Creating an Environment Where It’s Safe to Be Vulnerable

Creating an Environment Where It’s Safe to Be Vulnerable

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Welcome to The Daily Prayer Team messages, each day includes a passage of scripture, a reflection and a prayer. Sponsored by Saint John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL.

Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation; I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell safely. Jeremiah 32:37

The basic building block of any human relationship is respect.  In order to build anything, one has to feel safe and that’s what respect is—refraining from hurting someone else (either their person or their feelings).  Once respect is established, one can build on the relationship with common interests and spending time together.  From this, trust develops.  Now in order to move from trust to love, which is the pinnacle of a relationship, there is something called vulnerability that must be shared.  If a conversation goes something like this: “Hi.” “How are you?”  “Fine, how are you?” “Fine.” There is never going to be love in the relationship because the conversation stays on a very surface level.  In order to have love, someone has to take a chance and be vulnerable—“Hi.”  “”How are you?”  “Not so good today.”  “I’ll listen.”  This is the kind of conversation where vulnerability occurs, which is always precedes a loving relationship.

One of the key ingredients to a successful church community is an environment where it’s safe to be vulnerable.  If all people ever do is make small talk, there is never going to be love in the community.  If people are afraid to be vulnerable for fear of being judged, there is never going to love in the community.  If people are afraid to be vulnerable, for fear that others will gossip about them or use their vulnerability against them, there will never be the loving community that Christ intended for His Church to be.

Creating an environment where it is safe to be vulnerable is a daunting task, which can also come with great reward.  It is a daunting task because if we are to create an environment where it is okay to be vulnerable, we are talking about a significant paradigm shift in many communities.  Because it means that everyone has to be vulnerable.  And many people are not ready to do that.

While I can’t say I like being vulnerable—I don’t think anyone honestly does—I appreciate an environment where it’s safe to be vulnerable.  I wear my emotions on my sleeve, which is not always a good thing, but people pretty much know where I am most of the time.  While I don’t cry at every funeral, I do get emotional at some of them.  It’s not over the top emotion either—just a little choked up and maybe even a few tears.  I have had a close relationship with many people that I have buried over the years, and sometimes the funerals are hard for me emotionally.  I don’t know if people expect me to never shed a tear “because it’s my job” to do funerals.  Thankfully, I’m in a community where it’s okay to shed a tear, to let people know that I’m upset about losing someone.

It’s hard to be vulnerable at a Parish Assembly meeting, because many of the people who come to those meetings are waiting for some “mistake” to happen so that they can pounce on it.  Perhaps that’s why these meetings are generally devoid of love, because people are unwilling or feel unsafe to be vulnerable.

Someone once asked me what I think would be one thing that everyone could do that would strengthen the bond of love in the community.  And one thing that came to mind is “what would happen if everyone in the community went for the sacrament of confession?”  If everyone was vulnerable in that sacrament (not at the same time obviously), if everyone knew that everyone else was going to have the same experience, there would be a great bond of respect, empathy, compassion and patience.  There would be a greater bond of love, because everyone would know that everyone was vulnerable.

One of the greatest experiences of my priesthood occurred in my parish recently when a young man passed away unexpectedly.  This affected many people on different levels.  The Sunday after it happened, I announced in church that I would stay after for as long as there were people who wanted to talk.  I didn’t know what would happen.  About 20 people stayed in church after the Divine Liturgy.  We put some chairs in a circle and I started the conversation, trying to introduce the idea that everyone had ideas and feelings about what had happened and that that was a good thing.  Then people started sharing, opening up, crying, and really sharing deep thoughts, insecurities, and fears.  Some people admitted they were having some trouble in their life and needed some help.  This was one of the most validating moments I’ve ever had as a priest, because it showed me that people, in the right environment, were very eager to be vulnerable, they were just looking for the right place to put their thoughts and we had provided it.  Given the opportunity to be vulnerable in a very safe and accepting environment is something many people would jump to.

One of the most frustrating things about working in a church community are the leaders who are incapable of being or unwilling to be vulnerable.  I remember a Metropolitan of our church once told me “Where there is not trust, there can be no love, no progress.”  In the same vein, where there is no vulnerability, there can be no love.  And where there is no love, there can be no vulnerability.  These go hand in hand.

If leaders in the community set the tone for the community, if they wish to build the loving community that Christ wants us to have in our parishes, the leaders will need to not only facilitate a safe environment where it’s okay to be vulnerable, they will have to be willing to be vulnerable.  If a leader is unwilling to be vulnerable, ironically, they will never be able to work from their strengths, because they will never address their weaknesses.  Strong leaders are people who are capable of being vulnerable.

Vulnerability goes hand in hand with love.  There can’t be a loving and supporting community without vulnerability.  If we are creating environments that allow people to grow in their faith, we have to also create environments where it is safe to be vulnerable.

Answer me when I call, O God of my right! Thou hast given me room when I was in distress.  Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.  O men, how long shall my honor suffer shame?  How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?  But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for Himself; the Lord hears when I call to Him.  Be angry, but sin not; commune with your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.  Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.  There are many who say “O that we might see some good!  Lift up the light of Thy countenance upon us, O Lord!” Thou hast put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.  In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for Thou alone, O Lord, makest me dwell safety.  Psalm 4 

Please do you part, whether it is being vulnerable or being supportive (not gossiping or judging) of someone who is being vulnerable, so that our church communities become the bastions of love and support that Christ intends for them to be.

The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

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Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0