The power of vulnerability (Am I too vulnerable?) [video]

This TED Talk came across my YouTube subscriptions, and shortly thereafter my father-in-law emailed me saying he’d like to hear my thoughts on it. It’s really an interesting lecture about vulnerability, courage and our need for connection. Watch the video. The last third is when it really gets good, but you’ll need the first two-thirds for it to click, so watch the whole thing when you have 20 minutes.

My father-in-law mentioned how intrigued he is by my generation’s ability to be vulnerable. I think my generation and the one after me may make themselves naturally more vulnerable than the baby boomers, but we are still definitely hiding a lot, especially from people we don’t trust.

Just this past weekend I was speaking at a camp. I asked a probing and vulnerable question during one of my sessions and no one really responded. One girl offered a really safe, generic answer, that’s it. But then I answered my own question, risked vulnerability, and as soon as my story was over, three others shared theirs. The only dynamic that changed and caused them to share was that I initiated the vulnerability. It was like everyone else in the room didn’t matter at that point. No one else had necessarily changed — it was just me who took the first step and the group responded. (Of course, small group leaders know this already.)

As I’m interviewing with churches, several (older) people have advised me not to talk about being fired nor struggles with it and to hold off any potential reservations about a youth ministry position until the end of the interviewing process. “Put your best foot forward, earn their respect, and then share any negativity if you must, but do so very carefully and make it look positive.” However, my natural approach is just the opposite. I’m not just trying to land a job here — I want to serve in a place that embraces the real me.

I’ve found that risking vulnerability builds respect much quicker and deeper than presenting a partially-true me. People respect that and tend to return the favor. But even so, we’re all too concerned about what others will think of us because we like to be in control.

Maybe the reason I jump to authenticity and vulnerability too quickly is because that’s what I expect and desire from others? I don’t know… I definitely remember feeling hesitations about risking vulnerability in front of our church congregation when I taught about porn and shared my story in Sunday morning church services. “What if all the youth group girls think I’m a perv? And the moms will never trust me the same again!” Fortunately, I didn’t experience any of that to be true. In fact, weeks after that Sunday, so many people, young and old, came to me wanting to talk about their struggles with porn. And they never would have opened up nor respected my opinions on the subject if I hadn’t risked the vulnerability first.

I’m not really sure I have a point here. Just rambling out loud as I process this video.

What do you think when you watch it? Would love to dialog about it in the comments below.

Posted on January 4, 2011

  • I saw that earlier today as well. Great commentary on what we should know in practicing faith. My takeaways:

    In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. It has to include vulnerability.

    To believe they are worthy of love and belonging. Fear plays on that. It says we aren’t worthy of connection.

    Courage comes from the latin word “cour” which means telling who you are with your whole heart.

    Connected people: Have the courage to be imperfect. They have the compassion to be kind to themselves first, then to others. They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be, in order to embrace who they were. They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable, made them beautiful.

    They had the willingness to say I love you first, and the willingness do something with no guarantees.

    Connected people know this is fundamental.

    Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love.

    • Yeah, a lot of good takeaways there. From a spiritual standpoint, how much does vulnerability come from an accurate perspective of seeing ourselves the way God sees us?

  • Shawn Harrison

    This was really – really – good, Tim. Thanks for sharing. I'm gonna post it on my blog – if that's alright.

    I think she made some great points about all of us. We hide behind facades because we're afraid of letting people see the real us. This is especially the case for the Church. We have taken a movement that was started by imperfect people, and have turned it into a "country-club-like-gathering" where everyone seems to have it together – all the time. When in reality, no one ever does – including the pastor(s).

    What would happen if the Church became more vulnerable with itself … with those outside its walls? What would happen if we let down our masks and our guards and were real with people … with ourselves … with God?

    The Church should be the one place where vulnerability thrives; instead it's the one place where it hides.

    • Not only does the church need to be more vulnerable, but it's leaders, especially the pastor, should be modeling this. Of course, for a baby-boomer pastor, that would seem to have the opposite effect of what they want, though. Everyone appreciates when others are vulnerable, but rarely do they want to do it themselves, I guess.

      • Shawn Harrison

        I agree, Tim. So, then, how do we start?

    • I think you hit the nail on the head with saying the church is like a country club. For those of us who have grown up in the church I think we are unintentionally taught to be fake on Sunday. But then we're taught that the church is a place for broken people and sinners to come. And when someone who didn't grow up in the church arrives and doesn't act "church-like" everyone gets their feathers ruffled and tries to teach them the "correct" way to act at church.

      A few years ago I started to intentionally not answer with the normal, "I'm fine." answer when asked how I was doing. I doubt that made a difference in anyone's lives, but that was my effort in trying to model my vulnerability in the church, as a pastor's wife. I have been to many youth leader trainings that teach us to not ask students the question, "How are you?" They know that it's not a sincere question, and that if we really care to know whats going on in their lives we would remember something we talked about and bring that up, or ask a more in depth question. "How are you?" is a greeting these days, not a question.

      After Tim was let go from our last church I was meeting with an older lady in the church whom I respect a ton, and she remembered asking Tim and I how we were doing and we answered honestly in the midst of things being tough in the office. She didn't press any questions at the time, and later regretted not questioning us, thinking if she had maybe things would be different now.

      I'm not sure much can change about vulnerability within the church until the pastors step up and model it for their congregation, but even so it'll take a long time to change the way we think we're supposed to act at church.

      • Shawn Harrison

        The pressure to "be perfect" was one of the underlining things that kept me stuck in my sin of sexual immorality. How could I possibly admit that I was gay and struggled with porn – I mean, I was working with students and leading a small group. For me, it became a "Don't ask, don't tell" type of situation.

