By Jim Tune
(This column was first posted November 5, 2014.)
To be real is to risk. I know many preachers who feel a deep reluctance (often well-founded) to reveal who they really are to those they lead. Henri Nouwen suggests that pastors are the least confessing people in the church. The expectations demanded of pastors in our Western culture are often unattainable, unsustainable, and soul-withering.
I admit that I have sometimes allowed my own fear of vulnerability to push me into hiding. The trouble with life in the shadows is the double life it promotes in the shadow dweller. I find myself preaching God’s unconditional love but living under religion’s conditional love. I’ve discovered it is possible to preach free, yet live enslaved.
Other preachers struggle with this too. They ask, “Where can I truly be myself? If people know who I am, will they reject me? Do people love me as their pastor but not as a person?”
When Dallas Willard speaks of “sin management,” he has this fear of authenticity in mind. For example, I’ve occasionally been guilty of sharing just enough of my brokenness to gain rapport and even admiration. I can even come across as somewhat heroic. But I am still withholding my darkest areas.
This is a dangerous posture to assume. Ministry becomes a show. The pastor must perform a tireless dance of careful role-playing to save face by never showing his whole self to others.
Shame thrives where silence and secrecy abound. While many are familiar with the purpose-driven life, Gordon MacDonald says pastors are at risk of leading the secret-driven life.
The apostle Paul was able to boast about his weaknesses. We prefer to cower for fear that all will be known about us. In The Road to Oz, the Tiger says something that rings true to some of my experiences: “Hush, Dorothy,” whispered the Tiger, “you’ll ruin my reputation if you are not more discreet. It isn’t what we are, but what folks think we are, that counts in this world.”
As I get older, I find that I am finally ready to accept who I am. Others may not. Others may decide they prefer the guy they thought I was, and thus desert me. Some prefer living in Oz. But that’s OK. I think the risk is worth it.
Thomas Keating says, “The spiritual journey is not a career or success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound.” I suspect that sooner or later the false self always gets revealed. When it does, the public unmasking can be ruinous. Worse still, the secret bearer has known only shame and secrecy instead of the life-giving grace of God.
Madeleine L’Engle said, “If we refuse to take the risk of being vulnerable, we are already half-dead.” I’ll take the risk.