Ministry Leadership: Being ‘Authentic’ Doesn’t Mean ‘Bleeding All Over the Congregation’

It seems that everyone is searching for ‘authenticity’ in their leaders. At least a younger generation of people are wanting this ‘authenticity’. In fact, Thomas Rainer who co-authored The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation with his son Jess Rainer, recently wrote this in the article 4 Things Millennials Want in Their Leaders:

3. Transparency and authenticity. I wish Jess and I had counted the number of times that Millennials used the word “real” to describe leaders they want to follow. As one Millennial told us, her generation “can smell phony and pretentiousness a mile away.” They don’t want phony; they want authentic. They don’t want pretentious; they want transparent.

I admire that trait A LOT as well in leaders. And I tried to be that type of authentic leader when I was working as a college pastor. And I try to be that as a therapist with my clients.

But when we say that we want our leaders to be ‘authentic’, what are we really wanting of them, and asking from them?

I really, really wonder….so last week I posted this tweet:

I think there is a big difference between “authenticity” and “bleeding” all over the congregation. #self-differentation #fb

It was in response to a really great blog post by Rachel Evans, “Dear Pastors – Tell Us the Truth. This is a really great topic to be talking about, and you can read the comment I left at Rachel’s blog here. I originally saw her post linked at Adam McHugh’s blog where he responds to her analysis with his own, Pastors and Honesty.

My Concerns About What Is Often Passed Off As ‘Authenticity’
Something that I have been taught as a therapist, but never in my work as a pastor was this. When I share something personal with a client (when I’m wanting to be ‘authentic’), does my disclosure have more to do with me or the client? Often, when we share, we share because it fills more of a need in us, than the person we are trying to be ‘authentic’ with.  Therefore, it ends up being more self-serving, which is not what leadership is about.  So I wonder how many ministry leaders in search of being ‘authentic’ with those they lead are really trying to fill an emotional need in themselves?

I think authenticity is a great quality to have in leadership. But I think we have mistaken ‘authenticity’ as something that we can just acquire and put on ourselves, like some sort of skill or technique, rather than really letting it emanate from within. I agree with the research findings of Edwin Freidman in that leadership is an emotional process, and not a cognitive process. It has less to do with our training and skills, and more to do with our ability to honestly do the hard work of looking at ourselves.

One’s ability to be authentic is correlated to the degree at which a leader has done the hard work of REALLY, REALLY looking at themselves. Being ‘authentic’ has everything to do with the leader’s ability to be self differentiated (a term coined by family therapy pioneer Murray Bowen). When a leader lacks the ability to self-differentiate they are more and more dependent upon others for approval, acceptance, and affirmation. There is a strong desire to be liked.  They don’t know where they begin and end. And I would venture to say that there are few professions where more people are leading who have a need to be liked and affirmed than those in ministry positions. Remember, I was, and am a pastor. I pastored in Los Angeles to college students, the epicenter of wanting to be ‘authentic.’  And so I’m speaking from experience.  I really, really wanted/want to be liked.

It is only when leaders can stand before others, not needing their affirmation, acceptance, and approval, that they are then truly free to be ‘authentic’. When ‘authenticity’ is attempted out of one’s need for approval, then leaders end up violating healthy interpersonal boundaries and “bleed all over the congregation.”

Here are three ways that I think leaders ‘bleed all over the congregation’:

  1. When they lack the ability to “self-soothe” and manage their own anxiety, so sharing/oversharing (which passes a lot in our culture as ‘authenticity’) in an attempt to be ‘authentic’, is really emotional dumping on the congregation.  It can be a subtle and even unconscious way of passing off their anxiety onto members of the congregation.  When we don’t manage our own anxiety we skirt our responsibility as leaders.
  2. Leaders often come across as ‘authentic’ when in reality they may be lacking interpersonal and emotional boundaries.  I see this a lot when a pastor often shares intimate details of his married life (how often he and his wife are having sex).  When a pastor doesn’t model healthy interpersonal boundaries, they set a bad example of what ‘authenticity’ should look like in a community.
  3. Being ‘authentic’ can sometimes be an attempt by leaders to deflect truly looking at themselves, and so there is often a psuedo-‘authenticity’ that is being practiced.  It’s a way to avoid responsibility.  I can’t tell you the amazing number of times where a leader confesses something publicly, therefore then putting the responsibility on the congregation for the outcome, rather than taking responsibility of their actions for themselves.

