Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Embrace the Suck

Written by: on April 15, 2024

In the spirit of Bobby Duffy’s Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything, let me begin with a confession to all my doctoral peers* that I was wrong about something:  Brene Brown is amazing.

In a previous blog post I made an arguable statement: “I’m not a huge Brene’ Brown fan. Go ahead, crucify me. I know she is popular, brilliant, and contributes widely to society. I don’t hate her, OK. I just didn’t jump onto the Brene’ bandwagon like so many…”

Welp, I was wrong. Brené Brown is pretty legit. I will now return my borrowed copy of Dare to Lead, and from this point forward I will purchase my own copies [at full price], and add her splendid works to my burgeoning library.

The phrase that won me over is:  Embrace the Suck.**

For whatever reason I gingerly placed Brené Brown in the Oprah, Hobby Lobby, Venti Caramel Macchiato with Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Foam, “Hey, Gurl, Speak Your Truth” category. But, in reality, this writer is kind of bad ass. She doesn’t pull many, if any, punches. And I don’t say this (trust me) with some kind of “for a woman” disclaimer. Brown doesn’t pull many punches by ANY authors’ standards, female or male.

What tripped me up previously was a cursory knowledge of Brown’s primary subjects; empathy and vulnerability. I chocked these concepts up as fru fru, passive and overly emotive. But in reality, Brown contends that these subjects involve courage, bravery and the ability to “rumble.” She defines “rumble” as “a discussion, conversation, or meeting defined by a commitment to lean into vulnerability, to stay curious and generous, to stick with the messy middle of problem identification and solving, to take a break and circle break when necessary, to be fearless in owning our parts, and listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard” (Brown, 10). She goes on to contend that, “Our ability to be daring leaders will never be greater than our capacity for vulnerability” (Brown, 11).

There is nothing fru fru about that!

I now know this due to two reasons:

  1. Because I actually read something by Brené Brown, rather than forming an opinion of her as an author merely by hearsay, tweets, or memes.
  2. Because I am farther along with my NPO, and I now have qualifiable proof/data that empathy and vulnerability, as well as “Embracing the Suck,” are important aspects in pastoral resilience.

My NPO: Foursquare Lead Pastors are increasingly burning out, isolated, and/or leaving the ministry, and it may be due to a combination of waning self-care, diminishing joy and connection, and an under-developed theology of suffering.

Through my research, workshops, one-on-one interviews, and prototypes I have discovered that pastoral leaders long to be known, seen, heard, and loved. Also revealed is the importance of “a robust theology of suffering.” Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder in Rare Leadership would term this “suffering well.” They say, “We all suffer. We all endure hardship. What separates maturity from immaturity is the ability to suffer well.”[1]

Brené Brown simply calls this: “Embrace the Suck.”

And, in life and ministry, sometimes, suck it does (said in my best Yoda voice).

Warner and Wilder go onto make an important connection between suffering well and joy. “Joy makes it much easier to bounce back from the hard things that happen throughout the day…the human brain was designed for joy. It is a joy-seeking machine [that] seeks joy above every other human experience.”[2] This is why Warner and Wilder contend that “the key to enduring hardship is relational joy.”[3] Joy and suffering are connected throughout Scripture, and Warner and Wilder have found them to be confirmed by brain science research as well. Scripturally, Peter, in 1 Peter 1:6-9 wrote that it was possible to experience “inexpressible and glorious joy” in spite of enduring “grief in all kinds of trials. James 1:2 instructs us to “consider it all joy…whenever you face trials of many kinds.” Hebrews 12:2 invites us to run with perseverance, fixing our eyes on Jesus, who “for the joy set before him, endured the cross.”

In other words, Jesus embraced the suck and so should WE. Philippians 3:10 exhorts us this way: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” This scriptural and theological understanding is often overlooked or downplayed in modern Evangelical church leadership, replete with celebrity pastors, the prosperity-lite gospel and Instagram accounts such as @preachersnsneakers that seem to only showcase success and wealth. Lead Pastors are not immune to the lure, yet when struggles come, and tragedy strikes, disillusionment and depression are soon to follow, resulting in burnout, isolation, and/or resignation.

Perhaps suffering is a feature, not a bug.

