On the first Monday of February in 2001 my mother entered the hospital with a urinary tract infection.
Her brother happened to be visiting her and called me to report. Since it seemed a minor problem and I had just visited her 10 days earlier, I stayed in Cincinnati rather than traveling the three hours into the Kentucky mountains. The next morning when the phone rang before the sun rose and I heard a voice on the line with a deep Kentucky accent, I knew it wasn't good news. The nurse could not reach my uncle, so I was the first to hear of my mother's unexpected death. Her infection had reached her blood. They could not save her.
She had visited the doctor a week previous, when the infection could have easily been solved. However the doctor failed to run a simple test, instead sending her home with valium for her nerves. When I read the chart that expressed his opinion that she was simply nervous, I burned with rage. This doctor's carelessness and incompetence had cost my mother her life at age 66. She adored my four children, and now they had lost their grandmother.
When I stood by her grave and realized the permanence of her death in terms of my earthly existence, I plunged into a year of doubt and anger. Yet except for that first weekend off for her funeral, I continued pastoring my church. I was faced with the question: how do I lead my church authentically while dealing with a personal crisis?
The word authentic comes from the Latin authenticus meaning "coming from the author." What an inspiring definition for us as believers. God's authorship of us can make us truly authentic when we aim to display the image of Christ. Central to being authentic is being real with God. We can't fool God anyway, as the story of Ananias and Sapphira so dramatically illustrates, but it's always tempting to pretend to be more than we are.
During my year of struggle, I never really lost faith in God or felt abandoned. But I did have trouble resolving what seemed to me to be an unnecessary and untimely loss. It was especially difficult to see my children lose their grandmother. I also had trouble understanding how my mother could be joyful in heaven while I felt so distressed on earth.
Being real about my issues pushed me to a new understanding that has also helped me minister to others in grief. Like David's imprecatory psalms, I held nothing back in my prayers. This too has helped me to encourage others to be real with God, no matter what, trusting that God can take it.
Authenticity requires being real with ourselves as well. That can be tough for pastors. Too often we hide even from that level of honesty, fearing if we let our guard down, everyone will discover the true us. Sometimes this seems harder than being real with God, and yet the two are closely related. Before I can admit my feelings to God, I have to realize what they are, and avoidance can protect from the pain. Brené Brown, a researcher who studies the benefits of vulnerability, notes we numb pain with medication but in so doing we also numb joy. To really feel the highs, we have to experience the lows.
I never used medication to numb my pain, but sometimes I grew weary of my pain and simply ignored it. We have to find our own threshold. Mom died right before Lent. Usually I observe Lent with fasting and deprivation, but that year I couldn't take more buffeting of my body.
Being authentic with ourselves also includes facing less-than-lovely truths about our inner lives. We need to note when we are envious of our sisters and brothers in ministry experiencing more "success" than we are, or notice when we are struggling with our marriage. Some good soul searching helps keep us on track in all areas.
Jesus modeled vulnerability in leadership. In John 3 we read that he did not entrust himself to people, because he knew what was in their hearts. He did not expose himself to the crowds, speaking to them in parables, yet he did confide in his close disciples. Even within that group, he divulged more to a smaller circle. His vulnerability in the Garden of Gethsemane models his willingness to ask for help and support when needed. There we find Jesus both desiring the support of his closest friends, yet truly alone in his darkest moment, which we too might find true of our experience.
Every pastor needs a safe place to be authentic and vulnerable. Finding the right person to confide in brings its own challenges. A parishioner? A colleague? Someone 1,000 miles away? Early in my ministry I enjoyed having a parishioner in my church as a friend. Anne and I were both young mothers and had a lot in common. I appreciated having someone in the same life stage to share my journey as a wife and mother. Yet it bothered her if I shared my struggles, such as my difficult relationship with my mother-in-law. She didn't want to hear that from her pastor. If I was too authentic, she felt disappointed in me as her spiritual leader.
