fauxnerability in the church: what is it? what do we do about it?

25 years ago when I was just getting in the seminary/church/pastor game, vulnerability was not a high value. Things have changed. But with a higher value on transparency, authenticity and vulnerability in the church, there is a dark ‘flip-side’ that we need to be aware of.

Recently, I listened to the final sermon of a pastor whose affair was found out the week after this sermon, and who committed suicide not long after. Strewn throughout the sermon were phrases like “Gospel brokenness” and “unconditional acceptance” and “idols to repent of” along with admissions about the messiness of life and the power of God to transform our wounds like God had done for this pastor. Imagine the shock and sense of betrayal when the congregation found out about his year long sexual relationship with a female admirer of his who he met while speaking at a conference. The discovery was followed by days of throwing his wife under the bus for “emotionally abandoning” him. In the end, the shattered narcissistic false self led him to the tragic conclusion that if that self was gone, he was gone. And so, he acted on this belief, ending his life violently. The self-hatred was apparent in his final act.

A friend and pastor in a sister denomination reached out to me this past week in response to my last blog on narcissism, and offered a sobering reminder. He told me that many of the larger “Gospel-centered” church pastors in his denomination who, in fact, enjoy my writings or Diane Langberg’s stuff on narcissism or Dan Allender and have some passion about injustices and sex scandals are, in fact, the biggest perpetrators of narcissistic abuse. And this is what increasingly frightens me – the epidemic of fauxnerability – pastors (and many others) who are emotionally intelligent enough to share a general “messiness” about their lives (often in broad strokes admitting weakness and need), but who are radically out of touch with their true selves. They’ve dressed up the false self in a new garment – the garment of faux vulnerability, with the accompanying Gospel vocabulary of weakness, need, brokenness, dependence, idolatry and more. And they may be more dangerous than pastors who simply don’t give a damn about living vulnerably.

When a twisted form a vulnerability is used in service of a spiritual false self, congregations are thrown into painful and often contentious seasons of gossip, opposition, choosing sides, and living in trauma and confusion. I saw it again recently. An influential church elder whose wife left him fell on the sword, confessing emotional unavailability, workaholism, and sexual addiction in a posture of ‘repentance’. He has not done the hard work of long-term therapy to root out deeper issues (which, can I just say, shows a remarkably low doctrine of sin…and I see this all-the-time among so-called Reformed folk.) He now moves from person to person, to any listening ear, sharing about his “brokenness” and “sin” in seemingly a repentant package only to groom his listeners into empathy and trust for the sake of (…wait for it….) the grand finale – a seemingly innocent, reluctant, but calculated swipe at his wife – for her impatience with him, for her raging anger, for her unforgiveness, for not willing to engage him. Before you know it, they’re all in tears. I see this happen time and again.

Commercial break for a quick and important note: When I write, I almost always receive 1-2 emails from former clients or pastors or pastors I don’t even know saying, “Why are you writing about me? I’ll sue you.” Even though my policy is to shift details to sufficiently conceal identities, I still get it…it’s always about you….which led a friend to remind me of the Carly Simon song You’re So Vain (…bet you thought this ‘blog’ was about you!) This is yet another sign of narcissism. Truth told, I’ve seen hundreds of clients, and similar storylines pop up all the time amidst narcissistic dynamics. 

So…Is there an antidote to fauxnerability? I’m not so sure. Folks susceptible to it can seem psychologically sophisticated (they know their Enneagram and MBTI and DISC) and some even go to therapy (people, there are a lot of bad therapists out there who simply polish up the false self). Like any form of narcissism, they will need to own a struggle with it and go on a long, honest journey. But, in the meantime and as we deal with this in churches, I’ll leave you with a few final observations about what to look for and do: