As soon as your ministry position brings you in front of people – whether to speak, sing, or otherwise – you begin to develop a persona. That word can carry a negative connotation, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, it’s pretty natural and, at times, necessary.
If you are naturally introverted, you may have to tap into a more outgoing persona on Sunday mornings so you can be appropriately hospitable.
The more often you are in front of people, the more they will begin to form an understanding of who you are.
A lot of what they see and believe is probably true and accurate, but they are likely making many assumptions as well.
Again, I’d like to reiterate that this isn’t inherently bad. It’s necessary in a lot of ways, and it’s also impossible to avoid.
Even at a small church, it would be impossible to have intimate relationships with everyone there. The larger the church, the harder that becomes. While I believe strongly that church leaders need to be vulnerable, there also needs to be wisdom and discernment in how vulnerable and with whom.
There are things I’ll share in a group of 20 that I wouldn’t share in a group of 300.
So, how should we navigate the tension between Persona and Personal? It would be impossible to give universal rules on how to do this best, but I do have four principles that can help us walk this balance in ways that lead to health and flourishing for both the church leader and the congregant.
1. Give an Accurate Picture of Yourself
This one may be obvious. But there’s a temptation to embellish or even fabricate stories about yourself. You are preparing for a sermon and have a sound, biblical point to make but are struggling for an illustration until an idea or story suddenly comes to mind. It’s easier and smoother if you make it about you, right? Maybe. But easier and smoother aren’t the goals.
This can happen in less formal settings too. You’re in a conversation between services, and there’s an opportunity to take credit for something that isn’t yours to take credit for or to embellish a story that is yours to get a better response.
In isolation, most of the time, these are small instances that don’t make a huge difference. But with each embellishment or fabrication, we make it easier to do again, and we make it easier to live into our perceived persona rather than who we really are.
2. Avoid Making Yourself the Hero
Similarly, don’t make yourself the hero of your illustrations. The nature of your position in front of people will already have them looking up to you, do not take the bait by only sharing stories about yourself in which you are the hero. There may be a time and place when this is the best route, but it shouldn’t be your regular practice.
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3. Make Elbow Room for Others
I once heard someone in a leadership position say they look for opportunities to lead in vulnerability. They aim to go first when it comes to being honest about doubts, struggles, etc. They called it “making elbow room.”
When the person in charge, who is supposed to have it all together, can be honest about their flaws and shortcomings, it makes it easier for everyone else to shed their guilt and shame and instead lean into the healing that comes through confession and vulnerability.
4. Get Friends Who Don’t Need You to Lead
I’ve known so many pastors and church leaders whose life becomes their local church. There is obvious good in this. They care deeply about the lives and relationships that make up their local congregation. But when the large majority of your relationships are of people who view you as a spiritual leader, it makes it harder for you to just be you.
It gets harder and harder to distinguish between the times where you need to be “on” and when you can “just be yourself.”
I’ve made it a point to maintain deep friendships with people outside of my church and even outside of my faith tradition. They aren’t looking to me to lead or be on my “A-game.” There’s no built-up persona with them. And that’s healthy for me.
The more time we spend in front of people, the more people will assume to know us. It’s up to us not to let their own assumptions mislead them. It’s up to us to maintain integrity, and hopefully, the four principles above can serve you well.
Knowing the right approach from moment to moment will take wisdom and discernment. But when in doubt, take the L and move from persona to personal.