A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to hear Brené Brown present at a conference to a group of Episcopal church leaders. This was especially fun for me because I’ve been a big Brené Brown fan ever since I saw her first TED talk on the power of vulnerability, but this was the first time I’d gotten to hear her speak from the point of view of faith.
Dr. Brown (may I call her Brené?) is a member of an Episcopal church in (I believe) Houston, Texas, and talked about her own experience returning to church after a long absence. She shared that during the new members class, she and the teaching priest did not have the same understanding of Christ, but that the priest had made it clear that though they didn’t agree, Brené and her family belonged.
Brené asked the group if they knew the number one barrier to belonging was. We all had guesses. We all guessed wrong. “The number one barrier to belonging,” she told us, “is fitting in.”
I was floored. Why was it bad to fit in? How does that keep us from belonging? She explained: fitting in is about assessing the situation and adapting to it. It is not about being yourself. Belonging is about showing up and being seen for who you are, even if it is different from the other people around you. You cannot belong if you have to fit in.
Isn’t that fascinating?
I suspect you think I might go on to talk about how we want people in our churches to fit in to our models of belief and behavior. But that’s not what I want to talk about right now. I want to talk to my fellow-clergy for a moment, so lean in a little closer. Because here’s what else Brené talked about: she talked about us clergy types. And she has got our number.
She pointed out that clergy, like the academics she works with, have a similar weakness: we tend to think that being more accessible means being less intelligent or sophisticated. The more Jesus-y we are, the more holy we think we appear to others. But this kind of holiness has separated us from people. She notes that often we are trained to take care of the church, not of people. “You have to start where people are, so people see their stories reflected in what you’re saying.”
“People are starving,” she said to this group. And what people need is to know that “you care more about what I need than what your peers think of you.” Actually, I would say it’s that we care more about what the people we work with and for need than we care even about what they think of us.
“You cannot have a conversation more vulnerable than you already are,” she told us. And that is a scary thought. It would be great for our congregations to be full of people who are open and honest and vulnerable and courageous. But what if they can’t do that unless we are open and honest and vulnerable and courageous? What would happen then?
Maybe they won’t think we’re smart. Maybe they won’t think we’re holy. Maybe they won’t think we look like a priest or sound like a priest or act like a priest.
But here’s the thing: our priesthood does not depend upon whether we fit in. Our priesthood does not require us to be perfect. We are called “In all that you do…to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of [wait for it…] his grace.” Not our profundity. Not our appearance of Priestliness. We’re sharing Christ, who hung out with the wrong people and said the wrong things and told little stories about farming and families and acted strangely and did not fit in. That guy. Not the "Jesus-y" behavior we think makes us holy.
So maybe we can draw from that. Maybe there will be a cost, as Jesus well knew. But Brené also told us “There is no faith without vulnerability.” What if she’s right? If she’s right, then how do we share faith if we are never vulnerable?
“Who is Jesus for you?” someone asked Brené at the end of her talk. She said (roughly), “I’m not a priest. I’m not bound to take on a certain theology or belief. But to me, Jesus is someone who could be on a cross and still look out at the people and world around him in love. And that’s what I hope to be able to do too.” Well, I am a priest, and I think if I were able to do that, I’d be a much better one.
A blessed and vulnerable Holy Week to you.