These are just three ways that come to mind today as I’m writing, so I’m hoping to pick up more on this conversation in future ongoing blog entries.

‘Authenticity’ in leadership is a super important topic, and I’m glad Rachel Evans and many others are bringing it up.  It’s something that I think I carried the banner for for many years.  And I will continue to strive for ‘authenticity’ in my leadership, but not at the cost of  not taking responsibility for myself and passing off my anxiety and other emotional issues onto those that I lead.

And by the way, leadership, and leading well is a journey and process that we are all on.  And so learning to be truly ‘authentic’ is part of that journey too.

34 Comments

  1. by Pro Blogger News on February 22, 2011  4:50 am Reply

    Peace n prosperity Rhettsmith, I come to your website often but I am usually a lurker. I decided I'd finally post a comment for post saying how much I love visiting your blog as I think your writing is both exciting and helpful. Keep your blog up-to-date and you have a visitor for life, glad to meet you,thanks.

  2. by Beloved Spear on February 22, 2011  8:12 am Reply

    Amen, Rhett.

    Years ago, in a mandatory training class for pastors, one of my cohorts talked a great deal about how important it was to him that he and his wife went at it frequently. He went on about it for a while. He'd known the rest of the group for all of five minutes.

    Some folks there seemed to think it was impressively open, but it felt off to me...more self-indulgent than self-opening.

    • by Rhett Smith on February 22, 2011  5:58 pm Reply

      Such a great distinction between being "self-indulgent" and "self-opening." Thanks for the insight and for commenting on the post.

      Rhett

    • by Kayle on August 17, 2011  12:19 pm Reply

      Rhett: Thanks so much for this blog: I grew up fundie and it really makes a big difference to hear a different, more balanced and soothing voice.

      On the above, I'm going to go ahead and take a stab at identifying the difference between dumping and authenticity: context. To further Beloved Spear's example, what was the context of the discussion? Not being ashamed of healthy sexual desire, (usually thought contrary to "biblical" teaching or is otherwise invisible in Christian culture), bonding, etc., or was it random? I would've said to use having a pertinent point as a measure, but some people speak poorly impromptu and it may be hard to find their point. introverts may be familiar with the scenario. ;)
      Obviously there are more insidious ways to blur the line, like creating context where there was none before and where no work is intended to be done, etc. I don't mean to imply there aren't. Is there another article detailing this subject?

  3. by John on February 22, 2011  9:18 am Reply

    Rhett, I think about this subject constantly. I look at the leaders I deeply respect and they model this well. Like any mark I see many leaders today either overstepping this or shying completely away from authenticity. The first, like you said, bleed all over us and the second stand off at a distance and may even come across as struggle-less. I remember once a pastor of mine said that Jesus wants us to bleed all over him in full disclosure so the rest of us don't have to suffer it. When I lean toward the first example I know I am not spending enough time alone with God.

    • by Rhett Smith on February 23, 2011  12:52 pm Reply

      John,

      Thanks for your insight. I appreciate your encouragement with my writing.

      Rhett

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  5. by Debra Avery on February 22, 2011  11:09 am Reply

    Humility + adequate self care + other-centered focus + awareness of and healthy connection with the context/need/hope/questions of the community + deep love of the motley crew with whom the pastor is privileged to journey + a large dose of vulnerability combined with reasonable boundaries = authenticity

    It's really a lot to ask, but this is the closest I can come to defining what authenticity means. It's clearly not an out of the box attribute that can be taken up and put off when needed. It's a lifestyle.

    Thanks for this.

