A safe space to be vulnerable

Creating healthy communities that nurture vulnerability can be a great gift of the church.

By Amy Butler

Last week I watched a TED talk by University of Houston social work professor Brené Brown. In the video, Brown talks about her research on human connection. We all crave human connection, she says, but the shame we individually carry leads us to avoid the work of being vulnerable with each other.

But it turns out that vulnerability, she’s found, is the one quality that makes it possible for us to experience deep connection with others. Her research shows that an inability to be vulnerable leads to more shame, fear and exclusion, while vulnerability can birth joy, creativity, belonging and love in a human life.

A friend had been nagging me for weeks to watch the video, but it took me a while to get around to it, mired as I am in the carpool/grocery shopping/pastoral-care emergency/newest episode of Nashville haze that is my life. Once I did, it got me thinking about church.

Listening to Brown talk about the importance of vulnerability in an individual life, I began to ponder whether the quality of vulnerability is equally essential in the life of a community. I didn’t know when I sat down to watch the video, but we’ve been trying out her theory in a communal expression in worship over these past few weeks.

Several months ago our church staff asked a group of people in the congregation to commit during the season of Lent to writing stories about their lives. The assignment was to write a story of resurrection, a short reflection about a way in which each one had lived a personal experience of resurrection, hope, new life.

From a programming standpoint it seemed to make sense. Many of the lectionary texts in the weeks following Easter feature biblical characters telling stories of how they experienced Jesus’ resurrection. Why not tell each other our stories of resurrection, too?

All during Lent the pastors met one-on-one with those who were writing, helping to shape and edit stories then prepare the writers to deliver their stories in worship.

And as a result we’ve heard all kinds of stories, like one about gaining the courage to sing out in church even with a less-than-professional voice. Someone else told about the lessons learned during an extended period of unemployment. Another shared about a life-saving decision to ask for help. One told the congregation how hope emerged in the wake of his parents’ divorce.

Over the course of these weeks in worship, something began to happen that shocked even those of us who planned the series. Even in an already healthy community, the kind of vulnerability modeled in these stories produced powerful connections and a deepening of relationships that we pastors could only have dreamed of.

The courage summoned to share powerful, deep and moving stories about life within the context of community birthed a lot of shared laughter, many tears and a new awareness of the gifts that we have in each other.

All of us who sat in worship hearing these expressions of trust and vulnerability washing over the congregation learned in ways that we’d perhaps never learned before that all of us are living reminders of God’s continued work of resurrection in the world.

Each week as worship ended, I overheard connections made and deepened: “You can’t sing either?” “My parents got divorced, too; it was so hard for me.” “I admire your courage.” “What can I do to help?”

Perhaps if I had paused long enough to watch Brown’s video before this resurrection-story series unfolded, I would not have been so surprised by the impact these stories have had in our community. I don’t know whether Brené Brown knows it or not, but her theories about individual vulnerability translate somehow to community as well.

And isn’t that one of the greatest gifts of the church?

When we tell each other our stories, we become living reminders to each other that God is well at work in our world. A safe space to be vulnerable, in fact, may be one of the best gifts of Christian community, for surely church should always be a place that births joy, creativity, belonging and love in a human life.

This may not be such a groundbreaking discovery to everybody else, but I learned something new about what it means to be the church here at the intersection of Brené Brown’s TED talk and resurrection stories in worship.

We all need a place to be real and authentic. Creating healthy communities that nurture vulnerability can be a great gift of the church.

I think there should be another TED talk about that.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.