October 19, 2017

Another Look: The Limits of Vulnerability

oversharing-social

This is an excerpt from a post published in January, 2013. It has been edited and updated.

• • •

I think that the practice of “vulnerability” as personal transparency may have gone to seed. Just take one flip around the TV channels and you can see that. What are all of these confessional talk shows, reality shows, and religious testimonial programs if not examples of “letting it all hang out” to an extreme? And don’t even get me started on social media! I could find more than enough examples on one screen shot from Facebook or Twitter to make my points. The information age has led in many cases to “TMI.” “No secrets” has become “no limits” on the personal information some will share.

Is it possible we no longer know how to value virtues like privacy, modesty, or restraint?

Vulnerability defined as “letting it all hang out” is not the same thing as serving others personally and humbly in my weakness. “Telling my story” may be more about meeting my own needs than about ministering to others. Sharing my feelings and personal experiences can be an act of humility and generosity, or a selfish attempt to put myself in the spotlight. It can keep me from listening well to what another is saying. It can prevent me from understanding my friend’s needs by keeping the focus on my own “need” to share. I may be so intent on revealing the details of my life that I fail to see that what I say may be irrelevant to my friend’s situation. My story may give them a completely misleading idea about what it means for their journey.

Being vulnerable or transparent, sharing my feelings, speaking honestly and openly about my own mistakes and failures, confessing my doubts and fears and limitations, acknowledging my weaknesses, being willing to laugh at myself, shed tears without shame, admit my need for help, and say, “I don’t know” — these are essential qualities of humility and honesty. These qualities won’t look the same in everybody, and they will be channeled through our individual personalities and temperaments. They are necessary if we are to relate to one another well.

But…

Vulnerability must always be limited and guided by love. To love means to be with another and for another for their benefit. If allowing a glimpse inside my life through telling my story or sharing my feelings will accomplish that, then I should do so thoughtfully and with care and discernment. But I may be called to simply listen, ministering by my silence and presence. It may be more important for me to point my friend away from me in order to provide help. What is essential is that I am committed to loving others by laying down my life for them. But “laying down my life” does not always mean “sharing every detail of my life.”

The love that limits and guides vulnerability is a virtuous love. Sharing my life transparently with others is limited by love that recognizes a place for privacy. Certain details of life are private. Some things are not meant to be shared with anyone but kept in my own heart. Other things are meant only to be shared with those who share my private spaces. Without that, intimacy with the appropriate people in our lives is not possible.

Transparent vulnerability is also limited by love that is modest. Modesty is a form of humility that hesitates to have the spotlight on oneself. This leads to love that exercises restraint.

We read an example of this in 2Corinthians 12, an example that our over-sharing Christian culture today needs to hear and hear well. The Corinthian churches were being troubled by religious leaders who were constantly “boasting” in their credentials, spiritual experiences, and powerful presentations. Paul counters by “boasting” in his weaknesses and sufferings. At one point, however, he thinks it necessary to share a personal spiritual experience he had:

“It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows — was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” (12:1-4, NRSV)

Paul speaks of himself here and a remarkable spiritual experience God gave him. He was taken into heaven itself! But he tells this story with tremendous restraint. Paul uses the third person and expresses hesitancy to talk about details. Most notably, this experience happened 14 years earlier, and as far as we know, he had never shared it before! In our confessional, tell-all age, can you imagine what someone would do to hype it if they had an experience like this?

However, Paul only shares it as a last pastoral resort to save the Corinthians from going astray. In fact, he leaves this story behind immediately and goes on to talk about the “thorn in the flesh” the Lord gave him because he had been privileged to experience such revelations. He would rather boast in his weaknesses and sufferings because the Corinthians had a poor theology of the cross (though some of us find a way to make that self-serving too).

The point is, whatever Paul shared about his own life, whether incredible experiences with God or terrible sufferings for the sake of Christ — he did so within limitations. He spoke with restraint, and always for the sake of his brothers and sisters, not to put the focus on himself.