    • by Rhett Smith on February 22, 2011  5:59 pm Reply

      "Humility + adequate self care + other-centered focus + awareness of and healthy connection with the context/need/hope/questions of the community + deep love of the motley crew with whom the pastor is privileged to journey + a large dose of vulnerability combined with reasonable boundaries = authenticity"

      That is such a great equation...and would make a good book subtitle as well

      Rhett

  6. by Angela C. on February 22, 2011  12:43 pm Reply

    Sadly I think many people go into leadership due to the fact that they are undifferentiated. They step into a role of authority in order gain approval and ultimately end up defining themselves in relation to whatever organization they are leading. While in the process they lose all sense of who they really are.

    • by Rhett Smith on February 22, 2011  6:01 pm Reply

      Angela,

      Thanks for your thoughts on this topic. I think you are spot on. A lot of us end up in ministry as a way to gain approval and we end up defining ourselves in those roles. That's why there is such a loss of identity for many pastors when they resign or retire from that position. It's a struggle for all of us, but just becoming aware of it can set us in the right direction to get help.

      Rhett

  7. by John Handley on February 23, 2011  12:19 am Reply

    I can't really relate to the negative experiences the author refers to here. But then I don't relate to so many of the issues I hear people bring up about church leadership.

    I will say that all pastors (being human) will err in this area. If I had to chose a direction to gall towards, it would be the overly open and honest side rather than the secretive and concealing side. I find people more often lie/avoid/dismiss issues when attempting to garner praise, rather than telling the world.

    I'd be interested in seeing a similarly scathing critique of (what the author assumes are) the motivations behind those pastors who fail on the side of shutting their congregants out of their lives and projecting a false image of themselves.

    • by Rhett Smith on February 23, 2011  12:32 am Reply

      John,

      Thanks for commenting on my post.

      I appreciate your thoughts on being open and non-secretive. Hopefully that's not the point that was conveyed in my writing.

      As I said early on in my post, I think authenticity is a great quality in leadership and I hope we can all be authentic leaders. Leaders should never be secretive and concealing, but the opposite of that is not violation of healthy emotional and interpersonal boundaries either. Especially in an emotional system like the church congregation.

      I think that pastors who shut congregants out or project false images of themselves are operating out of a lot of the same fears that those who are overly open with congregants. The fears can be the same, but those coping mechanism are really two just opposite sides of the coin. A desire to project a false image, and a desire to openly share and violate healthy boundaries is really just an attempt in many ways to be liked or seek approval.

      Whether a pastor is more open, or more reserved does not matter, what matters is what is happening on the inside and if those actions are flowing from an emotionally healthy place.

      Rhett

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  9. by Stephen Hood on February 23, 2011  11:50 am Reply

    I think your insights are spot on. A wise bishop opined that the sermon example shouldn't overwhelm the text. I do not have a problem with self revelation within a safe and mature Christian community, but too many Christian communities are not safe or mature. In the context of an immature and unsafe environment self revelation will have destructive consequences not only for the person doing the revealing, but for the system as a whole. I'm an open person and a pastor who is not afraid to offer contrarian insights and challenges to those I serve. At the same time I know that there are limits, and there are times when I should not say anything. I also believe that there are good reasons why Reconciliation of a Penitent is a private matter. Restoration of a sinner ought to be a public act and celebrated, but having the need for knowing the details is voyeuristic and fuels our need to gossip.

    • by Rhett Smith on February 23, 2011  12:57 pm Reply

      Stephen:

      "In the context of an immature and unsafe environment self revelation will have destructive consequences not only for the person doing the revealing, but for the system as a whole"

      I love, love that line.

      Thanks for sharing your insight. It has been helpful for me to think on.

      Rhett

  10. by Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) on February 23, 2011  12:49 pm Reply

    "1. When they lack the ability to “self-soothe” and manage their own anxiety...[sharing] is really emotional dumping."

    I'm not in leadership but there are peers who listen to me and I'm not sure where to make the distinction between my own anxiety and "confessing our sins to one another."

    Is the difference scale? i.e., If I'm talking with 2 or 3 other women is it more acceptable to "emotionally dump" as opposed to before a bible study or congregation?

    • by Rhett Smith on February 23, 2011  12:57 pm Reply

      Amy,

      This is a really great question. And I'm not sure just how to answer that here, or if I properly could at the moment.

