I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.
I Corinthians 1:10
Churches should be safe environments where we can be vulnerable. Not only places where we, ourselves, can feel safe being vulnerable, but places where it is safe to discuss the issues that make us feel vulnerable, the issues we don’t feel safe discussing.
Several years ago, our church had a mom’s retreat, and even though I’m not a mom, I was invited to the retreat in my role as the parish priest. A dozen moms got together for fellowship, learning, and sharing. There wasn’t one mom that day who didn’t feel vulnerable, not one who didn’t cry or get emotional, and not one who didn’t take a benefit away from the experience. We don’t have ENOUGH of this in our churches.
At a recent GOYA (teenage youth group) meeting, we discussed the topic of suicide. Yes, that’s a heavy topic. I felt vulnerable sharing thoughts. Others felt vulnerable sharing thoughts. People left the meeting grateful for the opportunity to have talked about a subject we don’t talk enough about. If we stay away from topics like these in church, where exactly will we deal with them? The fact is, we won’t.
And there are lots of other topics that need addressing, where people need to feel support, encouragement, empathy, and to know that they are not alone in their suffering. If you had a suicidal thought, or felt like a failure, where are you going to take that? To your boss? Your clients? Your students? Your young children? Where do we put the difficult things? The fact is, we don’t put them anywhere, which makes us feel inauthentic and fake and begins a vicious cycle with both our friends and with our Lord that lacks authenticity.
No one can force anyone to do anything, I know that. But I also know that “creating an environment” where it is okay to be authentic and vulnerable is something we can all take a part in cultivating, especially in our churches. Most of us who attend a church belong to a “small group”—not necessarily a Bible study or a ministry. Most of us have a small group of friends we sit with at coffee hour each Sunday. We eagerly catch up on the news of the week, we probably all exchange in our share of gossip. Does this “small group” of friends ever go to a vulnerable topic? Do members ever shed tears? Does anyone feel it is okay to be vulnerable in front of others? Are these small groups fostering authentic relationships, or just providing idle chit-chat?
There are lots of people who aren’t in a “small group” at church. They sit alone at coffee hour, or they leave church immediately because they have no one to sit with, because they’ve been part of the “worship circle” but haven’t been invited to the “fellowship table.” Do we make a conscious effort to invite them? Do we even notice? Do we think that is a responsibility we share as Christians and members of a church community?
These are some difficult questions. However, if we want our church to be what Christ intended for the church to be, we have to make authentic relationships an important priority in the life of the community. We have to create environments where it is safe to be vulnerable.
Saint Paul wrote his Epistles to the early churches, encouraging certain behaviors and gently correcting others. His writings are as applicable to today’s church of the twenty-first century as they were to the church of the first century. In I Corinthians 1:10, the verse for this reflection, he pleaded that “all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” In almost every service, we pray first for peace, then for the peace of God, then for peace in the whole world and the unity of all. We pray for the unity of the faith and communion of the Holy Spirit. In other words, we pray for authentic relationships between us and Christ and us and one another. And what is the upshot of authentic relationships in our church community? It is what we read in Acts 16:5, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and they increased in number daily.”
Lord, thank You for my church community. Remember all the people in my church community who are sick or struggling. Remember all those who don’t have anyone. Help me to do my part to make my church community a safe environment where it is okay to be vulnerable and authentic. Help those around me to foster authentic relationships with each other and with me. May I do the same for them. Amen.
Think seriously, how you can contribute to creating a safe environment in your church community where people can be vulnerable and grow to be authentic.
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. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website!
Fr. Stavros 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
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