There is vulnerability and there is vulnerability. There is transparency and there is transparency. Sharing our lives must always be done within the context of laying down our lives in love.

Comments

  1. OldProphet says:

    This post is like a painful dagger in my heart Even after years of serving in churches and ministries, I have no close male friends. Al of the ones I have had either betrayed me or walked away. I do not have a single male friend that I can be vulnerable or open with. It’s. A hard place to be. I’m not whining, it a way of life in most of the evangelical churches I’ve been in. Real community is so important. At least Jesus is a friend. He’s always been there when everyone else deserted me

    • OP, I hear the pain in your voice, and I hope it helps if I say I think we’re talking about two different matters. I am trying to correct a broad kind of intimacy, in which we share our most private experiences with others indiscriminately. You lament a lack of people with whom you can be truly intimate, in the appropriate vulnerability of a close relationship.

      That is an important issue, IMO, in our world today as well. Many let it all hang out in public, while going home to an empty house.

  2. Random responses:

    -There are direct generational implications. Millenials and boomers, for instance, will see topic very differently.

    -For my generation (millenial) and those upcoming, we do not see vulnerability so much as a need to be expressed, and therefore tempered, but rather an olive branch. Or a warning shot. Or a hold-my-breath-and-hope-I-don’t-get-judged-handshake. It is more often a beginning than an end in itself, asking “This is who I am, will I be loved? Am I safe here?” Before the the ethic of laying down my life is on the table, I want to know if my life -as it really is- is worth anything to you.

    -One really cannot do much better on this subject than Brené Brown did with her book “Daring Greatly.” It’s full of grace and risk.

    -While understanding that this is a corrective post, I think social media has fooled us into believing that over-sharing is currently a great danger. I would argue that is far from the truth, and that the majority of churchgoing people still exist in a state of not feeling fully known by either God or their neighbors and are not sure how to resolve it. Henry Nouwen and David Benner both write about uncovering the “false self” by walking in the light with your self & others as essential to spiritual formation.

    -Vulnerability as a social concept still seems quite novel in history. Other than artists and writers, it seems that the emotional condition of humanity for most of our existence has been that of “repressed.” Have we ever been allowed to tell the truth about ourselves, that “all is not well,” like we can today? I doubt it, and I think it is a great mercy, and that it is an especially viable pathway for people to encounter the One who wants to give rest to our weary souls.

    Speaking of this pathway, one of my professors said it the best: “People no longer understand that they are sinners in need of a Savior, but they can understand that they are broken and in need of a Healer.”

    Those are my 3am thoughts. This is an important subject, thanks for bringing it up.

    • >Other than artists and writers, it seems that the emotional
      >condition of humanity for most of our existence has been
      >that of “repressed.

      This I do not believe. Repression appears to me to be a very modern, and possibly very American, brand of discontent. One of my all-time favorite things to do is read letters; collections of letters from all manner of people. I have letters written by my barely literate ancestors. I do not see repression. I see effusive self-expression, precise thinking, wide ranging topics, etc… We stopped writing letters not all that long ago – certainly within the last 100 years – so the story goes cold. It wasn’t just letter writing that stopped in that period, something societally changed; it is above my pay-grade to say what that is, but people stopped communicating like that.

      I go back and look at e-mails I have from the early to mid nineties compared to the e-mails in the 2,000s … they are different too. They are more like letters, more personal, more ‘communicative’, people obviously spent more time on what they said and how they said it.

      Certainly technology [although its pervaviveness is exaggerated] and mobility are factors in this change. But either leading this change or merely concommitant is a clear decline in the cultural value placed on Friendship, particularly adult Friendship. Without Friendship Vulnerability has an very different color.

      • Again, vulnerability between close friends and intimates is a different issue. And I wouldn’t call an appropriate guarding of privacy and less narcissm “repression.”

        • Agreed. I’m trying to speak to the place between the personal/private and the large-scale social media stuff, which to me would be the local community and certain civic spaces.

          Finn, do you have any reference points beyond personal letters?

