Mandy Smith on The Vulnerable Pastor
Christian leaders, especially pastors, sometimes feel bad about the gap between their ideal of Christlike ministry and the reality. Pastor Mandy Smith explains that honestly accepting vulnerabilities and human limitations makes room for God’s strength to be revealed in people and congregations.
Mandy Smith, a native of Australia, is lead pastor of University Christian Church, a campus and neighborhood congregation with its own fair-trade café in Cincinnati, Ohio. She writes for Missio Alliance and Christianity Today publications. In this edited conversation, she talks about themes from her award-winning book, The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry.
How do you define vulnerability in pastors?
I use “vulnerability” in a much more expansive way than simply transparency. I appreciate Brené Brown’s work, and her way of talking about it is a subcategory of the broader experience of human vulnerability. For me, vulnerability is the whole experience of living in skin and getting old and running out of energy and ideas. Ministry has a way of showing us how limited our bodies, minds, and hearts are. Ministry reveals our humanity. That might not feel good (especially in a culture which prefers perfection and polish), but it has the potential to be the source of our fruitfulness. God is not surprised by or ashamed of our humanness.
What are your favorite biblical examples of God’s power revealed in people with obvious limitations?
I love all the stories where God calls someone and they respond, “Who am I?” My favorite is Jeremiah’s. When we’re given a huge task like representing God, it’s natural to look inside ourselves for some sign of our ability. When God calls Jeremiah to be God’s prophet, Jeremiah says, “I don’t know how to speak. I’m too young.” God doesn’t answer, “Oh, no, Jeremiah, you’re so clever and articulate!” Instead the Lord draws Jeremiah’s eyes outward: “I formed you in the womb, I set you apart, I appointed you, I send you, I command you, I am with you, I will rescue you, and I have put my words in your mouth.” Our inadequacy can be an opportunity to know the adequacy of God. Our call is not to do great things for God but with God.
Please share a brief story of how God has used vulnerability—your own or someone else’s—to bless others.
Often when pastors think about sharing vulnerability, it’s a story we choose to tell from a safe distance, after we’ve had time to heal from the experience and carefully choose our words. That’s a part of learning to be human leaders. But the most transformative moments have come when I’ve been “caught” in need of God and the church.
At a prayer training, I was surprisingly moved by the words of the trainer, so I asked a question. It was obviously connected to some deep disappointment in me that I hadn’t even been conscious I was carrying that day. The trainer responded to my question by saying “That seems really significant, Mandy. Can we pray for you now?”
So, although I was uncomfortable, I chose to let fifteen members of my community gather around me and pray for me. I sat cross-legged on the floor and sobbed while they laid hands on me and prayed over me. I felt healing come over me. I felt surrounded by the body of Christ in a way I’d never known it before. And, although I would have preferred to just calmly tell the church about a time when people prayed for me, it was more meaningful for them to get to participate in it, to watch me trust in God and the power of communal prayer. While trying to gather myself afterwards, I wondered if I should be ashamed for letting my people see me in need. However, several folks approached me to say it was the most powerful part of the training. So, somehow, I blessed them even by letting them bless me. What a beautiful, hopeful possibility!
What good first steps can pastors take to model and teach God’s blessing of sabbath and rest?
Just plan to be away sometimes. It shows we trust God and others with the church. While it looks like servanthood to feel so responsible for our congregations, there’s also a kind of sinfulness in assuming it’s all up to us. There’s a kind of pride in thinking things will fall apart if we’re ever away. Just choosing to step away on a regular basis both stretches these instincts in us and requires others to step up and use their gifts. Others get the blessing of watching how God can use them.
How can congregations begin to shift their idea of church success so they can continue to be a blessing?
On our office wall, we have a quote attributed to Mother Teresa: “We are not called to be successful. We are called to be faithful.” As hard as we work, we can’t control outcomes—how many people come or how much people give or whether people choose Jesus. But we can control our faithfulness. We can faithfully listen to the Spirit and the community every day and faithfully respond with the time and energy that we have. We trust that God can take human efforts and make something beautiful with them, even if we don’t always see the outcomes. This kingdom is yeast in the dough, so we have to trust that our seemingly small efforts are radical in this world.
Read Mandy Smith’s book The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry. Smith talks about the book in this brief video clip. Hear her speak at the 2020 Calvin Symposium on Worship. Smith also recommends reading The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Stephen B. Sample.