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Blessed are the vulnerable . . .

10 May 2019

. . . for theirs will be a leadership of freedom, creativity, and community, says Catherine Llewelyn-Evans

Artokoloro Quint Lox Limited/Alamy

AN IN-DEPTH study (by the Macquarie Graduate School of Management, in Australia) of seven CEOs who had experienced remarkable personal growth and professional success in their businesses identified a common theme: vulnerability.

In the cathedral in which I worship, what is most visible around the altar at the eucharist is power and splendour. The glory, of course, represents the ultimate triumph of Christ; it is only when you deliberately raise your head — sometimes actively craning your neck — that you see, high above the rood screen, the nearly naked man, exposed and dying on an instrument of torture: the symbol of ultimate vulnerability. Far below that figure, the blood of Christ is hidden within a silver chalice; the sacrifice of his body represented by a neat wafer, hidden within a silver ciborium.

We preach Christ crucified, but often surround ourselves with the symbols of centuries of power. We have wonderful buildings, but often with few places of privacy, the confessional box — the place of vulnerability — having disappeared with the Reformation and not been restored. Apart from the crucifix, or a statue of the Virgin Mary, monuments are likely to reflect successful monarchs, bishops, or political and military figures. The predominant images may be those of authority and control.

The cross — the place of complete vulnerability — is the antithesis of this; and, if it is the Christ Crucified whom we are following, it will change our church communities and our leadership.

Of course, any form of leadership, whether heading the flower guild or being a bishop, puts us in the firing line. As the saints and martyrs have shown, this can lead to great suffering. Leadership automatically brings with it vulnerability. There is, however, a deeper form of vulnerability: one that comes from having faced up to the truth about ourselves, which is then, in some way, conveyed to those around us. Such vulnerability can be seen, by some, as weakness — as a weakening.

IT NEED not be so. Over the centuries, there have been Christians who have been willing to be vulnerable in this way, and yet have offered inspiring leadership.

One of the earliest examples of this is St Augustine, with his Confessions. “Who am I?” he asks, “What kind of man am I? What evil have I done? Or, if there is evil that I have not done, what evil is there that I have not spoken?” Another example might be Henri Nouwen, recording some of his thoughts during a period of breakdown: “Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn’t know existed, a place full of demons.”

Such confessional writing may be more common today. We might think of David Watson (writing about his cancer); Richard Holloway (writing about his move away from the Church); Jayne Ozanne (writing of her struggle to relate her sexuality to her Evangelical background). For some people, it is that very vulnerability that has brought them to the place of leadership.

This kind of openness may bring a very different quality to our leadership, and it is this understanding that underlies the Macquarie findings in relation to the CEOs.

FIRST, and perhaps most important, vulnerable leadership is humble leadership. Able to acknowledge its own temptations, frailties, and limitations, it will not set itself above others, nor stand on its own importance (Jesus lays aside his robes to wash the disciples’ feet).

Second, vulnerable leadership, mindful of its own frailties, will be patient with the weaknesses of others (as Jesus was with adulterers and tax collectors); it will readily offer forgiveness, or what the research describes as “the patient encouragement of growth” (after Peter’s betrayal, Jesus draws Peter back to him, in love). It is a kind of leadership which — released from its need to posture or impress — gives others permission to be vulnerable, and releases them from fear or guilt. Vulnerable love will not break a bruised reed.

THE Macquarie research also reveals that vulnerable leadership is the style that draws out the most creativity in those around it. The research found that “Servant leadership, which is characterized by authenticity [not hiding behind a mask of perfection] yields more positive and constructive behaviour in its employees and greater hope and trust in both the leader and the organization.”

The Jewish Holocaust victim Etty Hillesum came to understand this link between vulnerability and creativity as she experienced the horrors of German occupation. Observing the deportations around her, and listening deeply to God, she wrote:

“Dear God . . . one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that you cannot help us, that we must help you to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters, that we safeguard that little piece of you, God, in ourselves. . . Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much you yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help you, and defend your dwelling place inside us to the last.”

For Hillesum, God was not all-powerful in the traditional understanding (control; invulnerability), but one who, edged out into the darkness of the world and, entering into our own powerlessness, draws us, in love and compassion, to work creatively with him — a creativity which is summoned forth not from our desire to impress or to succeed, but out of love for the one at the heart of creation, with whom we long to bring about a holier world.

THE cross is the reminder that all vulnerability can be both painful and bloody; but the resurrection is God’s sign that vulnerability is not the end. It is the opposite — it is, it seems, the beginning of freedom, creativity, and community.

Perhaps we might hide it less and live it more. Our Sanctus might become that of the liturgist, Dorothy McRae-McMahon: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Vulnerable God.”

The Revd Catherine Llewelyn-Evans lives in the diocese of Bath & Wells.

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