          The show Mad Men is coming to my mind strongly. It portrays an era of people who are distinctly unhappy, but not allowed to articulate it. Marriages suffer in silence. Memories and wounds inflicted in childhood pop up all the time, but they cannot be explored in the family structure. “Respect” means never talking about dirty laundry, so one copes with sex and alcohol.

          This is different from the rest of human history how exactly?

    • > For my generation (millennial) and those upcoming, we do
      > not see vulnerability so much as a need to be expressed,
      > and therefore tempered, but rather an olive branch

      You are on to something here, but it may not be that definitive. I am a decade too old to be a Millennial but I use this form of Vulnerability all the time.

      > Am I safe here?” Before the the ethic of laying down my
      > life is on the table, I want to know if my life -as it
      > really is- is worth anything to you.

      Agree, ours is a quick-to-judge my-camp-your-camp oriented culture; we *love* Labels.

      So I might as well just fly my flag, then I can sort through the people around me more efficiently – discover the ones that are going to view me as “enemy” anyway, and move on. This turns Vulnerability in a defensive mechanism.

      I agree that Millennials are more aggressive about using this tactic than the Grays are; however they are also, just by virtue of age, at the building stage of life and the Grays are at the settled stage – so this may explain much of that difference away. We as humans are a forgetful lot – we forget we conducted ourselves very differently as we passed through the vintages of our own lives [one reason the passing of the tradition of diaries and journals is sad; reading what you wrote, about yourself, twenty or thirty years ago, can be chastening].

    • Sean, for 3am, you are wonderfully insightful. I don’t have time for a full response now, but I hope your comment will prompt a lot of discussion, especially between people of different generations.

      Come on, iMonks. Sean has set the standard here today.

      • Daniel Jepsen says:

        Yes, he certainly has. Great comment, Sean.

        “While understanding that this is a corrective post, I think social media has fooled us into believing that over-sharing is currently a great danger. I would argue that is far from the truth… ”

        This I agree with. The “over-sharers” on social media are not really sharing their life; they are managing their image. Many of us pastors do the same thing when we share “personal stories” in our sermons. I have seen pastors display true transparency and vulnerability in the pulpit, but it is a rare thing. I find it very hard to display true vulnerability while preaching. I get too emotional usually, and that is distracting.

        “and that the majority of churchgoing people still exist in a state of not feeling fully known by either God or their neighbors and are not sure how to resolve it.”

        Yes and yes. There is a great hunger for people to be known, and yet a great fear that keeps us from being open enough to be known. At this stage in my life, I do, however, really have a sense of being known completely by God. And my wife knows me just about as well as one person can know another. I have made reluctant peace with the idea that most other people will not.

        • This I agree with. The “over-sharers” on social media are not really sharing their life; they are managing their image. Many of us pastors do the same thing when we share “personal stories” in our sermons

          This also is my experience (and baggage, I guess). A pastor who shared “personally”, but it wans’t all that personal, and read more like a tweet or blog blurb than personal reflection: and (for me) was not seen as helpful. I think we know (or at least have a good idea) when someone is showing us , appropriately, their dark side, or just playing some kind of role.

        • “the over-sharers”. I agree Daniel. I’m pretty sure Jung coined the modern usage of the term ‘persona’. That is the public me that is orchestrated for the benefit of others. It is essential, yes, but the least vulnerable part of me. Lots of great stories of woe (with attendant tears no less) or daring-do (sweaty brow included) can be told from the persona without ever touching the truly vulnerable self. True vulnerability is always earmarked by significant potential cost. Without potential cost, nothing is vulnerable.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          This I agree with. The “over-sharers” on social media are not really sharing their life; they are managing their image.

          The one Social Media Over-Sharer I actually knew is 52 years old, literally lives in Mommy’s basement, and has not held a job in over 20 years. (Income from general relief plus unspecified gubmint disability plus “borrowing” from Mommy.) But on Social Media he’s the local Kim Kardashian, a Major Playa in Hollywood and Great Magus of the Online Neopagan Covens. With no job or life, he has 24/7/365 to Manage His Image and Share Share Share.

