How vulnerable should a pastor be?

I recently returned to work after nearly seven months on a medical leave of absence. One of my ponderings, as I’ve reentered church life, is how much of my experience to share with the congregation. In seminary, I was taught there is an appropriate amount of vulnerability for a pastor to express: enough to make us human, but not so much that the mission of the church becomes caring for us. I understand the theory, but putting this theory into practice feels more like art than science. How much vulnerability is too much vulnerability?

In this month’s church newsletter, I decided to address several questions I have heard since my return. I have included my response to one of those questions here:

What’s the diagnosis?

I never received a definitive diagnosis, which was frustrating at first. One GI doctor said I had chronic acid reflux (GERD), another GI doctor said I didn’t. A series of visits to different family doctors as well as to various GI specialists gave me new things to try in regards to my diet and medication. When I abruptly went on leave in November, I was in the middle of trying every solution I could without any indication that those solutions were working.

The missing diagnostic piece was stress. Stress combined with rich food (black tea, wine and chocolate) led to stomach upset in October 2012. I did not know back in 2012 that the stomach, once damaged even a bit, takes a long time to heal. It needs consistent medication, rest and abstinence from foods that are hard to digest or easily cause heartburn. Unwittingly, instead of giving my stomach the time and rest to heal, I did it more damage. More stomach pain led to more stress which caused even more stomach pain and weight loss and, ultimately, burn out.

I arrived at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church in 2009, fresh out of seminary, well aware of the dangers of pastoral ministry. Lots of pastors leave the ministry, often within the first five years. It is hard to maintain our physical, emotional and spiritual health while offering others spiritual, emotional and (sometimes) physical support. I knew all about the necessity of good “self-care,” of setting healthy boundaries, of not being all things to all people.

Nevertheless, in the midst of diving into this work that I love and find so meaningful, I lost track of myself. Just before I went on leave, a fellow staff member asked me, “What brings you joy and energy, both in your work and in your free time?” I could not answer the question. Who was I? Who did God create me to be? Who was I becoming? Who did I want to become?

Stress and illness bury our sense of identity and worth. Managing an illness takes time and energy, and so it’s really hard to reconnect with our God-given identity. The time away, meeting with a therapist and spiritual director as well as talking regularly to Josh and my close friends, reacquainted me with myself: my core values, my ministry gifts and passions, my life’s vision and mission, what brings me joy, and most importantly God’s love and grace for me.

Ok, Outlook readers, I’m curious to hear your feedback: Did I share too little? Too much? How have you practiced and learned the art of appropriate vulnerability with your congregation or with your work peers (if you’re not in pastoral ministry)?

Rachel YoungRachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Presbyterian as the director of contemporary worship and media.