A few years ago a female pastor friend picked a few other women pastors and invited us to participate in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pastors. Each spring we gather in a different venue to have fun, unwind, and share deeply. We all need people in everyday life, but this yearly retreat also touches a deep chord, as we understand each other in ways no one can in our everyday lives as women, wives, mothers, and pastors. Tears and chocolate, theater and food, communion and rest, all combine for authentic soul cleansing.
I read about one pastor who woke up one Sunday morning plagued by extreme doubt. That particular Sunday happened to be Easter, which meant that many new people were likely to show up to hear about Christ's resurrection. The pastor knew better than to lay out his angst at that moment, regardless of how he felt in the moment.
This particular aspect challenges us as pastors the most. With effort we can find a safe place to be real. But at what level do we share authentically with our congregation? A certain amount of angst can be shared with a congregation and actually encourage them. But standing in front of the gathered people of God on a Sunday morning and saying you've lost your faith would be devastating to them. Extreme doubts and crises should lead to a time of serious discernment and counseling. But, much like C.S. Lewis, who stated after his wife died that he felt God had bolted the door and wasn't listening, sharing such struggles will resonate with some of our people and give them the courage to express their own fears and doubts.
Some doubts we may never be able to share publicly. Others need the right venue. Being able to dialogue about an issue creates the opportunity to be better understood. Proclaiming them from the pulpit usually doesn't. Moses told God he didn't feel adequate to lead the nation of Israel. But he didn't tell the Israelites that. God gave him his brother Aaron to be his spokesperson and perhaps Moses confided in Aaron his hesitations. Brown states that leaders shouldn't stand in front of their teams and say they are clueless. That does not inspire respect and confidence. But those same leaders need to find someone with whom to confide their fears and inadequacies.
Some pastors vomit their struggles during sermons in a fashion that serves as their own therapy but leaves the congregation reeling. Others conceal all personal issues and struggles in order to maintain an air of total competency and strength. As usual the healthiest approach lies somewhere between the two, being transparent without undermining the confidence of our congregants in our ability to serve them. Being authentic does not only refer to doubts. In yesterday's sermon I shared honestly that whining is often my first response to struggle.
That same parishioner Anne and her husband served as our leading lay family for 10 years. Our families lived on the same street and our children felt like siblings to one another. Then she decided to leave our church because she couldn't resolve our relationship. My husband and I felt like we'd been issued divorce papers. The central core of our relationship with this family, serving the neighborhood through our church, had been torn out, making it impossible for us to feel the relationship could be sustained. Yet I needed to be cautious in how I spoke about it publicly, since others in the church remained their friends. We prayed over them during a service, sending them off to serve elsewhere. My sermons included no mention of the extreme discouragement I experienced from the others who left, cutting our attendance practically in half.
Negative emotions need to be carefully vetted before sharing with the church as a whole. If not, we can be guilty of a form of abuse, creating guilt or doubt in our congregation beyond what they already experienced. On the other hand, positive emotions need little editing, and being vulnerable in sharing our authentic joy and compassion sets a wonderful example.
At times, a story I am sharing in a sermon touches me to the point of tears. Brown discusses this kind of vulnerability in a TED talk, noting we feel weak when we cry, but when we see others cry especially publicly, we consider it raw courage. To share our uncensored emotion with others connects in a way mere words only hint at. If we cried in every sermon, our people would suspect we were only acting. But when grace moves us to tears, the Holy Spirit can do a work deeper than our own words can plumb.
On the anniversary of my mother's death, I left the minister's event at the seminary I attended, drove to my mother's grave, and left a letter expressing my struggles over her unnecessary death. Leaving that behind helped me move on. I doubt my congregation ever knew the full depth of my despair. But hopefully they gained from my deepening. Being authentic challenges us, especially as pastors. But as we work to be more in touch with the Author, we will find ourselves living and leading with more authenticity and less fear.
Katherine Callahan-Howell is pastor at Winton Community Free Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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