          I knew him before the Internet — he was a local character in various Fandoms. And he was like that back then (and a laughingstock to those who actually knew him), except Managing His Image by direct word-of-mouth instead of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. But to those who only know his Online Image…

          • OldProphet says:

            Amen, Brother Hug! You are spot on. Fake people:Kardashians, John and Kate plus ?, wrote a book on family values? All fake images. Course, its the world. What do you expect? Unfortunately its in the church too. Do we really need to list the names?

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Fake people:Kardashians, John and Kate plus ?, wrote a book on family values?

            Not just “a book on family values” but a CHRISTIAN Book on Family Values and their Christian Faith. JMJ/Christian Monist mentioned seeing it on Jesus Junk store shelves — and then getting pulled FAST when the sex/divorce scandal broke.

            And only a few days ago I saw an ad for “The Next Season of Kate Plus Eight“. So John may have split (to get away from the cameras), but Kate is still singing “I’m A CELEBRITY!!!!!”

    • Sean said: “one of my professors said it the best: “People no longer understand that they are sinners in need of a Savior, but they can understand that they are broken and in need of a Healer.””

      This is so key to how folks think today. We really need to share the gospel with this mindset. The Holy Spirit can convict of sin, if we reach out to hurting folks with loving and healing acts. And we believers need to be reminded that just because we’re saved, we’re not “fixed” but need our broken places healed. I’ve been a believer for… a long time 🙂 … and I’m still finding out where my broken places are.

    • -There are direct generational implications. Millenials and boomers, for instance, will see topic very differently.

      Definitely will be an issue. It’s hard for millennials and boomers to do church together at times. Especially if “respect your elders” means anyone over your age, you must defer to them and their opinions. As opposed to the correct Biblical version of elders.

      I royally pissed off some friends a year or so ago when I refused to adequately “respect my elder”, in this case their parent. She’s my equal. If I address her by a title, that’s my choice. But her opinion does not in any way override mine or mean I must give it more than a simple listen.

      Things got strained for a while, but I’ve nothing to apologize for.

      • You’re not being very specific about this incident you describe, but at first pass I don’t think it fits with what we are discussing. How does your conflict intersect with a healthy or unhealthy perception of vulnerability?

    • I would argue that is far from the truth, and that the majority of churchgoing people still exist in a state of not feeling fully known by either God or their neighbors and are not sure how to resolve it.

      I don’t want to be fully known by neighbors or church people or whomever. Who I am fully is none of their business. I’m sure Eagle can attest to how honesty can cause the worse harm by those who love you or mean the best.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I’m sure Eagle can attest to how honesty can cause the worse harm by those who love you or mean the best.

        And it gives those with ulterior motives — the Users and Abuses who appear as Angels of Light — weapons to use against you.

        There’s a reason both Shepherding Cults and Scientology require fresh fish to Share Everything with their Accountability Partners, Shepherds/Elders, or Dianetics Auditors.

        • Any and every good thing can and will be exploited by certain kinds of people. But that’s exactly the point of this conversation: vulnerability implies both faith & risk, no matter who the receiving party is.

          Stuart, have you heard Eagle’s updated story? He’s modeling this very concept in his life right now, and it seems to be paying off for him. I’d love to see him jump in on this thread.

    • “There are direct generational implications. Millenials and boomers, for instance, will see the topic very differently”
      “For my generation (millennial” and those upcoming, we do not see vulnerability so much as a need to be expressed, and therefore tempered” but rather an olive branch”.

      I’m Generation Y (born in 1980). The question that pops out for me:

      Is the generational difference mostly that this “vulnerability” now exists in younger generations where it didn’t before (older generations simply didn’t care about this kind of “sentimental nonsense”)? Or is this a human thing that’s always been there (but has been repressed), but us younger generations no longer see this kind of vulnerability as weakness or something to be ashamed of and are willing to put it all out there (and also have the technological means to do so)? Maybe a little of each? I don’t think that this inner sense of isolation/desperation and the desire to “connect” (sorry Chap Mike) is completely new:

      “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” – Pink Floyd

      “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” – Henry David Thoreau

      The kind of vulnerability you’re talking about is different than the indiscriminate broadcasting of the entirety of a person’s private life though.