Perhaps, Brené Brown is right in her invitation to Embrace the Suck.

Perhaps I was wrong about Brené Brown.

Perhaps, in the spirit of Bobby Duffy, I am wrong about nearly everything!

That there is me being vulnerable, yet, without shame.



I want to mention just how amazing I think my doctoral peers are. I am so blessed to be in this degree with you all. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Honestly, I’m actually quite emotional even typing these words. You have been a gift from God. 

** There is a 2021 book entitled “Embrace the Suck” by Brent Gleeson, of which I have not read, nor do I know if the term “Embrace the Suck” originated with Gleeson. I will let Brené Brown and the Navy Seals sort that out. My money is on Brené.



[1] Brene Brown, Dare to Lead (New York, NY: Random House, 2018), 10.

[1] Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder, Rare Leadership in the Workplace (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2021), 15.

[2] Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder, Rare Leadership (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2016), 51.

[3] Ibid. 188.




About the Author


John Fehlen

John Fehlen is currently the Lead Pastor of West Salem Foursquare Church. Prior to that he served at churches in Washington and California. A graduate of Life Pacific University in San Dimas, CA in Pastoral Ministry, and Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, CA with a Masters in Leadership and Spirituality. He and his wife Denise have four grown children and four grandchildren. John is the author of “Intentional Impressions," a book for fathers and their sons, "Don't Give Up: Encouragement for Weary Souls in Challenging Times," a book for pastoral leaders, and "The Way I See You," a children's book. You can connect with John on Instagram (@johnfehlen) as well as on his blog (johnfehlen.com).

14 responses to “Embrace the Suck”

  1. mm Russell Chun says:

    Hi John,
    You quoted, “Philippians 3:10 exhorts us this way: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”

    My men’s bible study is doing Philippians right now. The Air Force Col who covered this verse looked me in the eye and stated, “I think this calls us to be martyrs.”

    Hmmm…embrace the suck. As I watch missiles hitting Iraq I remember a fellow cohort member stating that she was a pacifist. (Like George Fox)

    In her current state she embraces the Philippian verse completely (and courageously). She mentioned in her blogpost that only .5% of the US population joins the military. That perhaps only a few are called to embrace the Just War theology.

    Sigh… I asked her if 99.5% are called to be martyrs.

    Embrace the suck….In a world poised on the brink of even MORE conflict, I wonder how embracing the suck will play out.

    No answers here…just random thoughts.


    • mm John Fehlen says:

      I can feel your musings and perhaps even pain in your reply (if I read it correctly).

      As we keep facing wars all around the world, I think it will take more martyrs to lay down in humility, AND more warriors to rise up also in humility. I think both can be done in humility.

  2. Travis Vaughn says:

    John, as I read your post and re-read your NPO, I was reminded that I am looking forward to how you treat the “under-developed theology of suffering” part of your NPO among that stakeholders you have in mind. There are some points of connection in our NPO’s, but that particular piece is something I had not included in my project.

    Brown is not an author who I’ve turned to in the past, but a few years ago a key person in my life recommended her book Braving the Wilderness. It’s a great complement to Dare to Lead. Something that stood out to me in Braving the Wilderness was something she said about an unhelpful defense mechanism she said she has (and I have) when anxiety creeps in due to relational conflict…

    “One of my worst defenses when I get anxious or fearful in conflict is to ‘put people on the stand.’ I break into vicious lawyer mode and depose people rather than listening. ‘Last week you said this. Now you’re saying this. Are you lying now or were you lying then?’ It’s terrible and always ends badly but it’s how I get to ‘being right.’ What’s the solution?” (Brown, Braving the Wilderness, Kindle version, 82 of 195). I won’t steal her thunder with her solution, but it does have to do with agreeing on a “shared future.” There is a relationship I am having to do that very thing with even as I right this. In this way, I’ve found Brown’s forthrightness to be quite helpful, and there were also certainly many takeaways I had from Dare to Lead.

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      I’ve been recommended “Braving the Wilderness” by a few of my other friends. Thanks for that recommendation Travis. I look forward to reading it and I look forward to comparing our NPO’s!

      Keep going brother. We’re starting to see light at the end of the tunnel!

