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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.

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rhettsmith@churchleaders.com'
I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate (MDiv, MSMFT, LMFT-A) and pastor to youth and families. I write about the relationships between psychology, theology and technology.