  3. What happened to “suck it up and move on?” Have we totally lost that?

  4. Great post. Vulnerability and transparency are often used to manipulate and, ironically, hide the truth. I’ve been guilty of this myself. Once this becomes a habit, it’s hard to break; and it feeds into destructive self-pity when one becomes part of ones own audience. It’s a form of celebrity that anyone can achieve, it’s advocated by our therapeutic culture, and these two things make it attractive to many.

    • Great points.

      Yeah, we do live in a therapeutic culture, don’t we? Yet still market driven, so that any actual ‘therapeuo’ (Greek for ‘healing’) never actually happens. If we buy he books and see the counselors and shuffle the surface around, we tell ourselves we’ve made an effort, all the while never actually addressing or identifying our dark sides. Then the self-pity, as you said, comes in.

      Searching for self-awareness is futile if we’re committed to self-deception in the long run.

  5. I find in this day and age that people only let people see what it is they want. They can be who ever they want to be. Especially in this day and age. Some like the shock value and really they are not all that. Nor or they as really tough as they think or for that matter as smart.

    I go to church and there are always these fronts put up. Nobody rarely talks about what goes on inside. Oh it’s there and I’m no so foolish to think they got it all together when I hear them talk. They let a lot of information out.

    I wanted to tell the man at church who contacted me about singing how I felt but I didn’t. I just said I would be interested. I would have wanted to tell him so maybe someone could come up beside me and pray for me and help me but instead there was no opening. I heard about promise keepers and other stuff like a mission trip to Haiti. That’s all good stuff but in a man’s world there are little openings both few and far between. I have not heard back yet and I have my doubts as to it ever happening like I heard. It’s okay.

    How about the man who runs the church maintenance asking me about a bid on the ceramic tile saying how they wanted to pay me because it was going to be a preschool for hire and they needed it for a business plan. Thousands of dollars of work and I never heard anything about being paid after I was done and had spent hundreds of dollars of my own money to finish it. Or the man at church who said it would be the best money I ever made on another project only it turned out to be never made. Should I be honest with them. What would the point be. You know they both asked me to do more work…lol. No I just walk away. I can’t be that transparent. I just try to stay away from them.

    I understand this because a couple of years back when a young man wanted to go and have a retreat based on wild at heart so he could bash the heck out of his father for all the hurts he received I wanted nothing to do with it. Not that I would have anyways I’m not into sleeping with a bunch of other men at this day and age. My father hit me with closed fists and I forgave him and always loved him no matter what his shortcomings were. So my thoughts were get over it.

    Should I say that someone at the construction site yesterday said something that had me wanting to invite him outside so we could really work it out and how I had to pray for help all day and well into the night for Jesus to help me let go of it. Who am I going to tell? The people at church…lol. The only guy at church I could even say it to is an old iron worker who knows what I’m talking about. He is in Florida for part of the winter.

    Honesty, vulnerability, transparency are very rare traits and what we see on social media are not so much it. I find that many here only allow a little. Still all in all the only one to know us is our God. The there is always the pot calling the kettle something and I wonder how much we really write could be turned around so we can see stuff in ourselves. How many times has that happened to me. Lord have mercy

    • You have just been vulnerable. Thanks.
      For my part I think that all you need is one or two friends with whom you can go deeper. If you find them, hang on to those relationships.

    • If I’m reading this correctly…you got robbed. If it was meant as a gift, that’s great. But if you have to say that after the fact…you got robbed.

      I won’t do business ever with Christian business men and women. Been burned too many times. Lemon and lemon, shoddy work after shoddy work, “God wanted you to bless me”, etc. No more of that crap.