  3. mm Kim Sanford says:

    Excellent post, as usual. Your thoughts take me back a couple of years when our church’s annual theme was “Joy in the Desert.” We pick a theme every year and spend the whole year exploring it in various ways. It was a paradigm-shifting year for me and for many of us, as we sort of corporately developed a theology of suffering. I guess we could have called it “Embrace the Suck” although I’m not sure that translates very well into French.

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      Joy in the Desert – that’s good.

      Growing up we were never allowed to say the word “suck” because of how close it is to, um, another word.


      Way to go Kim. We’re so close. Hang in there!

  4. Kally Elliott says:

    Embrace the suck because it will lead to joy! At least that is what I am finding in this program. It sucks to write blog posts week after week and it especially sucks to write a Syntopical essay at the end of the semester (something I am trying to begin today), and yet, each time I complete an assignment I find myself joyful – not just because it is done and checked off the to-do list but because I have learned something and I feel proud of my accomplishment.

    Anyway, all that to say, YES to you and Brown’s Embrace the Suck!

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      Embrace the suck because it leads to joy – yes and amen.

      I just moments ago turned in my NPO Research Report and I can tell you confidently that I feel JOY.

      Hang in there! You got this Kally!

  5. mm Tim Clark says:

    John, here we go again. When you read my post you’ll see we landed on the same topic, same conclusions and even quoted the same scriptures and both admitted we were Brene Brown haters until we actually READ her book.

    In my season of life that you are all too familiar with, I’m learning this lesson that I should have learned long ago. Embrace the suck. It’s part of the process that cultivates joy. In the middle of the suck you can’t see it, but maturity means you believe it, or ‘trust the process’ anyways.

    So deeply grateful for you. Our friendship is a gift from God. Glad we goaded one another to do this program. We are better for it.

    I’m telling everyone else “see you in DC” but we know better… I’ll see you… oh, yeah, next week!

  6. Jennifer Vernam says:

    Oh boy; Suffering as a feature, not a bug. You are so right in this, but it is not a message we comfortable Westerners like to hear. Leadership isn’t about the parades they will throw you.

    I have been walking with some leaders lately who continue to get smashed with wave after wave of wicked problems and unfair criticism. I guess it could mean they are doing something right. Thanks for the entertaining posts. I was with you on dismissing Brown out of hand, so I am glad we had this assignment.

    Have a great summer!

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      What a great line: Leadership isn’t about the parades they will throw you.

      Nice. When I quote that, and maybe even write a book about that line, I will be sure to footnote you (in really small, fine print at the very back of the book).


  7. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    Your comment on my blog made me read yours:). I’m glad you gave her a chance. I know it’s easy to write “popular” people off, but she is popular for all the right reasons. She does not hold back and I appreciate how you emphasized that in your blog.

    There is a class I’ll be helping teach this fall for nursing students at University of Portland called “Theological perspectives on suffering and death”. I wonder if this would be a good course for seminary students as well? Do we really have a solid theology around death as ministry folks? I feel like so much of the theology is built around the resurrection and new life that we tend to skip over the death. (except that one time of year in our Good Friday services). We also give the quiet grief of Saturday no voice. We all want that Easter Sunday so badly! I love what you are noticing! Once again, we seem to be on the same pages of different books!

  8. Kristy Newport says:

    Hi John,
    Ok, so, you can accuse me of blog snooping…I guess…but hey, Aren’t we all in the DLGP? I enjoyed reading your post and your cohort’s comments.

    I am looking forward to seeing Jordan and Lindsey on July 6 in Santa Barbara. They are coming to Lindseys cousin’s wedding (my daughter, Brianna) I am thrilled that we get to see them.
    I hear that you have a son who is getting married! Wow…what a season, having our kids get married.
    July wedding 🙂

    There are some incredibly sucky things going on in my life and I appreciate your blog. One thing I am hanging on to in this season is gratitude. I have been encouraging this in my counseling office as well. This is helping me in my suffering. My clients are liking this focus as well.

    May 2 I will graduate from George Fox
    One year from now- you will too! What a ride!
    I pray you have a successful final year. I will be curious how you choose to protype your work. I know you will do some amazing work.
    God bless!
    Kristy Newport

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