A Vulnerable Love

I had breakfast the other day in Chicago with a young white pastor. He had recently planted a church in an African American community in Chicago’s inner city. I was so refreshed by his sharing of personal pain, weakness and his sense of isolation in ministry—not because I want him to suffer—but because he is leaning into Christ in a profound way. God is driving him to depend on the Spirit of Jesus in a personally vulnerable ministry setting. Although he is a very secure Christian, he is in a ministry context that is beyond his comfort zone where he can minister from strength. I am confident that God will use him mightily, for God’s grace is always made manifest through our weakness and dependence on Christ (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). This is true in any ministry context, but it is all the more true in a multi-ethnic and diverse economic setting where we so often treat those different from us as “the other(s)” who need our help with no sense of our needing theirs. I would go so far as to say that one cannot minister effectively in a multi-ethnic and economically challenged context apart from a deepening sense of personal weakness and need. In what follows, I will seek to unpack this point.

One of the main reasons I believe we find it difficult to move beyond prejudice and objectification toward reconciliation with “the other” is our fear of vulnerability. The fear of losing control and of being vulnerable leads us to conceive of people who look different from us as always “them.” White Christian leaders like me often like to minister from a position of strength. No doubt, those of other complexions do as well. Flesh (as in carnality)—no matter the color of one’s skin—enjoys boasting in oneself. But what usually differentiates us is that many of us white Christian leaders have a long history of ministering from a position of supposed strength, especially when engaging those of diverse ethnicities. We often have no idea of how much power and privilege we have until they are challenged or taken away from us. Ministry undertaken from seeming strength fails to perceive one’s relational need. As a result, we fail to sense our need to lean into God, and so we minister from the flesh. The only ones we can connect with in such settings are those belonging to our homogeneous demographic groupings of whatever kind—those we naturally like and those like us.

In contrast, Jesus brought people together who previously were opposed to one another through his weakness on the cross. As a result of his crucifixion and resurrection and our participation in him, there is no longer any division between male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free (Galatians 3:28). Jesus’ greatest hour of power—the hour of glory of cross and resurrection recorded in John’s Gospel—was when he was most dependent, hanging on a cross and depending on the Father to raise him from the dead. Following from this, when Paul was weak in Christ, God’s power was manifest most profoundly through him (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Paul’s very conversion experience and early Christian life involved incredible dependence on others: Saul was led as a blind man to Ananias who laid his hands on him so that his sight could be restored; and he was given the right hand of fellowship by the Christian community through Barnabas (Acts 9:8, 17-18, 26-28). Saul experienced great suffering in ministry—beginning with dependence on others, especially dependence on the Christian community, whom he had once persecuted. How humbling that must have been for Saul who became Paul!

Without experiencing vulnerability in ministry whereby we sense our need for those who are different from us (those we would often think are in need of our help without a sense of our being in need of theirs), we will never experience the breaking down of divisions between those of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds. Instead, we will reinforce barriers by ministering out of privilege. In fact, it is not enough to minister to others whereby we use our power for their good. We must sense our need for them and receive from them as well. Only when there is give and take, where people are interdependent, is there intimacy in relations and reconciliation. Paul could never have been the Apostle to the Gentiles had he not become so dependent on Jesus and the church whom he once had persecuted. He was enslaved to Jesus’ vulnerable love that breaks down divisions between people.

White Christian leaders like me often treat African Americans, legal and illegal immigrants from Mexico, Arabs, Jews, Muslims, and the homeless as “them” or as “those people” who need us. When this is our posture and perspective, we violate these people. What is required is that we experience vulnerability, which would involve encountering these people face to face, eye to eye, and heart to heart. While this is a common problem for the majority culture in any given society, it should not be common among God’s shepherds of his people. It is only as we experience vulnerability and spiritual vertigo whereby we find ourselves secure in the Good Shepherd’s embrace that we will be in a position to move beyond the marginalization of others toward mutuality and partnership in ministry.