      Better the honest hardworking atheist than the dishonest lazy Christian.

      • “Well here’s my work bid, God bless you brother!” Stop. Turn around, and walk away. I’ll see you at church and nowhere near my project.

  6. Chap. Mike
    You are walking around in my head today.
    I have been in gatherings where people have ‘been vulnerable’ and it has turned into a show where it is all about them and another form ‘look at me’. It made me sick because it was twisted and perverted and did nothing to edify anyone except the person them self.

    But one thing you said sticks out:

    Other things are meant only to be shared with those who share my private spaces.

    I have often thought that what any of us may need is one or two persons with whom to be vulnerable and process. There can be huge healing in that. And if possible, it really needs to be someone other than family.

    So for those of us who feel this way, is it possible to find those person(s) in your church or community? It may be possible, we just need to pay attention.

  7. Christiane says:

    people that ARE vulnerable often create a protective persona to hide behind, so that the created persona gets attacked and the actual person is unscathed . . . my friend Froggy was like that . . . she was naturally funny, but sensitive, so she created ‘Froggy’ as her theme-name, complete with naming her lakehouse ‘Toad Hall’ and collective thousands of frggy paraphernalia and knick-knacks . . . it was fun . . . people joked about Froggy and my friend was never offended because SHE was in control of her alter-ego and SHE orchestrated the humor. . . sadly, I lost my friend to cancer many years ago, but I have wondered about just how much of what people ‘reveal’ is not some self-protective covering behind which they hide their ‘real’ selves.

    • Identifying and breaking out from the “false self” is a prominent theme in some good spiritual formation literature. It’s a big deal.

  8. David Cornwell says:

    “I may be called to simply listen, ministering by my silence and presence.”

    This post is much needed, and the addendum by Sean helps to fill it out. I’ll have to say however, that much of it remains a struggle and mystery to me even after many years.

    There are some things I’ve learned about silence, however. One life’s most important intimacies is that of silence. It, on its face, seems simple. But for most of us, it is far from simple, or easy.

    Take death for example, and let’s say, the death of a child. Friends will struggle to think of something to say. We truly want to console, we want to “say something.” Often to say “something” is a cover for our own vulnerability and nakedness.

    Is it possible that saying “something” in some of these instances may actually be an encroachment? I’m not sure. But dare we open our mouths where God has been silent? Standing next to a dead child is a place of deep silence to most of us. The one we love has been silenced forever. The one who one day said “mamma” or “daddy” will never again utter those words. And standing next to that coffin, or in the long nights of wakefulness, God may also be silent.

    So what do we share? Mostly we share our presence — and our own silence. And this can be painful beyond words at times. Mostly we listen — and if we listen deeply enough, we will learn when to speak. We do well not to share “answers” because we have none. But if we listen we may learn when and where to share ourselves.

    But be forewarned — this is a silence full of pain.

  9. I’m part of a men’s group in which guys sometimes share things fairly confidentially, and I’ve stood next to one of these men when, two days later, he told his wife, “Bob was telling us in men’s group that…”

    Sad to say, then, I’ve learned not to trust ANYONE with my junk.

    • Rick:
      Do you remind one another that things are said in confidence? People do forget!

      • Yes, we remind everyone periodically. What I’ve found aka learned is this: some people just can’t help themselves. They’re “sharers”. I’ve even told “sharers” after I’ve heard them share, “I don’t think Bob wanted your wife to know that…”

        The most classic hilarious AND sad incident was when one of the guys PRAYED IN A CHURCH-WIDE PRAYER GROUP for something that had been shared earlier in the men’s group. Oh, boy…I was glad I hadn’t share my garbage!

        • Reminds me of a joke I heard. Four pastors decide that they will get really vulnerable and transparent with each other by confessing their secret sin.

          The first pastor confesses that he has likes to occasionally dress in women’s clothes and go out in public in drag.

          The second pastor confesses he has fallen into debt, and has been dipping his hand into the church coffers.

          The third pastor confesses that he has a secret drinking problem that only his wife knows about.

