Thursday, December 16, 2010

On Self-Disclosure in the Church

I'm a pretty open person. You can ask me almost anything and I will probably answer you fairly candidly. Naturally, I have my limits and certain things I only discuss with people I trust implicitly. However, in general I am very comfortable sharing my strengths and areas of growth, my triumphs and failures, and my thoughts on certain issues. I regularly post on Facebook and Twitter. I have a public blog. When I preach, I am very willing to use personal experiences as illustrations, although I make a general rule of not holding myself up as an example or sharing my failures in the pulpit, unless my congregation knows me fairly well.

While I don't expect this level of disclosure from everyone else, I feel that self-revelation is an important aspect of Christian community. How can we truly be the body of Christ if we are all virtually strangers? If we don't share our stories with each other? If our boundaries are so strict that there is a big "keep out" sign on our life? How can we love and support each other, and be united in working for the kingdom, if we don't know each other?

Keep in mind, I'm not talking about a "festival of over-sharing", or gossip, and I know that both can occur in congregations, and the former can lead to the latter and cause all sorts of problems. However, I do feel like the church should be the one place where we can be transparent, be ourselves, and admit our joys and struggles...and have people to either rejoice with us or pray with us and for us. But that's not going to happen unless we are willing to share, and unless we create an atmosphere that makes people feel like they are in a "safe place".

Part of the struggle I had in the local church (and will probably experience when/if I return) is finding the balance between appropriate self-disclosure and maintaining a professional demeanor. I think it's important that the congregation know part of my story, and that I share increasingly more with them the more we get to know each other. On the other hand, I also realize that I am functioning in a professional capacity, and they need to relate to me as such. That means they probably shouldn't be hearing about my struggles in my calling, marital issues, and my occasional anger at denominational officials. Right?

So, I guess I'm raising two issues here. First, what's an appropriate level of self-disclosure in the local church? How can we be examples of being transparent without compromising our role? Second, how do we create a culture of caring, of comfort, of sanctuary so that people will feel comfortable taking the risk of being transparent?


Terri said...

A couple of points:

1.Don't share anything that would make congregational members think they need to take care of you.
2. That said, there are occasions when the congregation should care about you and show it - when you've been really sick/hospitalized or are on maternity leave or are taking care of aging parents or have had a death in the family.

3. They should not be caretaking for you over every day things and stresses like parenting, other parishioners, issues related to running the church, your marriage - you need a clergy support group and or a spiritual director for those isses.

4.You can share pieces of your life that will help them know you better but you will never share with them like you would with a friend....not the depth or breadth of friendships.

5. as a church leader you need to always maintain a degree of separation from the emotions and energy of the congregation - it's called "Self-differentiation" a process that allows you to always look at the congregation as if you were an outsider looking in - emotionally - so that you can manage anxiety and stresses without letting them obscure your ability to understand the range of emotions and dynamics at play.

for more on this check out the Alban Institute and become a member. They have wonderful weekly newsletter articles on every topic under the sun pertaining to church leadership along with lots of books and webinars.

also read Edwin Freedman's book "Generation to Generation" and then "Failure of Nerve"...Freedman is the foremost authority on congregational relationships and dynamics.

hope this helps....

Wounded and Healing said...

Thanks, Terri. Very, very helpful information. I wish I had "known" you back when I was in the parish! I'm actually very familiar with Friedman and family systems theory; it was a focus of my residency year. I've since realized that I probably did not have enough self-differentiation at SJ, and that may have contributed to some of what happened.

Derek Maul said...

Hi ( and thanks for checking out my new blog "The Preacher's Husband").
We have a very active small-group ministry in our church, because everyone - especially the preacher - needs to have a place where they can be "fully known". In my experience men are much more closed than women. That's why my men's accountability group has made such a huge impact and why that kind of ongoing ministry for men is so important.
- My wife is awesome about letting herself be know in the pulpit. I think that when you are consistently authentic and 100% believable self-disclosuer works. When you're simply trying to look good, or be manipulative, then it's a problem....