        As it's like God to do, I was finally "found out" by my best friend, after some time. Praise Jesus, that opened up a whole new realm of our friendship – that is a story in-of-itself. I had come to find out later that my church would have been supportive of me, but, like me, that didn't know how to handle the situation.

        Flash forward to about 5 years ago, after sharing my testimony in a meeting at another church – for specific reasons – the congregation began to open themselves up about issues that were often suppressed because they were afraid of being rejected by others. Once stories started being shared, you could sense the Spirit setting people free.

        I share these stories to say this: when we hide ourselves within church, we are really hiding ourselves from God, from freedom, and [more likely than not] deeper in our sin.

        Maybe the first step isn't so much pastors being vulnerable but everyone in the church being vulnerable. And maybe it's a combination of both. Either way, freedom is awaiting many more people who are still in hiding. If God presses us to share, then we must. We have no idea who might be impacted by what God shares through us.

        • Dude, exactly. Secrets hold us in bondage, fear, and insecurity. I'd rather open myself to accountability by being public about struggles and weaknesses than to have the news leak out in other ways that are outside my control. (Hmm… maybe vulnerability is still about control?)

  • I think Shawn hit the nail on the head with saying church feels like a country club. A few years ago I tried to start modeling vulnerability in the church by not giving the generic answer “I’m fine” when people would ask how I am. I doubt it ever made a difference in peoples lives, but if church is supposed to be a place where broken people and sinners gather how are we going to help each other if we are all fake?

  • I remember a lady sharing in a conference I was at, about a class she took in college where the professor and the class talked about how to not make connections at the church they served. I was floored.
    I spoke with a fellow youth worker whose senior pastor laments that he can not connect with the church on a personal level.
    I think we must, as christians, be real and forthright with who we are and what we do.
    In scripture we are to be with one another, we are to bear one another's burden, we are not to wall ourselves off from each other and separate our private life from our church life.
    There is more honesty and sharing at the local bar and in the AA that is meeting downstairs right now than there is on a sunday morning or wednesday night. We put on this aire that we have it all figured out instead of coming humbly to the throne to worship God as sinners, redeemed by the blood yet failing at most tasks.
    If we as leaders are vulnerable and real then our churches will be also. But often times we hide our failures and insecurities instead of being real with them.
    Okay I am out.

    • It sounds like that lady's professor is sharing from experience more than from research or something. Being in a place now that has burned me, I totally understand that reaction. "Don't let anyone in because they'll eventually hurt you and leave you out in the cold to dry." And while that's true, mentally I have to remind myself that loving deeply means being hurt deeply, too. As she points out in the video, guarding yourself and becoming numb means you don't hurt deeply, but you're not loved nor do you love deeply either.

      • Yeah I have no doubt that is is much easier to not let anyone in. I realize that in the American Church we as pastor's may even last longer than if we did let people in. But lasting shouldn't overwhelm reality. I would rather hurt deeply than be numb. I weep regularly but I also am able to laugh greatly. Deep emotions are better than an "lol".

  • Caney Fork Baptist Church Student Ministry

    It seems for me and others on the tail end of the baby boom generation (born in 1961) we were taught to be self sufficient and to be all things for everyone. The downside of this is you never get to show weakness or to be yourself but to be strong and to have it all together.

    As I look at my youth group now I see that many of them have been so overstimulated by slick images and media that give warm fuzzies that they are looking for authenticity in their lives. Often this authenticity comes with vulnerability (which I think is a good thing!).

    As I have gotten older I find that fortunately it is more easy for me to be vulnerable with my youth group and the church congregation. I am old enough to realize I don't have all of the answers and have had to face my own weaknesses and defects enough to be more comfortable with who I am. This has actually helped me in my ministry with young people as I try to relate to them: as on old guy who cares for them.

    God Bless, Duck

  • excellent post…great video…and even greater conversation. so many gems to process. but the core for me is in the words of John 10:10…and we all live there…the evil one comes to destroy (and will do everyting in his power to accomplish that and Jesus gives us life (until we get to heaven we live the mess of the in between). We've been living in this tension since the fall. We want our lives to matter (story). That's why the narrative of our lives…i.e. yours tim as you shared with the students…give strength to others and permission to them/others to risk to be honest. i loved her comments about our children. "not perfect" but imperfect (Romans 1) wired for struggle (Romans 3), but worthy (Romans 8).

    the evil one is constantly telling us…don't risk it. in a culture that is so high tech…requires us to be high touch..the touch of the heart…and when we live out of that…it rocks everything…because it is the wellspring our our lives.

    that said, we do have to measure our vulnerability. we are only human…and if we are to survive the onslaught we must be in community with others who will grow with us….her closing words…"we are enough".

    my ramblings… blessings, t

    • Good thoughts, Tom. You're right — there must be a limit to vulnerability that's appropriate. We haven't really talked about that much here yet, maybe because the pendulum is way too far in the other direction right now. But we can agree that sharing imitate details about your divorce with teens who love your ex-husband is probably not appropriate vulnerability. Teens aren't therapists. Good point.

  • Danny Wayman

    Great conversation. Vulnerability and authenticity is very important to me. There is an old saying "good fences make for good neighbors". I think this means healthy boundaries help us to be vulnerable. It destroys us to live without boundaries, but it also destroys us to lock our souls up in a closet and not let anyone (even ourselves) see who we are. Authenticity and accountability; vulnerability and boundaries, may be opposites but they work together like the muscles in our arms to both pull and push. Freedom and equality are opposite principles which our nation believes in and creates a just and redeeming community..

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