Theology and Vulnerability

October 1st, 2016

Not only is ministry inherently vulnerable because you are continually at risk for others observing your perceived faults and the aspects of yourself you would rather not have people see, but because you will constantly be exposing your very theology. In your teaching, preaching, and pastoral care, you are revealing who you are as a theologian for all the world to see. What if they disagree with you? What if they do not like your theology? What if they leave the church because of you? These fears then get personalized—“they do not like me”—into a fear of rejection. This is vulnerability at its very core: the fear and then the knowledge and potential of rejection.

So to placate the dissenters and the disbelievers and so to not be rejected, we play it safe theologically. Rather than reveal what we truly think, we revert to the theological default button. Then, if someone does not agree with us, if someone does not like what we say, if someone leaves the church or abandons the relationship, we can safely say, “That’s the official opinion of . . .” and insert our denomination, our church, our creeds, our confessions, or our loyalties.

This is one of the reasons why preaching right now is so incredibly boring. Preachers are unwilling to expose their own theological interpretation of a text, and so they quote commentaries, fall back to theological jargon, or hide behind generally acceptable sacramentology in order to avoid having to state their own theological truth. The flip side of the coin, however, is no more conducive to vulnerability, for there are those preachers whose proclamation is so definitive as not to allow any opportunity for wonder. This is because to reveal yourself, or to invite questions, creates vulnerable spaces that are hard to negotiate in the parish—and in life.

For a woman in ministry, preaching your vulnerable truth will be even harder. You will want to fall back on theological truths that feel more acceptable, more palatable, with the idea that you will have enough trouble as it is, without upsetting the theological apple cart. You will want to make sure that your theology is “correct” and sound; you will want to have all of your theological ducks in a row so as to be taken seriously and to get or keep a job when a congregation is reluctant to hire you. But who determines “theological correctness”?

Who has been allowed to determine theological correctness is exactly the point. Theological correctness has been avowed by a male-dominated tradition, which is, in part, why male truths/experiences feel less vulnerable in preaching and seem safer. Commentaries on the Bible and monographs in theology are predictable because they all emerge from one fairly uniform set of white, straight, cisgender[1] privileged experiences. Your theological abilities will perhaps be taken more seriously, or will at least have more integrity, if you are willing to challenge the usual, question the status quo, and speak up for those who have been theologically overlooked. Playing it safe theologically is not a biblical principle; it should not be a principle of your ministry either.

What is it about the church that makes us so incredibly nervous about vulnerability? What do we have to fear? In part this is because vulnerability is misunderstood by most, including the church. Equated with sharing too much or being weak, it is a characteristic that one would do best to avoid. The reality, however, as discussed above, is that our world and our lives are vulnerable places. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. If Brown is right, the institutional church cannot afford to lift up vulnerability as a valued characteristic of ministry. For much of its history, the church has enjoyed cultural, social, and worldly power. The loss of that power in recent years has led to a defensive posture rather than one open to adaptation, change, and risk. The instinct toward traditionalism, the insistence that there is a pure church to which to return, and the entrenchment of acceptable doctrine all arise from a fear of decline. The church as it is now, with systems in place committed to its survival, has adapted our societal expectations of success as strength and certainty. These systems include, but are not limited to, its pastoral hierarchies, its polity, its judicatories, and even its sacraments. If the church were to stand on a principle of vulnerability, all of the above would be called into question. Therefore, a stick-your-head-in-the-sand philosophy seems viable so as to avoid the hard work of change.

At the same time, this is the very reason that a theology of vulnerability needs to take center stage in how we are church and how we do church. To speak up for and do ministry from a position of vulnerability as a woman in ministry could very well be an act of prophecy—although we all know how prophets tend to be received. Once again, this is about truth-telling. When the women went to the disciples and told them the truth about the empty tomb, what was the reaction by those closest to Jesus throughout his ministry? That the truth-telling by the women was garbage or crap (l─ôros; Luke 24:11). Truth-telling is rarely received with acceptance, but it is absolutely necessary. The prophets knew this. Jesus knew this. The women at the tomb knew this. Truth-telling is the hallmark of the gospel. It makes the gospel be the gospel and it will make the church be church.

Karoline Lewis holds the Alvin N. Rogness Chair of Homiletics at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. This article is excerpted from her book She: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Women in Ministry, from Abingdon Press.


[1] Oxford dictionaries defines cisgender as “denoting or relating to someone whose sense of personal identity corresponds with the gender assigned to them at birth.”

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