake or mine? Over-sharing or under-sharing often comes down to selfish motivation—drawing attention to ourselves or protecting ourselves. If we ask what others need to see or hear from us, we’ll get a sense of what’s right. I’ve found my tendency is not to overshare but under-share and my biggest discomfort comes from being called to let people in behind the scenes when I’d rather keep my tidy exterior. In the end, we’re never going to figure it out by a formula and we have to risk making mistakes. But it’s worth the risk, for all our sakes.
How are other pastors responding to your book so far? What’s your greatest hope for this book?
I’ve loved hearing people saying it’s bringing joy back to their ministries. I confess I can’t get enough of the look of hope I’m seeing in people’s eyes. My prayer is that the freedom God has shown me will find its way to many others. I believe that, when God’s people turn to him and cry out for help, revival will come. And I pray my book can be a tiny part of helping people turn to him in new ways.