      But I think a lot of it has to do with how healthy the system, small group, people you are sharing/confessing with. Sometimes we have to hold onto some sharing I believe, because if we don't, we often transfer our anxiety onto others. But it's a fine line right? Because as believers we are to carry one another's burdens. But Paul also says in that same passage that each person should be responsible for their own "load", etc. So I always...well not always, but I try...to ask myself when I share and confess if I have done the work of being responsible for my choices and actions, or am I dodging them by simply laying them on others.

      I will think through this a little more and maybe write up a blog post.

      Great question.

      This is a process. Just be aware and notice what is taking place...and you are free to make choices on when to share or not share, etc. Context is crucial many times.

      Okay, I'm rambling.

      Let me know any insights you come across that would be helpful...I'm interested in your question.

      rhett

  11. by Linda Stoll on February 24, 2011  8:20 am Reply

    Perceptive, insightful, thought-provoking and right on! I appreciate the way you've differentiated between authenticity and what's appropriate and beneficial for those who we're leading.

    I love what Paul says in Ephesians 4:29, that we should only speak "what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."

    When I lead, it's not about me. I need my self-care to be taken care of on my own time.

    • by Rhett Smith on February 28, 2011  3:57 pm Reply

      Linda,

      I love this line:

      "When I lead, it’s not about me. I need my self-care to be taken care of on my own time."

  12. by Alan on February 24, 2011  2:28 pm Reply

    I guess there is a fine line between being authentic and being inappropriate.

    My wife is a pastor and I've often said that I wish she could let them see more of the real her. But then there are times when I am reminded that it is not always safe to be "real". You take a big risk when you are vulnerable if people don't receive it well. You could get "crucified"...

    I hope that if done in a healthy way, the leader admitting his/her struggles/doubts helps the congregation to feel more at ease admitting their own struggles/doubts. (As opposed to pretending they don't exist, or wondering what's wrong with us if we have them.) But at the same time, admitting our struggles doesn't necessarily mean the congregation needs to know all the intimate details of the pastor's life -- e.g., what goes on in the bedroom should stay in the bedroom but maybe there's a way to speak on the subject without giving all details...

    Maybe the key is having a trusted counselor and/or an intimate core group of friends (someone who knows the "real" you and still likes you anyway) where it is safe to share "everything", where nothing is off limits. Then you don't have to "unload" on your congregation.

    • by Rhett Smith on February 28, 2011  4:00 pm Reply

      Alan,

      I think that is very wise...thinking of your last few sentences in particular.

      I think every leader (pastor or not) does need a core group of people that they can be themselves in front of. That doesn't mean they can't or shouldn't be themselves in front of their congregation, but often the fear of putting themselves out there, or of saying too much, keeps them in that back and forth struggle of putting on the "mask" and taking it off at times.

      Seems like some of the healthiest leaders have a small group of people walking through life with them and who they are accountable to.

      Rhett

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  14. by Jamie Arpin-Ricci on February 26, 2011  10:18 am Reply

    Franciscan friar & author Albert Haase notes this as the distinction between being self-aware & self-emptying. Some of the former is important, but the latter is what Christ calls us to most. Authenticity must be based on the latter.

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  16. by Rebecca on February 26, 2011  5:22 pm Reply

    This is a really interesting post. I think I agree with it. I think that when we find our needs met in Christ, then we don't have to bleed all over the congregation.

    However, I also know that there is a subtle pride in never needing anything from the congregation, in never being vulnerable with at least a few trusted strong and mature Christians in the congregation. And Christian pastors need the community of faith's support just as much as any other Christian...probably more, because of the intensity of the battle. But I don't think sermons or pastoral leadership should substitute for therapy. What are your thoughts on this issue?

    Thanks for a great blog post.

    • by Rhett Smith on February 28, 2011  4:02 pm Reply

      Rebecca,

      I agree. Pastoral leadership or sermons shouldn't substitute as a therapy for the leader. Healthy leaders I believe have a person/small group of people that they are accountable to and walk through life with.

