Leading With Vulnerability

Empower others to be authentic

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By Tiffany McDonald

On November 5, 2015 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Everything changed. Not only did I need help, but everyone could see how vulnerable I was as I lost my hair and became physically weak from treatments. The lesson breast cancer continues to teach me is that I need to live as I believe. I had bought into the American ideals that I can do it myself. Of course, these feelings are antithetical to my theology. I know we need each other. I am Trinitarian; I believe that God is 3-in-1, thus God is community.  While I regularly preach on the necessity of community, I admit that I do not always practice what I preach. 

Allowing Others to Care for Me

feel like I am vulnerable all the time, and I dislike being vulnerable. I feel like I wear my heart on my sleeve, but the truth is even my husband, who knows me best, cannot always read me. I hate asking for help. I hate needing help. Fiercely independent, I like to be alone and do it alone. I suspect that I am not alone in this, among congregational leaders. My head and heart know the truth of needing others, but they do not often submit in tandem. As I was surrounded by love and care and meals, I was reminded that community is how to live. The truth was and is that I do need other people.  

During my treatments, my family needed meals, my children needed play dates, and sometimes I needed to call in sick and let my staff cover for me. Still, I did not take enough time off, though my personnel team encouraged it. I kept showing up, thinking it would prove that I was ok.  In reality, the congregation witnessed my physical weakness and saw the changes in my body. I could not hide them. By trying to prove I was fine, I was actually letting them see my weakness.

Preaching Out of Vulnerability

My two best sermons were powerful because I allowed myself to be vulnerable. One was Ash Wednesday, on John 5:1-9. Jesus encounters a man at the pool by the sheep gate, where people with many different maladies gathered. This man had been ill for thirty-eight years. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” I confessed that I identified with this man. I did not want to do chemotherapy, and I did struggle with choosing to be sick in order to be made well. Because my cancer was curable, and I had small children, I had to choose healing, even though it terrified me. 

By the time I preached this sermon, I had been in treatment for three months. My hair was gone. I was already showing the effects of the steroids. I was tired. For the first time, I did not wear my wig to worship, and instead wore a scarf under a hat. When I got up to preach, I removed the hat, and with just the scarf, it was clear that my hair was gone.  Everyone knew I had been wearing a wig, but with it on I had looked “normal.” Now I was letting them see my reality. It was scary. Sharing my truth, both in my words and in my physical appearance, made the sermon memorably powerful. 

That July I preached on boldness, as a fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. By then, I had finished my twelve rounds of chemotherapy and had my mastectomy. I had resumed one of my maintenance chemo drugs, but I was regaining strength. “Cancer rehab,” a type of physical therapy, aided in regaining my energy. I had just begun radiation. In that sermon, I removed my scarf and showed my hair that was growing back for the first time. I was afraid. It was an unforgettable sermon that people still reference. How often we preach a sermon that we need to hear ourselves! Preaching on being bold helped me realize I could be bold. I could remove the hot scarf and show them my very short hair. Trusting them to love me anyway, and I could stop pretending I was well. 

Empowering Others to Show Vulnerability

When leaders show our vulnerability, we give others permission to be vulnerable. We allow them to see that we are human and might understand what they are going through. We witness to our faith: that it is normal to be imperfect, standing in need of God’s grace. We align ourselves with our Lord who was willing to die, an act of total vulnerability. Jesus took time to rest. He showed his emotions. He submitted to a cruel, painful death. On the cross, he was publicly tortured. He endured all that suffering, even crying out to God in pain. Jesus modeled leadership for all of us, demonstrating that even in our times of vulnerability, we are witnesses to our faith.

I still hate asking for help, but I continue to get better at actually doing it. I do my best to remind myself that I am strong by being vulnerable. Authenticity and integrity are essential to me, and so I have to be honest about my needs. No one wants a lone wolf leader. Our congregations want to know their pastors—the real person—not an idealized version. Of course we need to focus on the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Our congregations should know that it is not all about us. Breast cancer forced me to value vulnerability and to find my strength even when I felt most weak, raw, and exposed. When we model authenticity, we invite others to do the same. When we share our story, we create space where others feel safe to share.  

About the Author
Tiffany McDonald is an Ordained Elder in The United Methodist Church. She currently serves as an Associate Pastor at Minnetonka United Methodist Church in Minnetonka, Minnesota.

Photo by NEOSiAM 2020

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