Robustness and Vulnerability in Leadership and Ministry

Stone benches in a circle surrounded by trees
Robust vulnerability is incarnational.

Robustness describes a phenomenon at the core of life, ministry and leadership, whether we know the exact definition of the word or not.  Robustness is also an important component of the conflict transformation terrain. To be authentic human beings, to be leaders, to be ministers, to be facilitators in conflict situations, robustness is part of the journey.

Jesus and Mary model robustness, as do Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa and many of the Saints who came before us. Each models robustness in their own unique way–the willingness to show-up, to be present, to be vulnerable and to engage even at the risk of humiliation.

What is robustness for our context in congregational life, at home, in our work places and at our facilitation spaces where we are invited to enter and engage? How does robustness, or our understanding of it, inform our journey as individuals, ministers, leaders and as faith communities?

Robustness is a word denoting health, psychological, spiritual or physical; the ability to meet the world with vigor and impact. To be robust is to be physically, emotionally, spiritually and imaginatively present in the very firm presence of something or someone else.

Being robust means we acknowledge the living current in something other than ourselves. Robustness is a measure of the live frontier in a conversation, whether it is a physical conversation in a wrestling match like Jacob on the riverbank, a good exchange of ideas in the classroom, an inner conversation like Jesus in the wilderness, a marital argument in the kitchen or an energetic encounter in a church staff or committee meeting. Without robustness all relationships become defined by their fragility, wither and begin to die.

To be robust is to attempt something beyond the perimeter of our own constituted identity, to get beyond our thoughts of our own selfishness. It means to stand on the edge of our own comfort and push the edge unselfishly and humbly, inviting the best out in others and ourselves.

Robustness and vulnerability belong together. I believe robust vulnerability is incarnational. To be robust is to show a willingness to take collateral damage, to put up with noise, chaos or our systems being temporarily undone. Robustness means we can veer off either side of the line while keeping a firm ongoing intent. It is the willingness to let our protective defenses down and to open to the possibility of being hurt or wounded. Robustness and vulnerability take courage, but the opposite is to live in isolation, cut-off from others and our own souls.

A robust way or response always entertains the possibility of humiliation. It is also a kind of faith; a sense that we will somehow survive the impact of a vigorous encounter, though not perhaps in the manner to which we are accustomed. A few lines of poetry are,

“We are sufficient for the day,
to love and adventure
to go on the grand tour
into another day.”

In other words, when I enter a courageous conversation and find my anxiety rising, I remind myself that I have or will be given what I need to meet whatever or whoever emerges in the encounter. My primary task is to show up, to be present, and to pay attention; then, to offer what I can honestly and respectfully (I-Thou way). Sometimes, robustness means to be present without speaking or doing anything. Showing up and being present to self and other does much of the work.

A lack of robustness denotes ill health, psychological, spiritual or physical. It feeds on itself. The less contact we have with anything other than our own body, our own rhythm or the way we have arranged our life, the more afraid we can become of the frontier where actual noise, meetings and changes occur. To come out and meet the world again is to heal from isolation, from grief, from illness, from the powers and traumas that first robbed us of that meeting and the sense of voice and presence in the world. To be robust is to leave the excuses we have made not to risk ourselves and to find ourselves alive once more in the encounter.  Martin Buber writes, “All real living is encounter.”

Robustness, strangely, demands we be a calm center in the midst of tumult. The quiet is what enables us to be cheerful in noise, equitable in the face of injustice or calm in the face of attack or hostility.

We also find in this quiet center the deeper foundations of physical presence, the wide field that allows a multi-contextual conversational view of reality where our experiences approximate that of a larger, loving, chaotic, happy family, full of scrapes, high spirits, slammed doors, skinned knees, challenged egos and cheerful arguments, all sustained with the need for times of peace and quiet before we rejoin the fray. When our physical, emotional and spiritual presence does fray, another form of internal presence must be found, another robustness to take us through.  The poet, Rainer M. Rilke, writes that winning does not tempt that person or us, for he/she/we learn by being defeated by greater and greater beings. Such painful encounters are formational in cultivating robustness.

Robustness and vulnerability are not options in most human lives or for leaders and ministers or for facilitators; to choose its opposite is to disappear. While being intentional about our disappearance is an art to be pondered in certain contexts, robustness is the invitation here.  What does it mean for you in your context to live courageously into your own robustness and vulnerability?

Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation!

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