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“Do you ever feel like a ‘monster’ in our world, like the one in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?”, the teacher asked. My hand rocketed up to answer the question, as it frequently did. 

While the other students in my high school English class ducked down behind their Trapper Keepers, avoiding eye contact with Ms. Cormack, I relished the opportunity to make a connection.  A connection with the book, yes, but especially one with my classmates and the teacher. 

When I was called on to answer, I lamented about all the moving around I did as a kid and how I often felt like a weirdo, like the monster. I was always having to relearn the rules of social situations. Just when I figured out how to fit in in one place, my family would relocate again.

I shared that moving to a small mostly Dutch town in Michigan prompted teasing about my dark curly hair or the fact that my family didn’t go to the right church. Then when we moved to Philadelphia, I was the monster again, this time because I had a strange way of speaking, saying words like “melk” instead of “milk”, ordering “pop” instead of “soda”, and calling a group of people “you guys”, even when the group included girls. I went into way more detail than Ms. Cormack needed, but the sharing helped me feel less alone.

As I grew up, I learned that my vulnerability was a relationship magnet. Being hyper-honest about my past and experiences repelled some, but attracted others, others who also desired vulnerable connection.

After moving to yet another small Dutch Michigan town in my 20s, where everyone but me seemed to have their friend groups, I eventually found community. It took quite a bit of time, but I was blessed to form some really deep and lovely friendships, where our stories of pain and healing rooted our closeness. 

Entering seminary in my late 30s was a master class on vulnerability. There, I started examining my motives for my vulnerability, the quality I always presumed was a strength. I discovered it’s a fine line between being vulnerable and over-sharing.

Pastors are charged with nurturing a community, a community that is much larger than you as an individual. This means that the pastor’s vulnerability, while important, is a tool to benefit the community, not herself. A good pastor needs a certain level of self-awareness that her words have power. In proper doses, a pastor’s vulnerability invites sharing, plants community, and bears the fruit of community members saying “me too.” But if a pastor over-shares, she can shut down the vulnerability of others, making it about her instead of the group. 

Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber has a great phrase she says of preaching. “Preach from your scars, not your wounds.” That is, talk about that which is personal, but not that which is overly tender and broken in the moment. 

To preach from your scars is invitational, preaching from your wounds risks appearing overly emotional or prioritizing your own needs. That idea greatly helped me check myself before sharing. If I share that my mother is seriously ill and I am having a terrible day in the Bible Study I am leading, others might just listen to me, and be silent about their own pains. The Bible study isn’t about me, it’s about them. Keep your trap shut, Beth. Save it for your therapist. This is what a good pastor does.

Or is it?

What I thought I knew about vulnerability has been upended in yet another move, this time to California. What happens when you go from having a well-tended community, one largely outside your church because of professional boundaries, to a place where you know no one? 

What do you do when you are the person who teaches that people should look to the church for community, yet that very “preach from your scars and not your wounds” teaching keeps you at arm’s length from everyone? 

What do you do when you have honest to goodness wounds and you too want to be held by your church? How do you be a person who values authenticity, yet day in and day out you commodify that “authenticity” as a tool to help others even at the constant expense of your soul? 

Is it possible to be a good pastor and a person that needs relationship?

I recently began a series of classes on community building, focused on the work of community expert Charles Vogl, who also happens to be a congregant at my church. Charles teaches “leaders the wisdom and principles to build deep community that leads to greater resilience, innovation, and connectedness among the people we care about and are critical for success.” His work began from his own years of loneliness when he wondered if he would ever develop friendships or places of belonging. 

In my session this past week, I found myself in a small breakout group with one of the leaders, Julia. Julia, among her other executive coaching accomplishments, is adept at building social communities wherever she lives. After she shared about how she had built this beautiful, connected, intimate group of friendships in her own neighborhood, through dinners at her home each Sunday night, she asked me about my community.

My vulnerability dam broke. I told Julia and the group how I felt aimless. How I felt I had no one here and didn’t know how to build something for myself and be a good pastor. I shared how I was a master at building community and connections back in Michigan for other people, but I didn’t have a clue as to how to build community for myself at my own church.

When I told Julia about “preaching from my wounds and not my scars,” she was floored. “What do you mean you don’t get to have your needs met in church? Why can’t you participate in the same ways as others at church? Why not?”

“Boundaries,” I stuttered. It’s bad boundaries to let yourself be a part of the community in the same way. Julia kind of cocked her head to the side and went silent. She didn’t know how to respond to that. Neither did I. 

Something is brewing in me that I don’t have answers for yet. 

