Acknowledging our Human Condition
The Vulnerable Pastor:
How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry
The current issue of our print magazine, mailed earlier this week, features an interview that John Pattison did with Mandy Smith. John’s interview was longer than we could use and several questions were trimmed in the editing process. However, this conversation was too good to waste, so we are sharing these extra questions here.
PATTISON: How do you think vulnerability as you describe it in this book should be cultivated in our church communities?
SMITH: For us, it started with me being able to go there. Somebody has to be the first one to break out of the mold. There are all these reasons why that is scary. I hope my book can be a kind of companion along the journey, so that whoever goes first can say to their community, “This is going to be worth it.” Then, not only do they give freedom to other people, by being courageous, they themselves learn not to be ashamed, if the community is kind enough not to reject them for it.
Confession and testimony are a big part of this. They have fallen out of practice in a lot of traditions. But in my experience, that is where all this began and where it began to filter down to more and more folks.
JP: How do we keep vulnerability from becoming self-flagellation?
MS: For me it is just about honesty and acknowledging our human condition. I’m actually more willing now to say that I’m good at something.
JP: What is the response you’re getting from other pastors who have read the book?
MS: I see relief on people’s faces. I’m almost addicted to seeing that look, it feels so good. I’ve been in many situations where pastors look desperate and discouraged, and I’ve been those things myself too. In the past, I haven’t seen very much help or relief. I’m starting to see it more. Not that my book alone is responsible for that. But it is a blessing to think that my book might be a part of it. Pastors feel like they are less alone.
I remember writing this book and thinking it would be worth it if just one pastor said to me, “Your book helped me do ministry, helped me see that vulnerability is doable.” That was enough motivation for me to keep going.
I think the book is resonating with pastors because my own story gave people words for their experiences. Somebody told me recently that I am good at naming my experiences. This is probably related to being an introvert, but I think a lot of it is living cross-culturally too. I hope that my need to figure out for myself why I was experiencing so much pain, and my need to find a way through it, will help create a path forward for people. I hope it can give them some language for what they are feeling.
JP: You acknowledge in your book that it might seem cliché that a woman is writing about weakness and vulnerability. But you also say that you’re not naturally good at it, that “everything in [your] education and culture” has taught you to “put on a good front, to work extra hard behind the scenes so that [your] performance is faultless.” It does seem that even when women step into leadership roles they are judged by how well they fit traditionally male styles of leadership.
MS: A lot of my wrestling over whether or not I could lead was trying to fit a norm that I could never fit. People have expectations of what a leader looks like, and I have those expectations in my own head too. Understanding how I am different, and figuring that out publicly, and then overcoming those expectations, is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But what is interesting—and I mention this book too—is that it isn’t only women have told me how much they relate to my journey. Of course, there are women who lead in more traditionally male ways, and that’s great if that is natural to them. But I’ve watched men find freedom too. That’s been really beautiful and affirming for me.
When I wrote the first draft of the book, the section that needed the most revision was the one on gender and emotion. I basically said that men created the problem that was oppressing me; they needed to get ahold of their anxiety and their inability to handle their emotions, and they needed to stop oppressing me. That came across as very victim-y. I was saying that I was oppressed by this thing outside of me, and I will never be free until it changes. What I came to really appreciate during the course of writing the book is that men are oppressed by it too.
IMAGE CREDIT: UniversityChristianChurch.net
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
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