Follow the Tears: Forging a New Way of Vulnerable Leadership

Sunday, November 29, 2020

"The Christian leader of the future is called [...] to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self."

- Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus

I am an emotional person.

That was hard to admit.

For most of my life I've been led to believe a false narrative that emotions are weak. They're too messy, they're too fickle, they're too... much. When the paradigm for leadership in the American church has been male, and the paradigm for male leadership in our culture has been emotionless logic and reason, the paradigm has affected how I, as a woman, am expected to also lead.

My examples of leadership have implicitly trained me to lead from "strength," which was a thinly-veiled way of saying to lead from logic, defensiveness, disconnection, and ready answers. In my pastoral ministry I was repeatedly told to not let others see my weaknesses, my raw emotions, the spots in my life that were not yet perfectly resolved. I shouldn't share until I had all the answers figured out or the entire process worked through. In my field in biblical studies, I was told that emotions have no place in interpretation, writing, or teaching. Proper study of Scripture is accomplished with detachment, an "objective," factual examination of the text. Vulnerability was a weakness.

As a person who is, deep-down, in tune with the emotions of both myself and others, I've never really felt like I belonged. I've hidden my emotions, locking them away for private appraisal later in secret. The times when I "slipped" and let the tears flow in the pulpit and staff meetings were met with shame or discomfort.

I've only just begun viewing my emotions as a strength this year in my new vocation as a college professor, where I've let my tears become visible and invited my students to process along with me.

A few months ago, as I expressed my feelings of loneliness and inadequacy to a dear friend who is also an Old Testament professor, she quietly listened and then told me, "Follow your tears."

Her permission for me to feel in that moment has given me courage to forge my own way of leading with vulnerability.

This past semester, I followed the tears and told my students before one class session that I was struggling too, that the limitations COVID had created that week had taken its toll on me. 

I followed the tears in my Poetic and Wisdom Lit class when I cried through a lament we read together because it gave me the words I didn't even know I needed in that moment.

I followed the tears in my gen ed class when I cried through Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones because it deeply stirred a longing within me for the reckoning and restoration of the American church.

I followed the tears when I admitted to my students that I didn't know how to reconcile a text with the rest of Scripture, that its violent claims made me uncomfortable, that I was still trying to figure out what it meant.

The response to each of these instances was profound with my students.

Because I was willing to bravely connect with my own inner self, I was able to connect with my students.

By showing up with vulnerability this semester, I've started to become comfortable with who I am as a leader. Teaching has challenged me to become part of the process - I'm no longer trying to impart a finalized "product" or "performance," but I'm inviting my students to discover and learn alongside me. I've been amazed at the significant interconnection between emotional and spiritual health, and I've realized that I need to model emotional depth and maturity in order to disciple my students spiritually. In fact, I would argue that the key to successfully discipling my students has way more to do with my emotional/spiritual development than it has to do with my scholastic expertise or experience. 

It's time for us as leaders to recall it's blessed to be poor in spirit.

To mourn.

To humble ourselves.

To hunger for righteousness.

To show mercy.

To make shalom.

Perhaps it is in these forms of beautiful vulnerability where we discover the kingdom of heaven together.

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