I never questioned the seminary lessons that sharing for the sake of my own needs might be “too much.” That my vulnerability for the sake of being seen or understood made my personhood “too much.” That the dulling of my voice and feelings might just be another way of making me, a woman, take up less space. That the cost of my being a good pastor might mean that I would become a curated image instead of a fully embodied person who needs connection and care like anyone else. That perhaps I had devolved into a kind of emotional Frankenstein. I mean, even Jesus needed community who would pray with him when he was facing his own death. Do I think I am better than Jesus?

I wish I could say that I have this all figured out, but I don’t. I trust that God has me on a new path, a fuller more embodied path, where I will learn how to be a good pastor AND a good community member. A path where I have a role as a pastor in the community, yes, but where I get my needs met too. 

So I start with being honest here. I am Beth, a woman with dark curly hair, who prefers soda to pop, and is a good pastor who needs people, needs community, and very much needs to be honest about her wounds. I hope you will put your Trapper Keeper down and join me with your “me too”.

Beth Carroll

Rev. Beth Carroll is the Senior Pastor of Oakland City Church in Oakland, California. She is a graduate of Western Theological Seminary and Hope College, both in Holland, Michigan.  She is married to Richard Perez, who is a theatre artist, and she has three kids - Josiah, Natalie, and a cat named Kate Spade.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Oh, spot on. How I lived this four times, and messed it up a couple times. Eventually I had to develop my community among other pastors, all Canadians outside the RCA. But my earlier dream of “community” in the congregation I found very hard to manage, or negotiate, or whatever. And yet my last charge, in Brooklyn, ended up being a community that was very positively powerful. I can’t figure it out. Maybe because it was built around the eucharist? I’d like to think that, but I’m not sure. I do know that having a very spiritual Board of Elders, as a small community at the center, ended up being a key. Plus always a VP with whom I could be vulnerable. And always one or two individuals who held me precious and were absolutely trustworthy. But it’s not that I directed it, it’s most that it just happened, and I welcomed it.

    • Beth Carroll says:

      This is lovely, Daniel. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Kathy Davelaar VanRees says:

      You get it, Daniel. It sometimes “just happens” within our congregations, but not usually and it cannot be orchestrated. Which is not to say that there are no good relationships when that community doesn’t happen. It’s just different. I think of you and Mel often.

  • Marla Rotman says:

    You slay me wide open. I am in love with you. How’s that for over-sharing vulnerability?

  • Lydia Frens says:

    Beth, my pastor dad and my mom didn’t think they should enjoy personal friendships with members of the churches they served. It was lonely, especially for my mom who struggled with untreated mental illness. Your reflections prompted me to think about how it could have been different for them and, consequently for our family, in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and how we can ensure authentic community for ALL in our churches, including for pastors and their families. Perhaps changing our subconscious views of pastors as people with a hotline to heaven is a good place to start – to see pastors as fellow travellers rather than tour guides on the journey of faith. Thank you for this reminder!

  • Nate DeWard says:

    Good words. Thank you, Beth.

  • Arika VanDam says:

    This is so good, Beth. I especially love that you shared something that is still very much in-process for you, not something you’ve figured out and tied up with a cute little bow. I know this isn’t exactly what you’re getting at, but I’ve been stewing about how the professionalization of ministry—when ministry becomes a job—has a kind of shadow side that I don’t often hear discussed (and I’m not a pastor myself, so maybe it’s being discussed in circles that I’m not part of). It just seems like there is the potential for SO MANY things to become distorted and misshapen by the fact that one’s livelihood depends almost entirely on this institutional structure that is embodied in a local body, made up of people, yes, but people who have certain needs and expectations and even demands that have implications for your life. I guess maybe it boils down to a question about how the “business” of pastoring fundamentally shapes the way it is practiced, and in turn, the people who are practicing it. Maybe this connects, somewhat, to your thoughts about pastors finding community? (Or maybe my brain is just going where it wants to go! But I thank you for giving me a springboard from which to take this little mental leap this morning.) I pray that you will find your people and know that you are loved deeply.

  • Greg Warsen says:

    I appreciate this article on many levels. In my work with school and district leaders, I often remind them to make sure they have a set of confidantes, defined by Ron Heifetz (out of Harvard) as someone who cares more about you than about the organization you’re serving and leading. I can only imagine how difficult this might be to locate for a pastor of a church, but your honesty in this article is a solid step in that direction, far from oversharing. It is also a necessary call for all of us to accept pastors who work for a church as humans and to accept our role as pastors to each other whether the title is on our resume or not. Thanks again for your thoughtful words.

