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The Vulnerability Dilemma

Updated: Aug 14

Over the last year or so I have received countless emails and requests to address trauma that occurs in the church. I have to admit, I’ve been a bit reluctant to address it head on because of the sheer scale of the issue. The other reason is I specialize in the field of trauma and church hurts are only one aspect of trauma. I never signed up to become the church hurts police! But as I look at the consistency of reports of folks who have been damaged within church spaces, I want to make sure to do my part in addressing the issue.



Dr. Diane Langberg is a world-renowned expert who has written several books on the issue of trauma within the church. I did an interview with Diane last year on Healing from Religious Trauma and it is my most viewed interview to date. I have been reading her book Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church recently and decided to do a blog series discussing her perspectives. In this article, I want to unpack her thoughts on vulnerability in the church.


In chapter two she looks into the relationship between vulnerability and power. One of the immediate tasks is to define vulnerability. She states, “vulnerability is to have the capacity to be wounded”. If you feel a twinge of fear after reading her definition, I don’t blame you. As a trauma survivor, I have worked most of my life to avoid being “woundable”. At first glance, allowing ourselves to be woundable seems unwise, fruitless, and predictable. Her follow up points help explain her position. She mentions that God himself has been made vulnerable in giving us freewill. Jesus who is the ultimate example of vulnerability was wounded for our transgressions. Those of us who are trauma survivors might be saying, “okay but I’m not God, I’m human”. In response to that I would quote Langberg’s sentiments, “you will never, by intelligence, accomplishment, seat of power, respect, or any other thing, be able to make yourself invulnerable. Welcome to the human race”.


Dr. Langberg explains that vulnerability is a gift, which is where we have a catch-22. She mentions how as a young girl she loved ice skating and climbing trees, both of which involve potential danger. Despite the risk, the exhilaration of skating or climbing were worth the risk. As we get damaged, we start taking less risks and become more avoidant. Langberg states, “the love between good friends is a thing of beauty and wonder. It's also risky because it increases your capacity for being wounded. In fact, the more people you love, the more vulnerable to wounding you become. Even if all those relationships go well, some people you love will likely die before you do, when your vulnerability will result in great grief”. I constantly use the term both-and on my podcast and this is an excellent example of why.


So, you might be thinking, “yeah I get that, but I’ve been hurt by people who were supposed to be safe and trustworthy, am I supposed to be vulnerable with them?”. Langberg’s assessment for whether it is safe to be vulnerable is based on several factors. First, she wisely points back to a person’s upbringing,


“There are many situations in life in which exposing our vulnerability is unwise. many people are not aware of that. If you grow up never having experienced a safe relationship, then your capacity for judging safety is highly compromised how will you recognize something you have never seen? That lack of understanding can lead to years of abusive relationships, or generations of them, because vulnerability has never been understood, protected, and valued. Each new relationship carries hope that this person will feed your hungry soul but without the knowledge required to read the signs, you may be looking at the next wolf and fail to perceive that it's time to run”.


This creates incredible confusion for many in churches because they feel as though the church was supposed to be full of safe people. I need to be forthright with you, no church is full of safe people. Maybe your church is fairly healthy and there are only a few unsafe people. But in reality, any group of human beings is going to have unsafe people. So how do we appropriately discern who is safe enough to share our vulnerabilities?


First off, safety is about how power gets used. In the first chapter Langberg establishes an understanding about how power and authority work. In Genesis 3 we see that human beings are to subdue the earth but never one another. If we find ourselves in the midst of a person who seeks to subdue us rather than love and serve us, they are not safe, period. Even with our kids, we don’t actually subdue them, we develop them using their own freewill as a teacher. If you find yourself dealing with someone who seeks to remove your freedom of choice, they are not a safe person to share vulnerably. In humility, we do need others to share God’s standard for our lives with us, but it is ultimately our choice whether or not we live for God.


Secondly, it is not safe to be vulnerable with people who inappropriately blame us for our pain. I recently did an interview on Emotional Gaslighting with Dr. Foluso where we discussed how Job’s friends weaponized their knowledge of God and falsely accused Job of sin. This is not to say Job was perfect, but the reason for his suffering was only known by God. We see that at the end of the story, God himself not only sets the record straight but vindicates Job. Job’s friends spoke with eloquence, zeal, knowledge but were presumptuous. I find that zealous Christians can speak too soon as they feel impassioned in their relationship with God. Maturity is the need of the hour. Maturity is partly about being able to lower rather than raise a person’s defenses. Proverbs 20:5 is one of my favorite scriptures for this reason.


Lastly, I would encourage you to remember something that I learned while processing my trauma at a training last year. I was feeling intensely triggered by a ministry leader who felt unsafe. The trainer had us do an exercise that helped me to see my vulnerability in a different light. I realized vulnerability is a sword. I felt powerless when thinking about this leader before that realization. Vulnerability is the utter opposite of powerlessness when we lean into it. Vulnerability makes us more human and more like Jesus than anything else. Langberg remarks, “Jesus becomes vulnerable for us”. Vulnerability becomes a sword if I imitate Jesus’ example of vulnerability. The one thing I could do was put my heart out there with this person and their response was a reflection of who they are. You might be saying, “but if he wasn’t safe why did you share with him?”. I felt unsafe but that didn’t mean I couldn’t put my heart out there at least once. And if the person didn’t respect my vulnerability, then our connection would suffer. I now have a more trusting relationship with this leader, amen to that!


I am aware many of you have shared your heart vulnerably and things did not get resolved. My heart goes out to you. I look forward to exploring other options together as we wade through these turbulent headwinds vulnerably.


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