Lent is a time for doing an inventory of our lives. In his book, For All Seasons, Rev. John Winn describes Lent as, “a time of personal examination as to how we have kept our agreement to love.” This article is a meditation on the practice of confession, especially for us as ministers. It is a practice for Lent, a spiritual practice for life and a model for leadership.
Confession is a stripping away of protection, the telling of a truth that might once have seemed like a humiliation. Suddenly, something changes and such a way of being becomes a gateway, an entrance to solid ground; even a first step home. To confess is to free oneself, not only by admitting a sin or an omission but to confess a deeper allegiance, a greater dedication to something beyond the mere threat of immediate punishment or the desolation of being shunned. To confess is to declare oneself ready for a more courageous road; a road in which a previously defended identity might not only be shorn away, but be seen to have been irrelevant, a distraction, a working delusion that keep us busy over the years and held us unaccountable to the real question.
Confession is letting the stone in our hearts crumble. It is the shedding of self-deceptions and delusions about oneself. It is shedding the false images and dishonest representations like a snake sheds its skin to continue to live. We are called to be who we are. Confession gives us an opportunity to measure what we have been against those deeper images of who we really are. What deceptions have I lived, and what deep authentic living am I passing by? Like the prodigal, where have I flown too high like Icarus or too low not accepting my place in the family of creation?
Freedom from deception may be the goal but no confession is without consequences. Our fears about the result of confessing are well grounded; the old identity and secret we are protecting almost never survives the revelation. We begin the new life in isolation perhaps, shunned by those we have wronged or even by those unable to understand our need to tell. Confession implicitly calls for carrying on the journey newly alone, unaccompanied by the familiar company we have kept until now.
Deathbed confessions happen so frequently because in the light of our imminent demise and disappearance, preserving the old fearful identity that kept the secret is seen to be absurd, almost laughable; we are suddenly not the thing we have been defending all along. In the shadow of our disappearance we come to understand that the preservation of our name and our identity have taken enormous effort and willpower to sustain for a mere temporary and provisional sense of personhood. In leaving the stasis of secrecy we must commit to a new fidelity and fluidity—a river flow of arrival—and not just on a temporary basis while the revelation is new, but shaped around a different life that calls for a deeper discipline.
Confession, therefore, is not passive; it is not emphatically the simple ability to face up to past wrongs. An active dynamic is foundational to the original meaning. In the early Christian tradition, confession meant the avowal and declaration of one’s religion, to confess was to discover what one believed to be true by speaking it out loud before witnesses and into the universe, often unsympathetically. It was making my “I believe” statements and daring to live by them. To confess was to enter an axis of vulnerability and visibility and sometimes to place oneself at the mercy of those who did not fully understand us in our struggle.
Does confession apply to ministers and leadership in congregations and organizations? I think the most impacting leaders/ministers are those who have learned to live out of this place of confession. Such a practice breeds authenticity, honesty, trust, integrity, healthy vulnerability and fierce conversation. Learning the art of openness and confession or appropriate vulnerability as a minister is a powerful way to lead. The following is an example of a leader who chooses the path of confession with his staff.
The Senior Minister of a large church asks me to lead a staff retreat. The intentions of the retreat are to help them connect more deeply as a team and to help them talk about the elephants in the room that they do not know how to get onto the table. He says that they are a highly gifted group, but are having some difficulties; they are stuck. After some conversation, I agree.
The first day of the retreat goes fairly well. As one would expect, some resistance is in the room, but the level of resistance is normal. In the evening after the first day, the Senior Minister and I have coffee. He tells me what he is hearing, learning and feeling. His comments are brutally honest. Without any prompting from me, he talks about his part in creating their current situation, the ways he has colluded and his shortfalls in leadership. It is a kind of humble confession. I feel his pain and hear his genuineness and humility. I also know that he is a mature person with strong gifts and graces. He asks, “Tomorrow, would it be helpful for me to tell the group what I have just told you?”