  • Ann Conklin says:

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Beth. I too am a Michigan native and WTS grad serving in California. Maybe we can connect sometime! During my years in ministry (a second career for me), I’ve found support and community in my fellow clergy. It’s difficult and a patient process when moving to a new region, and it’s just beginning for me in CA. As I remember, it took about a year in AZ too. I’ve also learned to appreciate the unique religious landscape of West Michigan! Adjusting to the culture – and then also the religious culture – of a new region has been part of the ministry of pastoring for me, and something I didn’t anticipate would require so much of me. Awareness was the first step in this process which often felt lonely. One resource I discovered in N Cali is Companions on the Inner Way. This group puts on two retreats a year. Last summer I met several clergy from SF at a retreat in Lake Tahoe. You might find community within this group.
    Your words resonated with me this morning.
    Many blessings to you and upon your ministry!

  • Hope says:

    You touch on things we don’t ften think about our Pastor. I know you will find the answer.

  • Stacey says:

    Oh Bethy! Beautiful writing. Wish I could give you a big hug. ❤️

  • Jack Ridl says:

    How I wish I had been at Hope when you two were around. Poetry requires the courage that’s at the center of vulnerability. We could have had supportive conversations, especially about the paradox that the poem and homily of sorrow and personal hurt elicits the best from the reader: empathy, and enables others to feel less alone. And if not, they need . . .
    In common,

  • Kathy Davelaar VanRees says:

    You nail it so often, Beth! This is such a lovely piece and I feel honored to be able to call you a friend. Refreshing indeed to read someone’s words and ideas while still figuring it out. Love to you.

  • Nick Miles says:

    Having served one congregation for 39 years, I thought I had established some really close friendships.
    So, we retired in a nearby community, but the friendships have not been as deep as I thought they
    were or would be. I have been retired for 10 years now and tried on occasions unsuccessfully to renew
    some of those friendships. Thanks for sharing, Beth.
    Fortunately I have established friendships within the Native Community that I have been a leader of
    spiritually and socially, although sometimes it is hard because of my shyness.

  • Nick Baas says:

    Thank you for this Beth. I have recently left my first pastorate and I dealt with some of these issues there. I find it extremely odd to build community when you don’t have community yourself. In my case it led to burnout: to much pouring out, not enough pouring in.

    Obviously, mentors, fellow ministers, local non-church friends, are pivotal. The church has to value the pastor’s belonging. But the job itself has some structural problems. The moving from place to place constantly breaks down community. The professionalization and “boundaries” create distance (false distance, often: A placing of the pastor on a pedestal, a sense of the pastors communion with God being enough, an assumption that the minister is always coming from a place of strength – how does one properly teach the foundational truth of strength in weakness then?).

    In addition, the famed Boltz-Weber quote smacks of paternalism to me now. What of the powerful leadership of Black ministers in the face of the constantly open, gaping, wound of racism? They are in it, so are their people. And is that not true of all wounds? The pastor is in the wound of loneliness; you better believe many in the congregation are. The pastor is in the wound of…you name it.
    I have often wondered why church doesn’t look more like AA. We are ALL wounded after all, ALL sinful too. How does that preclude healthy leadership and community? It certainly doesn’t in AA, quite the contrary.

  • Dirk Jan Kramer says:

    Not to minimize the disappointment of others, but pastoral ministry, in my experience, involves a certain degree of aloneness that one must accept. Perhaps that’s why introverts in particular are drawn to this kind of life. How thankful I am, though, that in marriage and in family life my needs for friendship and companionship have been and still are being met. My spouse? Being a natural extrovert, she may not entirely agree.

  • Liz Estes says:

    Me, too.

  • Marlin Vis says:

    I served two RCA congregations in SW MI. I was always able to have significant friendships within these congregations. Perhaps it was because I was, or at least tried to be, transparent in my work, especially in preaching. People would often comment that they found the preacher Marlin to be the same Marlin when off the pulpit. Meaning I think that I was authentic, or at least seemed so for my congregants. I think being vulnerable is key, but also tricky. As I went back through my sermons of 40 years I found that many of them were too much about me, so there’s a tension there. Not sure what I’m saying exactly but want you to know that I appreciated your writing here and it has me thinking. That’s good. By the way, I threw 90% of those manuscripts away.

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Thank you for this gift, Beth.

  • Alicia Mannes says:

    I could totally relate personally to what you wrote being married to a pastor.

  • Beth,
    I just found out about this blog from my Hope College friend from the 60’s. I appreciate you sharing your vulnerabilities and from the responses I see, you will find community with whom to share.
    Thanks so much!
    I miss you,
    Patty Brink

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