The young white pastor friend to whom I referred at the outset of this piece shared with me that his spiritual director is an African American woman. I couldn’t believe it when he told me. Not that this is scandalous, but because it would often be viewed as scandalous to many white male leaders, I believe. I was so impressed, and hope that other white male pastors—and white theologians like myself—will avail ourselves of similar opportunities. My young pastor friend informed me that he recently told his spiritual director how isolated and weak he feels in ministry. He was wondering if God was no longer working in and through him. His spiritual director responded by saying something to the effect of “Don’t pull back. You are truly experiencing the fruit of the Spirit in your ministry.” And again, “Now you know how I feel every day as an African American woman.”

Now my young pastor friend is really beginning to connect with his congregation, bearing much fruit. Instead of modeling professional distance, my friend models pastoral intimacy with his ministry team at the church. His ministry team made up of people of diverse ethnicities encourages him to keep pressing on and into Christ’s vulnerable love with them.

I hold out great hope for this young pastor in the inner city of Chicago in terms of breaking down ethnic barriers. Instead of approaching people of other ethnicities from a position of presumed strength, he is approaching them from an authentic form of weakness. He senses his relational need for them, thereby moving beyond charity toward the poor and condescension toward non-whites. He is pressing into community where the Spirit’s charitable fruit breaks down divisions. The poor is no longer them. The poor is me. The poor is each one of us. You are no longer “the other.” I am in you and you are in me.

19 Responses to “A Vulnerable Love”

  1. Julaine Calhoun Says:

    Beautifully said…. we must be vulnerable and weak in ministry. We must not just reach out but embracing those that we perceive to be “different”, “other”. Only then will we truly be like Jesus, always looking into the eyes and hearts of people.

  2. jimi calhoun Says:

    What a wonderful story ! The young pastor’s commitment is inspiring. I also think that your choice of words for your title are right on target. Vulnerability is a key ingredient in the recipe for mulit-ethnic and multi-cultural ministry settings. I both write on the topic, and I am a practitioner at the pastoral level. I am African American and I have attempted to work on church staffs at white churches with mixed results. One recurring problem is the tendency for the white staff members to be a bit skeptical in many areas. That is understandable with the amount of stereotype embedded in our culture. However, as was so eloquently stated in your post, “a vulnerable love” would probably go a long way towards canceling fear and doubt in many people. Thanks for the insight and rest assured I will use some of your content and the tile of your post to help others “feel the need” to open up to people not like them. Again thanks for the insight!!!! JC

  3. Derek C Says:

    So true and so hard. I appreciate your raising the issue. For me, it seems like the hard part is to get to a place where we learn how to relinquish power. What type of leadership structure and circumstance at church lends itself to becoming weak? Do we go looking for it? How does a church cultivate the release and sharing of “power?” Your friend’s experience challenges me not just with regard to ethnicity — how do I, in a position of advantage, interact with those who are of a different class, education and income than me.

  4. Paul Louis Metzger Says:

    Thanks for these excellent questions and reflections. I really appreciate your concern for intentionality. It would be good to flesh this out in terms of practices. Let’s see how others respond.

  5. Cliff Chappell Says:

    Dr. Metzger, thanks for sharing your friends story. I applaud him for his courage in doing ministry under such challenging circumstances. It’s people like you and him who, in the face of great odds, will take the courage to make yourselves vulnerable to bring down the evils of racism.
    I was listening to a talk show host a few days ago ranting about people who use racism to their advantage. As I continued to listen to him, the point that he was attempting to make was that racism does not exist but was only an imagined thing. As I pondered his position, I thought about how it would feel to step on someone’s foot. If I was doing the stepping, I really can’t relate to her pain, even thought she cries out and tells me how much it hurts. I can only relate to her pain if it was my foot being stepped on. But even in that, I can at least be sensitive to the fact that I hurt her. If one has never felt the pain of racism, it is understandable that some people cannot relate to it. But to be in denial that the other person feels the pain is totally insensitive; it is a complete discount and a disregard for them as a person.
    As Jesus emptied Himself and became one of us, He gained full knowledge of human suffering as He experienced pain, shame and suffering as a man. He did not pull back, but He endured it all and gained the victory for our salvation.
    I, again, applaud your friend for his courage to go against convention and allow Jesus Christ to live through him in this community. And I encourage him not to be silent about his experiences because many people can learn a lot from him and be motivated by his demonstration of the love of Christ to join the fight to end racism.

