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

The Leader as Midwife

Written by: on April 11, 2019

It’s been almost 9 years since I first clicked on a link that introduced me to Brené Brown, a qualitative researcher who began in the field of social work who also happens to be Episcopalian[1] . In her first viral Ted Talk, she explores shame and resilience. She defines shame as the feeling that “I’m not good enough.”[2] Since this was a suspicion that had haunted me, she had my attention. As sure as I was that I was called into pastoral leadership, I had come out of a long season that had left my confidence rattled. Every book I read with 7-12 practices or habits that would make me a good leader felt like ill fitting armour. Brené gave me the permission I needed to begin healing as she confirmed that healthy leaders “were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they (are).”[3] Not only did I set out on a journey to learn to lead out of the unique person God made me to be, I also committed to learn how to cultivate space for the people around me to have freedom to be their authentic selves.

In Brown’s most recent book, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts, she “ define(s) a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.”[4] This sounds both like the type of person I would like to follow, but also the type of leader I strive to be. In fact, it sounds a lot like how I understand Jesus to have led. He collected the most unlikely, diverse group of men and raised them up to be the founders of the church. He developed every bit of kingdom building potential He saw in them by creating a safe place for them to try, fail and still belong and be loved. One of my earliest leadership lessons was the people are more important than the program. Jesus built up His followers because building people IS building the kingdom. The work of the Kingdom is to build up, and develop the unique potential of the people we meet. Programs are useful only in so far as they are facilitating the building up of people.

When we invest in people, we are able to build an adaptable team that functions beyond merely executing a leader’s vision. In a changing context, listening to the emotions and impact of a situation on the people you are leading will “open() you to new data, allowing you to see new patterns”[5] and respond quickly. The more empowered team members are to speak, the more fully a situation can be understood. The ripple effect is that teams who have experienced being listened to well, are more likely to also listen well to the people around them, deepening further the understanding of a situation. This also requires creating space for a team to voice their discontent. Brown’s practice of inviting her team to “rumble” with her provides such an opportunity.

A rumble is 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 back when necessary, to be fearless in owning our parts, and, as psychologist Harriet Lerner teaches, to listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard. More than anything else, when someone says, “Let’s rumble,” it cues me to show up with an open heart and mind so we can serve the work and each other, not our egos.
Such soft heartedness requires that a leader be more committed to being a good leader and may sacrifice the appearance of being a good leader. It is a wholehearted move.[6]

Finally, an increase in empowered voices is more likely to produce better strategies. Linus Pauling contended that “(t)he best way to get a good idea is to have lots of ideas.”[7] It is reasonable then to assume the more people invited to generate ideas the better the best idea will be. However, it requires vulnerability to offer an idea to a team. If you want to nurture creativity as a leader, you must first create a safe place for vulnerability. Leaders must do this intentionally as offering your own ideas is not necessarily a vulnerable move. In fact, once the leader has offered an idea, it is particularly difficult to get the team to contribute more ideas out of a reluctance to compete with the leader or out of a belief that the process is futile given the leader will likely run with their own idea. Being intentional about location, methodologies and culture can nurture the desired freedom for creativity. Demonstrating that you are happy to run with team members ideas will increase the effectiveness of the process in the future.

Brown returned to church after a break down. While she imagined it would bring her comfort, instead she describes “(c)hurch for me was like a midwife saying ‘push’. It’s supposed to hurt a little bit.”[8] The process of rumbling with our own vulnerability that we might lead wholeheartedly will hurt a little bit, but will also be productive. If as leaders in the church we model this well, we gain credibility to encourage others to ‘push’ until they too contribute out of the wholehearted, God beloved, parts of themselves.

1. “Brené Brown on Why She Left Her Church (and Why She Went Back) | Belief | OWN,” YouTube, October 02, 2015, , accessed April 10, 2019, https://youtu.be/SMH8wpjFbqo.
2. Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability,” TED, June 2010, , accessed April 11, 2019, https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en.
3. Ibid.
4. Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts (London: Vermilion, 2018), Kindle, 4.
5. Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston, Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. (Stanford, California: Stanford Business Books, 2015), 75.
6. Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts (London: Vermilion, 2018), Kindle, 10.
7. Linus Pauling as quoted by Fredrik Härén, The Idea Book, trans. Fiona Miller (Stockholm: www.interesting.org, 2004) 105.
8. “Brené Brown: Jesus Wept,” Vimeo, April 10, 2019, , accessed April 10, 2019, https://vimeo.com/164049575.

About the Author

Jenn Burnett

Jenn is lead pastor at The Well church in Kelowna. She longs to see the body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit and contending for unity across difference. She also loves rugby, the outdoors, the colour orange and the chaos that goes with raising 4 kids.

5 responses to “The Leader as Midwife”

  1. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Jenn – this is excellent. I am grateful for your vulnerability and want to say I am glad you are in the arena. The years of letting the ‘I’m not good enough’ suspicion have too much sway in my life were painful. It did not serve me well, those closest to me or the world. You are wise in pointing to Jesus’ example of who He spent most of his public ministry life with – how encouraging for us.

  2. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    I like the analogy of the leader as a midwife. How do you see that working in your own local church? How does Brene Brown’s work help you be the leader you were meant to be? So thankful for your thoughts and insights!

  3. Tammy Dunahoo says:


    I appreciate your commitment to lead true to who a God made you to be. That’s how we All need to show up. I also share your connection to Brown’s definition of leadership. For years leading was about casting a compelling vision in a way people would follow you. Today I think that vision is of the people themselves and that makes all the difference.

  4. Mary Mims says:

    Jenn, you said a lot with the comparison to pushing out a baby and the church. I do not think we think that church is supposed to hurt a bit. I say this on the heels of a deacon meeting this weekend where some of the things hurt and I confessed to the leaders that I wanted to leave. I am going to suggest this book for our leaders and hope we can rumble ourselves to a better church. Blessings!

    • Jenn Burnett says:

      I’m so sorry that you’ve just come through a hard meeting Mary. And I will certainly hold you in prayer as you work through whether you stay or go . I apologize if I left this a little ambiguous. Let me be more clear, I don’t think the church should inflict hurt on people. And we must continue to repent for the abuses of the past and strive to do better. And I don’t think that’s what Brown was getting at in her interview. But I think the reshaping that God does in our lives is uncomfortable at times—in my life I would certainly describe it as painful—and the role of the church in that is to cheer us on, offer comfort and companionship and proclaim the truth that something precious and valuable is emerging. I like her birth metaphor because it isn’t a wounded pain, it is a productive, creative pain that brings forth life. I pray your leaders will be willing to read this book and be soft to your invitation to do better.

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