I believe he has the emotional and spiritual maturity to say it to the others in a responsible manner. If he can, it potentially will have a deep impact on our movement. He is speaking at the level of emotional/spiritual process. Vulnerability is the path he is choosing. When a leader does so in a healthy way, it invites others to the same place. I want both of us to think more about it before committing to it. I respond, “Let’s decide in the morning after we sleep on it, and if in the morning we both feel the same, then do it.” The next morning, we both agree that if he feels led to offer his words to the group.
The staff gathers. The Senior Minister begins, “I have something to say, something of a confession. As I sit here looking around this room, it is a privilege to know that I have been part of hiring almost every one of you. To have a group of people of your caliber with your gifts and graces and talents on the same staff is amazing. What a team! But I must confess that there have been times when you have threatened me. To be honest, my concern has been that you could do my job better than I. Thus, at times, I have withheld information about parishioners that would have helped you do your ministry better. At times I have visited people in the hospital or in their homes who you could have visited just as well, if not better, but because of their status, I wanted to get the credit. At times, I have taken the lead, when it would have been more responsible and effective for me to get out of the way, but I was more concerned about getting credit than your providing effective ministry. Out of fear I did not make the best decisions for us, and I apologize for it.”
The room was deathly silent. Everyone was still—not just their bodies, but their hearts and souls.
After taking several deep breaths, he continues, “From this day forward, I commit to you that my ministry is to help you do the best you can do and be. My question is, ‘How can I help you?’ In fact, from this day forward, my ministry is to help you do the best you can do so you can take my position. Wow, what a talented group! For holding you back, for not trusting you, I am sorry. From this day forward, my commitment is to support you and help you grow. My commitment from this time forward is to help you succeed in your ministries and life.”
What he says is a fierce, powerful, courageous, responsive and eloquent, but what opens the space is not simply what he says, but the way of his heart when he says it. He speaks from that moist, soulful place of wisdom, humility and honesty; that deep space where we brush quietly with eternity. Deep calls to deep. He was in an I-Thou place, and he invited others into that same way of being. Responsiveness invites responsiveness; vulnerability invites vulnerability; honesty invites honesty; I-Thou invites I-Thou ways of being together.
After such a deep, honest confession from the leader, one of the participants stands up, goes to the bell in the center of the circle, rings it twice as a way of saying, “We need a moment to pause and digest what has just happened.” All I could think was, “Wow!” The group conversation drops to a deep level of emotional and spiritual process. The remainder of the retreat is at the level of those deep, genuine, honest I-Thou conversations that cultivate deep trust and relationships. We know that we are on holy, sacred, uncharted ground, and all are okay with it. The rest of the time, we could see the pillar of fire leading us a step forward in the wilderness.
Do you think this minister lost power and influence by such an act of honest confession? When I talked to the staff and senior minister months later, he was more influential than ever. He and his staff were working better together than ever before, and their love and support of each other had been fanned. The practice of authentic, confessional leadership is how he ministered with and alongside his parishioners as well, and it showed.
Honest confession invites honest confession and appropriate vulnerability. Vulnerability is a kind of robust incarnation. As leaders are appropriately vulnerable, they/we model incarnation and excellence.
Declaring a new dispensation by confession, we see our trespasses against others in a new light, initiated by something we were hiding not only from the world but also from ourselves. Holding the secret was not only a defense against punishment but also a holding back from our next outrageous step. To separate the confusion of punishment with revelation, we first of all confess to ourselves, step onto solid ground in the privacy and spaciousness of our own hearts, minds and moral imaginations and then translate it into the best speech we have to represent it in the world. By doing so, we attempt to meld two previously irreconcilable worlds. To confess is to integrate the offending with the offended.
To confess is not only to acknowledge a truth we have held from ourselves all along, breathing quietly, alone and in secret what we could not initially give a voice, but the hopeful dedication to a larger life that might make us powerless to commit the same sin again.
We confess. . .
the fear holding us
of trust and vulnerability
rise toward the sun
like flowers blooming
in spring ,
like a butterfly breaking out
of her chrysalises,
like each wave
meeting the shore—
alive, new, repetitious,
not leaving a trace
while changing the world.
We end perfectly empty and utterly complete.
We confess. . .
Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation!