He set down his coffee, leaned forward, and looked me in the eyes.
"I can no longer respect you as my pastor."
The reason for his loss of respect? The gas station story from my sermon.
I had told the congregation how I stopped at a gas station to fuel up. Inside, on the shelves, sexually explicit magazines peeked out from behind brown paper. Temptation smiled. I ran out of there and drove on. In the sermon I said something like, "The endings to our temptation stories are not always this happy. Sometimes, we don't run when we should and we regret it. But one thing that I know is this. No matter what, the grace of God can meet you in the gas stations of your life."
Recounting those words, the man sipped his coffee, sat down the cup and said, "No one who is a pastor should be tempted the way you seem to be. You have a real problem."
My head fogged. I respected this man. I was thankful for him. I also knew that four or five other men had responded in an opposite way toward the gospel in light of the story.
"Well," I mustered. "I'm very sorry to hear that."
Then I paused. Paul's words came to my mind. For better or worse, I spoke them. "All I can say is that I am what I am by the grace of God. I hope for the grace to always handle temptation in the manner of that gas station moment. But, I believe that your hope and the hope of our church should be in Jesus' perfection, not mine."
Since that exchange a question about vulnerability has dogged me. How transparent should a church leader be? I believe an answer to that question begins with something I call redemptive vulnerability.
Jars and treasures
As leaders, we are already vulnerable and transparent. After all, to be human is to be vulnerable. We possess limits. We sin. We err. Likewise, as leaders, a level of transparency is unavoidable. Those we lead can see, hear, touch, and smell us. The question is, will we accept these God-designed limitations and let them inform the way we lead?
To admit our limits and visibility demonstrates that true power and grace resides, not with us, but with the Lord. Leading with that reality in mind is what I mean by redemptive vulnerability. But how do we lead like that?
First, we need to get honest about the clay jar—and where the true treasure comes from. Paul writes that "we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us" (2 Cor. 4:7). Accepting that we are "clay jars" means we take seriously our human limits and external circumstances. Exalting the "treasure" refers to a leader's willingness to exalt God and point to the redemption provided through Jesus. I find it helpful to divide the language found in 2 Corinthians 4:5-9; 7:5-6 and 12:9-10 into "Jar Talk" and "Treasure Talk."
In short, with Paul we say, "I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Cor. 12:9).
Such a statement makes us nervous.
After all, to choose redemptive vulnerability requires risk. Clay jar folks love the leader's earnest, earthy confessions, and they love to share theirs as well. But once the leader talks about the true treasure of the gospel, followers fidget. They get cynical about "godtalk." In contrast, treasure folks tend to love the godtalk but grow uneasy with leaders once they even hint at their clay jar realities.
Recently I provided a reference for a ministry candidate. The search committee was concerned by an admission the candidate had made from the pulpit. He acknowledged that sometimes his own time with God's Word gets dim and barren. He then spoke of the grace that he himself needed in Jesus and invited his hearers to the same. These words signaled a "red flag" for the committee.