Vulnerability and Fauxnerability: Learning the Difference is Essential for a Leader

September 25, 2018

It’s stunning how the conversation has changed.

When I started out in ministry in the mid-1990s, “vulnerability” was not a concept I was familiar with. When it was pointed out to me that I was a wounded and wounding young man (by a loving but brutally honest pastoral counseling professor), I was opened to the possibility that the masks that I wore weren’t permanent—and perhaps I could address my woundedness and grow into wholeness. As I shared some of what I was learning about myself, my new vulnerability did not meet with the approval of many colleagues and ministry friends as I became a bit too sensitive and serious for their liking. They preferred the mask of funny-Chuck, academic-Chuck, ecclesial-Chuck. Vulnerability dares to let the mask down a bit, revealing a fuller story of oneself. And few of us in ministry dared this kind of deeply personal exposure back then.

Today, vulnerability sells millions of books. “I’m reading Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection,” a pastor-friend told me, “and she’s rocking my world. Maybe I don’t need to pretend anymore!” Vulnerability works in the areas of pastoral leadership, corporate leadership, and everything in-between highlight the health and wholeness of the leader. I was shocked by the number of invitations I received by corporate leaders after writing Wholeheartedness. As one CEO said, “Can you share with us a vision for being more open and connected to one another without all the Christianese?” In churches, congregations are recognizing that systemic health is impossible when we wear masks. As Charles Spurgeon said in the 19th century sermon to his London congregation, “Tear off your masks. The church was never meant to be a masquerade!”

I teach in a seminary that values forming vulnerable leaders—women and men who are self-aware, not in some hyper-therapeutic way, but in the deep tradition of Christian self-examination. Augustine said, “Noverim me, Noverim te”—let me know myself, let me know you, O God. Vulnerability is marked by a profound understanding of one’s own story, motivations, and passions—in the old, desert fathers and mothers sense of the word—one’s habitual patterns of self-sabotage and self-deception. This self-awareness requires intentional heart-work, something busy leaders don’t often give themselves time to do. But we know today, not least through the stunning findings of neurobiologists, that people who know their stories, motivations, and passions are the most emotionally (EQ) and socially (SQ) intelligent people, which bodes much better than IQ for “successful” leadership in the best sense of the word. These are whole leaders, who build trust, who grow healthy teams and congregations, who resist the narcissism that festers in the absence of self-awareness.

But I am also seeing a new phenomenon I call fauxnerability. Anything good can be a manipulative tool in the hands of one who is not self-aware. And the same goes with vulnerability. Fauxnerability is a dark, twisted form of sharing oneself which requires little risk and shares for the sake of (manipulatively) drawing another in. It can look like what Christians call “repentance,” but it isn’t. When practicing fauxnerability, someone may share generally (“I’m a sinner” or “I’m really a mess”) but, in fact, vulnerability requires specificity. Further, fauxnerability is self-centered. Its energy is in convincing you that that the false self, a persona with the purpose of self-protection, is real.

Think of the pastor whose psychological issues are raising questions about his health and fitness for ministry. In a seeming act of courage, he addresses the congregation and says, “I’ve sinned. I don’t glorify God always. I fall into idolatry. I’m human like you are.” Is this vulnerability? I don’t think so, particularly if he isn’t able to share specifically and with a clear sense of his impact on others. Those who are fauxnerable can make big proclamations before large crowds, but they can’t confess specific details or honor their impact before those who are hurt. One CEO emailed his staff after being caught grabbing a woman inappropriately: “Apologies, folks. Gonna fall on my sword. I was just being a dude. Forgive me, I’m human. I make mistakes. Let’s get on with business.” Was this vulnerable? I don’t think so.

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 also fell on the sword, confessing emotional unavailability, workaholism, and sexual addiction in a posture of “repentance” after his wife had left him. He has not done the hard work of long-term therapy to root out deeper issues. He now moves from person to person, to any listening ear, sharing about his “brokenness” and “sin” in a seemingly repentant package. However, he is trying to groom his listeners into sympathy for the sake of a more ultimate purpose—gaining trust to make a seemingly innocent and  reluctant, yet calculated, swipe at his wife—for her impatience with him, for her raging anger, for her unforgiveness, for not willing to engage him. This is not vulnerability, but manipulation.

Before I go, let me leave you with some thoughts on how to spot vulnerability and fauxnerability.

  • Vulnerability offers specific and sometimes painful parts of oneself in service of connection and empathy. Fauxnerability offers general offerings (“I’m a sinner” or “My heart is an idol factory”) in service of maintaining an image of one who is safe and honest.
  • Vulnerability responds to another’s pushback with curiosity and compassion. Fauxnerability responds with defensiveness and reactivity.
  • Vulnerability speaks in present terms (“I am so scared because I self-harmed again this morning, and I feel the temptation again now”) while fauxnerability speaks in general or past terms (“I battled porn back in the day.”)
  • Vulnerability is other-centered, focused on empathic connection to another. Fauxnerability does not breed connection, but actually distances oneself from another, as you may feel like you’ll never be as honest as they are.
  • Both vulnerability and fauxnerability may come with tears or a palpable sense that the other is in pain, but those who are fauxnerable have an uncanny capacity to stage their emotions.
  • Those who are vulnerable risk an encounter with shame for the sake of belonging and connection, but those who are fauxnerable are shameless, deeply self-protected and incapable of letting another behind the curtain.
  • Vulnerable people share wisely and discretely, often with close, trusted friends. Fauxnerable people over-share, offering too much too soon, in a way that demands that you to be their confessor in a manipulative tactic of engendering your sympathy or inviting you to take their side.
  • Vulnerable people don’t take up space but create it through their way of being in the world. Fauxnerable people tend to be self-referential, self-congratulatory, and take up too much space.

In the end, leaders are often not in one place or another but somewhere along a spectrum, continuing to wrestle with mask-wearing, fear, and self-protection. What I long to see are leaders who are stepping in the courageous waters of vulnerability, risking just a bit more each day, opening themselves in a way that opens others, sharing their stories in a way that opens us up to see our participation in The Story. Ultimately, fauxnerability is as old as Genesis 3, and a path of ultimate vulnerability has been paved by one who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, becoming a servant. The vulnerable one is a servant leader whose energy is for the sake of empathetic connection and compassionate invitation to another for the sake of their wholeness in Christ. That’s a leader I’ll follow any day of the week.

About the Author
  • Chuck DeGroat has enjoyed a fluid combination of pastoral work, clinical counseling, and teaching over the past 16 years. He founded City Church Counseling Center (San Francisco) and co-founded Newbigin House of Studies, a seminary and church planter training center. He is an associate professor at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan, and has authored three books: Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self, Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places and Toughest People to Love.

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