  6. Paul Louis Metzger Says:

    Hello Pastor Cliff,

    I appreciate your good reflections. As you suggest, it is very difficult to appreciate the weightiness of the problem if one has never been stepped on in this way! It reminds me of some of the responses you received to your Oregonian Opinion piece on racism’s present day reality. I am sure the pastor in Chicago will appreciate reading your encouraging word to him. Thank you for your own vulnerable love as an African American pastor of a multi-ethnic church here in Portland.

  7. Paul Louis Metzger Says:

    Hello Jimi and Julaine,

    Thank you so much for your important feedback and encouraging words. I am grateful for friends like the two of you and appreciate so much your intentionality as you lead pastorally with multi-ethnic church vision. It is a privilege to partner in ministry with you!

  8. Cliff Chappell Says:

    As an African American pastor of a multi-ethnic church, I have seen so many lives transformed by the love of Jesus Christ. I have seen people, for whatever reason, drawn to our church who came with the “us” vs. “them” mentality and in time, saw them completely transformed by the love of Jesus where ethnic differences made no difference. It was just “us” and we all loved and celebrated us. The love of Jesus is powerful! We just need to be vulnerable enough to trust.
    Pastor C

  9. Paul Louis Metzger Says:

    Amen! A good word, Cliff. Keep pressing on! Your church is a faithful witness and a blessing!

  10. Mae Cannon Says:

    Dear Paul,

    Thank you for your post about “Vulnerable Love”… I was moved and challenged by the words that you shared. Particularly the following: “I would go so far as to say that one cannot minister effectively in a multi-ethnic and economically challenged context apart from a deepening sense of personal weakness and need.” Your reminder of the necessity of vulnerability and its example in the witness of Christ is a very appropriate one as we progress through Holy Week, especially the reminders of Christ’s death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection.

    I related greatly to the story that you shared about the young white pastor working in a predominantly African American community. My current ministry context is in the Middle East, where I am blessed to be a part of the Palestinian and larger Arab community in Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. For me, I continue to be in the process of personal transformation as I recognize more and more of my own privileges and prejudices as a white American. The idea of giving up power and entering into mutual submission with my brothers and sisters of different ethnicities, cultures, and class is something that I aspire toward. Personally, I am struggling with what mutual submission means in my own situation. I am a leader in the church who both occupies positions of “assumed strength” (e.g. the many privileges that come from my nationality and class and also being white) and also a position of “assumed inferiority”. In the evangelical church context, I and many other women like me are continually marginalized because of our gender. On a regular basis, pastors and leaders in the evangelical community place limits upon the use of gifts of women in the local church context. While I agree strongly with your call to mutual submission, I think it is also important to remember the reality that human vulnerability is very challenging in contexts that continue to be wounding and oppressive. Ironically, I have found Christian leaders in the Middle East (almost all of whom are men) to be much more supportive of my gifts than their American counterparts.

    Mae

  11. Chris Duclos Says:

    Paul, I appreciate your ongoing dialogue and practice of this topic. It seems to me that to be vulnerable with others is to care enough to seek true connection. It means that you care more about people (and your relationship with people) than you do about your comfort, your power, or your position.

  12. Matt Woodley Says:

    Paul: Thanks for this wonderful reflection–so appropriate for this season of the church year (I’m positing this on Maundy Thursday). Your article struck me in a profound way because God has been leading me on the path of vulnerable love. After serving as a senior pastor of a busy church, I resigned and spent 6 months working with adults with developmental disabilities. Wow, what a journey down (or should I say up?) into vulnerable love! It has led to enormous freedom from power and the outward trappings of success. By the way, did I understand from this article that you were in Chicago but you didn’t call me? Next time, you better call so we can share some deep-dish pizza and watch the Cubs lose.