      Healthy therapists go to their own therapy to avoid bringing in their own "junk" and issues into the counseling setting and projecting it onto their clients.

      If pastors aren't careful, they can project their own "issues" as well onto their congregation. It may make them feel better, but it is a hurtful and confusing process often for the congregation.

      Rhett

  17. by Gary Reed on March 10, 2011  11:40 am Reply

    Wow Rhett, you've touched on a critical concern for pastors regarding self-disclosure, the purpose and reasoning. I am challenged by this in my counseling sessions with ministry leaders and find some self-disclosure good.

    To answer you question: So I wonder how many ministry leaders in search of being ‘authentic’ with those they lead are really trying to fill an emotional need in themselves?

    It can be a little bit of both, difficult balance especially when we hear pastors express personal examples in every sermon or personal examples that last over 2 minutes or so.

    Or ...

    we hear pastors talk so well (positive light) about their family members and critical examples of other people outside of their family.

    I'm just saying ...

  18. by Jennifer Watts on April 9, 2011  11:50 am Reply

    Thank-you for this blog post..I have pondered it for a while. Although the main focus is pastors/Christian leaders, there is also mention of therapists and I think this post is entirely relevant to how therapists work and the role of disclosure in therapy.

    I have thought a great deal about this topic because where I work you have to had experienced an anxiety condition yourself, and experienced a certain length of recovery medication free, in order to work there (as well as having at least a Masters level education). Our personal experience is what differentiates us from other sites and is what draws many to us. Yet I am always striving to maintain the utmost professionalism, of course personal boundaries and above all else keeping therapy about them and not me. So the question of how to use disclosure well ie "be authentic" as understood here, yet avoid pitfalls is a big one.

    The question is not answered for me, because I think it will always be ongoing, but there are many comments here that really solidify healthy thinking in this area, mostly ones you have already quoted so I will leave it at that. I think the important thing that I have held on to after reading this, especially with the strong words of "bleeding all over the congregation" left in my mind, is not to let fear push us towards being closed and "secretive" as John put it. I see too many therapists do this and the poor people working with them somehow believe that a struggle-less life/perfection is attainable. Bringing our humanness into therapy is crucial. And we also know that there is power in our testimony Rev. 12:11. I was surprised recently with a client when, after a long struggle with something, they seemed to be more at peace with this particular issue. I asked about this and they said that it was a comment I made many sessions ago, that disclosed a part in my journey that was similar. To tell you the truth, I had not even remembered sharing this bit it was so small, and it really did surprise me that this (apart from brilliant therapeutic techniques! *smile) is what helped.

    Final thoughts before I ramble too long, it seems to me that when it's tough to share (and that still small voice is prompting but my pride (rather than healthy boundaries) is saying eck, no!) that may be a good time to disclose. I also think that the majority of therapy should be about them, and not disclosure, so I think practically speaking, time is relevant. I heard recently about a counsellor that spent 45 minutes reading from their personal journal and then photocopied it for the client. I think everyone here knows that is beyond inappropriate. Third, I think the population you are working with matters. As one of my colleagues stated, "with a client struggling with Borderline Personality Disorder, I'm not going to use disclosure. They can be very manipulative and use that information in a harmful way." So its not safe for either of us. The same probably goes for the health of the congregation.

    Last, I like how you used disclosure in your comments below just by changing it to "us". It was therapeutic for me :) See below:

    Angela,

    Thanks for your thoughts on this topic. I think you are spot on. A lot of us end up in ministry as a way to gain approval and we end up defining ourselves in those roles. That’s why there is such a loss of identity for many pastors when they resign or retire from that position. It’s a struggle for all of us, but just becoming aware of it can set us in the right direction to get help.

    Rhett

    Blessings in this blog and your other writing.

    Jen

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  21. by Stephen Hendrix on May 28, 2012  5:53 pm Reply

    Well said! I also speak about and try to model authenticity, but I think you nailed it with differientian. I'm a Bowen fan myself and have even taken the DSI, that's where I found out that I'm not as differiented as I thought- low score on I-position. Thanks for the article.

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