          The last pastor looks at the others and says, “My secret sin is gossip….and I CAN’T WAIT to get out of here!”

  10. OldProphet says:

    Since I have finally figured this topic out, are we talking about in the church or the world
    . Really, to talk about SM, Facebook, and that ilk is a waste. Self promotion and exposure is what social media is all about. No morals, ethics, or wisdom there at all. How about church leadership? Do you trust your leaders to be discreet with what you tell them in private? Your priests? Not only do we have to use Godly wisdom and humbleness in what and to whom we share stuff but we need to be able to trust those we share our hearts with. The WW2 phrase, “loose lips sink ships” can be spiritual advice as to what we say. Well, sort of, if we could spiritualize a phrase.

    • Most of us are talking about within the church, and I don’t see reason to do otherwise.

      One thought I had in the wee hours this morning thinking through this post was that confessing our sins to one another (James 5:16 in most translations) requires a measure of vulnerability. That is true whether we do it through an institutional structure, such as the Roman Catholic confessional, or to a fellow believer from the congregation, as in most low-liturgical churches. The vulnerability also can be, and has been, betrayed when practiced either way.

      The church could do with more sermons on the sins listed in 2 Corinthians 12:20, but those are our sins, and it so much easier to attack somebody else’s sins.

  11. In my looks at this thread, I’ve been consistently reminded of the folk song “Someone is Me” by Steve Romaoff of Schooner Fare. He hasn’t posted the lyrics online that I can see, but it is on his album “We Make the Road by Walking.”

    One of the lines of the chorus is “Your friends can say they’ve really got to know you, while you’re being someone else”. Part of the message of the song is the ultimate emptiness of being known as someone we are not. To some extent we all have facades that we erect. Sometimes to cover hurt, sometimes to cover shame, sometimes to appear to fit in better than we think our authentic self would do, and sometimes in an attempt to change who we are. Probably for more reasons also, but I’ve put up facades for all of those reasons. The only reason in that partial list that was good was the attempt to change who I am, where it was to be more social and less a self-isolating introvert.

    Our church does small groups, and those groups break into smaller groups of 2-5 at time for sharing and prayer. There is an expectation that we’ll be willing to share what is really going on in our lives in those smaller groups – no matter who is in them and no matter whether you met them for the first time an hour earlier or have known them for a long time. That practice creates pseudo-vulnerability, when sharing with people we don’t yet know and trust.

    It takes me a long time before I’m willing to really open up with someone. For me trust comes first, then sharing, and both usually develop gradually. We attend a revolving door church, with a natural annual turnover rate from people moving away of about 20%, and a higher than that turnover rate from people who leave our congregation for other reasons. I can’t form a long term relationship with someone who isn’t here for a long term…

    • To clarify, I didn’t mean the revolving door had more than 20% of the congregation staying in the area but leaving, only that in addition to those who moved out of the area there were also those who stayed in the area but left the congregation, so the combined turnover rate is more than 20%.

  12. Since some have shared instances of vulnerability gone wrong in church or small group settings, let me share how we try to practice it and attempt to get it right:

    One of my last courses in seminary was a Spiritual Formation capstone, and a long-term project was to take on a mentoring role. My wife and I were in the class together, so we tag-teamed and started a mentoring group for young leaders, both in our church and from the campus. Age range was mid-20’s to early 40’s, both couples and singles.

    Our focus was to state our goals/dreams/callings, then paint a picture of what it will take to realize those goals, including addressing current hurdles and limitations. It required extreme vulnerability, as well as a direct, straightforward approach. Here are some snapshots from that group:

    -We stated up front that what would be shared in the group could not and would not be spoken about outside of the group, even among group members. It was a zero tolerance policy.

    -We required high participation. You could not come for two weeks, hear everybody else’s junk, then not show up for two weeks. That’s not a safe environment. This is what happened with one particular couple, so we kicked them out. They understood it and didn’t take offense.

