There are some great words that have taken on a negative connotation in our culture; to the point that the treasure of their meaning is robbed of worth. In some cases, the opposite of those words enjoys the effect of this robbery by seeing its meaning raised to point of idol worship. Strength is one of these words that has become a cultural ideal that makes the word weakness something to be avoided. Good things are strong, bad things are weak. If an object is weak, it has less value than a similar object that is strong. Weakness is not only bad, but if you are weak, it seems that you have less relevance to our culture than someone that is strong. In some ways, a person’s worth is tied to their strength. Slogans like “only the strong survive” motivate us to artificially sustain pain and hide the consequences of difficulties.
This can even be evident in the way we measure our ability to do ministry. We might acknowledge or weakness, but sometimes only in order for it to become strength. We take inventories and questionnaires to reveal our strengths so that we can leverage what we are good at into more effective ministry. Our culture tells us that the strong, the powerful, the influential and the accomplished are the movers and shakers in terms of leadership.
Giving this much influence to strength can kill communities and inhibit growth as leaders and as the led. While there is some generalizing in this, there is a truth to consider. When strength is the place from which leadership flows, there are two negative consequences. One is the creation of an artificial standard that people who are not similarly strong can reach. This leads to hiding and not feeling safe to share how they do not measure up. Secondly, it leads to a false dichotomy of life that we can do this alone. A strong person can accomplish, navigate and heal alone. There is no need for a mentor, small group, church family or perhaps even God when strength is our goal. I have even taken note lately of what I say to people that are grieving. At a hospital visit this summer, I overheard a visitor tell parents that were sitting with their son who had been in a motorcycle accident to “be strong” and that “God never gives you anything you can’t handle.” If this is true, then why would we need God at all?
So, now to the point. In 2 Corinthians, as Paul is talking about Jesus being a light that God has put in our hearts, he goes on to talk about the vessel that houses this light. He says:
7 We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.8 We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair.9 We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.10 Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies. 2 Cor 4:7-10 (NLT)
This demonstrates the discipleship that comes from our vulnerability. When we are pressed in we are not crushed. Perplexed, but not given to despair. Hunted, but never abandoned. When we explore our weakness and vulnerability, we find that the response from God reveals the truth of who he is. When this truth becomes a reality, we grow in our relationship with the Father and thus see our capacity to trust increase as a result. With this increased trust, the capacity to lead follows. In his book Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, David Bosh, speaking about the community of disciples established by Matthew, writes:
“… he wishes his community to know that mission never takes place in self-confidence but in the knowledge of our own weakness, at a point of crisis where danger and opportunity come together. Matthew’s Christians, like the first disciples, stand in the dialectical tension between worship and doubt, faith and fear” (78).
When we lead from vulnerability, we are able to share about sin, weakness, brokenness, anxiety, loneliness, sadness, lack of joy or holes in our discipleship from the perspective of 2 Corinthians Paul: The point when we can be open and allow Jesus to be who he says he is. When we are pressed in we are not crushed. Perplexed, but not given to despair. Hunted, but never abandoned.
The first order effect of leading out of our vulnerability is within our own discipleship process. We press in to Jesus and grow closer to him. He touches where we are weak. He identifies where we need him in our lives, and since we are no longer hiding, we respond with openness and allow him in. This also can dismantle unhealthy aspects in our leadership. Consider some common issues for leaders: leading for affirmation from those we lead and leading to be seen as powerful by the same. When we lead to satisfy these needs, are we leading people to worship Jesus or are we leading them to worship us? Henri Nouwen, in In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership points out that Christian leaders are called to stand with nothing to offer but their own vulnerability. It is in this way that we lead people to the goal of discipleship, to look like Jesus, rather than to emulate the strength of a religious leader.
The second order effects are for those we mean to lead. We will look more human to them and provide connecting points that show leaders are not superhuman or super-Christian. We can acknowledge that Jesus chose to build the church on flawed and weak rather than powerful and strong. This can lead to an increasingly honest evaluation of their own vulnerabilities and allow for discussion of sin and brokenness at a new level. Discipleship migrates away from finding our strength and into allowing Jesus to meet us in our weakness.
This also reveals that vulnerability is where the process begins, not the goal or end state. In the same way that sin and brokenness are not the conclusion to our personal narrative, vulnerability is the place where we encounter Jesus and allow him to develop us. To lead from this place allows us to lead from who we are rather than who we have been able to become on our own. A popular and overused ministry buzzword to describe this is authenticity.
Being vulnerable and exposing our weakness is a path to authentic leadership and to growing as disciples of Jesus. We become more real and relevant to our ministry context while providing those in that context to explore themselves in more honest way. The results include freedom from sin, healing brokenness, gaining the resemblance of Jesus and denying access to the battlefield to the enemy. Vulnerability provides a gateway to our own discipleship and access point to the same for those that we lead.