Vulnerability and Belonging

Group of people reaching in to stack their hands

By Christine Purcell

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness.”

― Dr. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

After the presidential election, I made a commitment to myself to develop several skills for my justice work, including crisis response (or emotional first aid). Last month, I took a few days off work to participate in crisis response training with the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation.

I almost regretted my decision to take this particular "training vacation" when I first saw that most of the participants were armed, male police officers. Initially, I wondered if identifying as a Unitarian Universalist during introductions and bringing our values into role play scenarios and team assessments/debriefings would cause me to be labeled a “snowflake,” but I resolved to belong at the training even if I didn't fit in. More on that later!

The training on assisting individuals and groups in crisis was valuable and challenging. Crisis response training teaches ways to foster natural resilience and facilitate the earliest steps toward recovery from traumatic stress. I hope I will never need to use much of what I learned in a congregational setting, though I am willing to do so, should the need arise.

I wanted to share one piece of information from the training to give hope to UU leaders who may see signs of trauma in their congregation. First, the bad news: as the current Republican administration takes root, our values—love, democracy, freedom, truth—are under siege. Violence against marginalized folks in our communities is on the rise. Our congregations face vandalism in response to our anti-oppression work. Leaders have to consider community backlash and law or customs enforcement interactions when planning justice work. So, yes, trauma may be present in our congregations. Here’s the good news: according to the psychological and sociological research upon which the Critical Incident Stress Management model is based, the best predictor of individual or group resilience is a support network in which vulnerability is the norm.

Living our values in the world is vulnerable work. Our closest relationships, including those within our congregations, require vulnerability, too. Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, defines vulnerability as "uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. With that definition in mind, let’s think about love. Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can’t ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow—that’s vulnerability.” Vulnerability is required for authenticity and courageous love, and it provides resistance to lasting harm.

How does your congregation nurture vulnerability? Can people in your congregation be real with one another? Bring their hearts to church? Hopes? Fears? Flaws? Do folks in your congregation fit in or BELONG? Dr. Brown asserts that "fitting in and belonging are not the same thing. In fact, fitting in is one of the greatest barriers to belonging. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

Unitarian Universalism, at its best, calls us to be who we are. We need not hide behind aspirational facades or false piety because our beliefs are not set in stone. When new realities present themselves, when deeper truth is revealed, we are the ones adjusting course, responding, becoming. The world is better, our congregations are better, WE are better when we can remain open, authentic, and vulnerable. Our hurting world needs the saving message and courageous love of our free faith.

Your Congregational Life staff is here to help your congregation nurture the vulnerability it will need to thrive, even while our values seem to be counter-cultural. Your minister or president may reach out to us any time we can help with covenant, small group ministry, navigating difference, effective welcome, or other elements of congregational life. We are here for and with you, working to increase health and resilience in our congregations.

About the Author

Christine Purcell

Christine Purcell serves as the Congregational Transitions Director on the Congregational Life field staff team. She works closely with regional staff, congregational boards of trustees and search teams to support ministerial search processes.

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