    -We didn’t let people get away with any crap. If someone made a jackass comment, we went after it. “What made you say that? What have you been thinking this whole time?” etc.

    -We intentionally tried to point out blind spots and say the things that people would say behind one’s back, but not to their face. “Your husband is very kind to you. Why are you so hard on him?” “You are 40 and feel guilty about leaving your parents home, but you have so many hopes and dreams you want to fulfill. Tell us the story.”

    -After a few weeks people couldn’t wait to talk. Once they saw it was direct, and constructive, and a 100% judgement free zone, they dove in. The levels of conversation and parts of their lives that they were willing to reveal were amazing, as were times of prayer with a strong sense of God’s presence, and reports of measured outcomes in days and weeks following.

    -Nobody over-shared because it was easy to see how obvious of a deflection tactic it was. “Ok, you’re saying a lot about ______, but why don’t you ever bring up _______?”

    -The point in gathering young leaders for this group was that they would leave our area and go reproduce this kind of community wherever they ended up.

    -My wife and I broke the ice with our stories and the dark sides we are addressing in our lives. We had a mentor to coach us through the process who we met independently with. This was all his structure, not ours.

    • If you want this kind of community, you have to create it. Some observations:

      -if you want a safe place, you have to be a safe place. Trust, confidence, integrity, wisdom, discernment, etc.
      -the environment is key. Make it feel welcome. Some people have amazing gifts of creating a warm, welcoming environment. Pull them in.
      -state up front what you want. Don’t mask it with a bible study then hope people will “be real” when they go around the circle and talk about their week.
      -be kind, and be direct. If people get talked about behind their back, they deserve to be told up front. How else do we expect people to address their blind spots?

      Just some notes after a couple of really good experiences. Once you capture it, you won’t settle for anything else. The best news is, this stuff can be modeled, taught, caught, passed on, and reproduced.

    • After re-reading, I should say that our community wasn’t as boot-campish it may come off. That particular group was put together with particular outcomes in mind. Currently I’m part of a regular community that is just as safe and transparent, but has more of a “life together” vibe than that of the previous group.

  13. This problem doesn’t seem to be confined to any one sort of church or to churches at all. I know from experience that the concept of confidentiality in education, social work, and medicine is a joke. On the other hand there are Roman priests who would go to prison before betraying a confidence, perhaps others. Something I do not have experience with but have read from numerous sources, is that AA or any of the other offshoot twelve-step programs of support and recovery model a concept of church and confidentiality much closer to what Jesus had in mind than the institutional church we have today.

    I have close friends who I can relax with and be 90% honest, but they don’t live close. Some I might not see face to face for ten years or more. I am on my third marriage and it has stayed legally intact by living apart, perhaps would be better ended. There was a woman who came along before my first marriage but not before that first commitment who was one of those rarities I think we might have been able to say whatever was on our mind and it would have been all right. Now fifty some years later I still wonder what might have been if I had changed course back then, taken a different road. Those opportunities may be chance of a lifetime but it doesn’t matter so much at this stage.

    That ability to be totally honest with someone is such a rarity and such a risk. My second marriage foundered in large part because of lack of trust of confidentiality. At bottom I think this discussion revolves around fear, but at the same time there is a healthy fear and churches and good Christian folk are not exempt from that reasonable caution. As pointed out above, just ask Eagle. At the risk of platitude, Jesus is the ultimate confidant.

  14. OldProphet says:

    Charles, I love your honesty and transparency. Someday,I will take you up on that drink offer Of course, I would want Robert F and HUG to come along. That would be the cats meow!

    • OP, bring whoever you want. Robert and HUG always welcome, w as well, but there is no one in this little gathering I would not be glad to sit down with. How many groups of people can you think of you could say that about. This place is a treasure. Fortunately the other side should provide opportunity for any that don’t happen this side

      • Glad you included me. You seem to be on my mind a lot and I always look for your posts. Robert, OP, Dana The Doc said something the other day had me looking at things for days and it really help me. I’m still looking at it and He probably would never guess what it was. Some things are better than gold could ever be.