  13. Weston Ruter Says:

    Note that this is cross-posted on the New Wine, New Wineskins blog: http://new-wineskins.org/blog/2011/04/a-vulnerable-love/

  14. chris laird Says:

    This is a very dangerous article. What are you trying to do blow up our independent, segregated, self-assured centers of control? Don’t answer that. Seriously, “the poor is me”? Very dangerous language (very rich. very liberating?). This article reads like a manifesto on Christian Leadership and the Other. It’s TNT dy-no-mite!

  15. Jelani Greenidge Says:

    You know, Dr. Metzger… this us vs. them shows up not just along ethnic lines.

    I mean, of course they DO show up along ethnic lines… I echo the others in saying thanks for shining a lot on this far-too-predominant posture from many White evangelicals in urban ministry. It’s a problem and it needs to stop, and it requires both humility and prophetic challenges from folks within the demographic (such as yourself) to call it forth.

    But I’m also saying this element is magnified sometimes from within urban subcultures… the ingroup vs. outgroup dynamic is often played from within ethnic groups with people in or outside of church culture. We often minister from a place of occupying the moral high road, so to speak, and use this as a wedge to distance ourselves from those who didn’t have the training or mentoring to learn how to lead more righteous lives.

    We forget all of the “once… but now”s all over the new testament (Eph 2:13, 5:8, 1 Pet 2:10) .

    Reminds me of this song by The Cross Movement’s emcee Phanatik called “We Were They” …

    in the beginning of the song he illustrates all of the societal ills evident in the unregenerate life… and it’s all “they” don’t want to do this, “they” love to do that, etc. … but then in the chorus he flips it and is like “yo… WE used to be THEY.”

    brilliant.

  16. Paul Louis Metzger Says:

    Mae, thank you for your important reflections. I was really struck by the following statement in your response: “Human vulnerability is very challenging in contexts that continue to be wounding and oppressive. Ironically, I have found Christian leaders in the Middle East (almost all of whom are men) to be much more supportive of my gifts than their American counterparts.” This is very sobering. It would be well worth developing these points for healing and reconciliation in the American church context. I look forward to interacting further with you and others on this vitally important subject.

    Jelani, your important point on insider and outsider categories applying in a variety of other contexts bears ongoing reflection. As you and Mae suggest, the post has implications for various other relational and ministry dynamics. It is amazing that Jesus’ moral high ground was hanging on a cross and taking on the sin of the world. This cuts to my heart!

    Chris, Weston and Chris, thanks for partnering with me in ministry through New Wine. Your ongoing commitment to connect with me over the years moves me to get beyond self-sufficiency and the comfort of autonomy. You are TNT!

    Matt, I can’t wait to see your Gospel of Matthew volume in print for the Resonate series. I remember you sharing in the volume about your experience of working with these precious people with developmental disabilities. Indeed, as painful as such experiences recounted there are to our flesh, they are moves up in the kingdom of vulnerable love which frees us “from power and the outward trappings of success,” as you say.

  17. Mark Says:

    “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal 3:25-29). …well that sure levels the playing field, no?

  18. Gloria Young Says:

    It is sad and hurtful to acknowledge our surprise and amazement when ethnical integration occurs and when our mentors, advocates and champions don’t look like us. Whites mentored by African Americans, African Americans mentored and supported by Native Americans , Latinos and so on. We are still struggling in this world to do what Christ did on the cross “break down the walls” that divided us. How can we truly live together in Christ or consume Jesus without embracing one another?

  19. Lynn Says:

    Thanks for writing ‘Vulnerable Love.’ In India I observed churches being planted according to separate castes. It followed the natural patterns of that society, which was understandably easier and church growth could move faster, but it bothered me, not just as an American. It’s from Jesus that we learn we must throw away our prejudices and work to overcome racial, economic, and other barriers that separate groups and individuals.

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