Vulnerability in the pulpit: How much is too much?

October 26th, 2016

Glennon Doyle Melton is a best-selling author, a well-known blogger, and a popular speaker. Recently, I lined up with a lot of other thirty and forty-something white women to file into War Memorial Auditorium to hear her in conversation with Ann Patchett. On our way through the door, we were handed a copy of her latest book, Love Warrior, which has since been selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Glennon writes honestly and vulnerably about her past struggles with addiction and bulimia, the difficulty of raising children, and her marital struggles, all of which strike a chord with her audience and have made her beloved to many.

Right before I saw her, she had announced online that she and her husband were separating despite clawing back their marriage after his admission of adultery a couple years prior. In fact, Love Warrior is predominantly a memoir about that process and this announcement immediately preceded her release date. In the same circle of writers and memoirists, Elizabeth Gilbert (most popular for Eat, Pray, Love but also the author of Committed: A Love Story) announced her separation from her husband. Social worker Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability is immensely popular, and, I believe, necessary. But when does public confession and vulnerability go too far, particularly for those of us in ministry?

In her blog at Christian Century, Carol Howard Merritt asks some good questions about vulnerability and readability with regard to Kate Bowler’s lecture on Disclosure and Power in American Megaministry. While male mega-ministers preach 80% Bible content and 20% anecdote, those numbers are flipped for women ministers in that context. In many ways, for these women, success rests on confession, on “being real.” Intimacy is signaled by coffee, yoga pants and hair in a messy bun. But Merritt wonders if this trade of intimacy for trust is something that’s primarily expected of women and what the consequences are for those of us who traffic in it. 

As a pastor and a preacher, I tend to steer away from intimate stories or examples about myself or my family when I preach. I was taught that it is not my congregation’s responsibility to minister to me; that I should seek out other places and relationships to work through on-going issues or struggles. Certainly, in the right context, a personal revelation can connect with a congregation like nothing else. For example, I have colleagues who have spoken about their experience of intimate partner violence and of assault and rape from the pulpit in a way that makes these things real for their congregations. But for these women, it is a prayerfully considered decision undertaken after years of healing, not a spur-of-the-moment confession in the middle of a horrible situation requiring the congregation to “save” her.

With the popularity and glut of these types of memoirs on the market, is there an expectation that preachers, particularly women preachers, will do the same thing? Recently, I received feedback encouraging me to share more of myself from the pulpit. My worry is that one person’s honest vulnerability is another person’s oversharing. In our culture of Instagram filters and carefully posed selfies, I believe that more vulnerability and honesty in the world are things we should strive for. But for those of us in positions of authority, we must be wary of our boundaries as well.

Whether in writing or preaching, a well-placed, thoughtful personal anecdote or revelation can create a bond with an audience, and as humans, we’re wired for connection and community. As parishioners let their pastors into their most intimate, vulnerable and human moments, there is understandably some disappointment when that isn’t reciprocated. When people splash their lives all over social media and the Internet for public consumption, maybe we are missing a chance for real connection and conversation. Yes, vulnerability and honesty are good things, but so are privacy and appropriate boundaries.

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