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“Submission” is Christianese for “chosen vulnerability”

Written by: on April 11, 2019

According to Brené Brown, researcher and author of Dare to Lead, courage and vulnerability are inextricably linked.[1]

I couldn’t agree more. Case in point: Jesus—the epitome of courage and vulnerability.

So why does it seem like mission organizations struggle to learn from leaders like Brené Brown? She’s saying many of the same things that Christ said, and in a way that we can so easily apply to our lives and circumstances. And yet, the resistance to vulnerability in the world of missions is strong.

In Christianese, we might use the word “submission” when talking about a chosen vulnerability. Without submission there is no courage. Given our recent reading, we are all quick to think about the word submission as it pertains to wives and husbands; however, the call to all believers is a call to mutual submission.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Ephesians 5:21

But there are many other calls to submission, each one an act of courage.

We are called to submit to submit to our church leaders:

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. Hebrews 13:17

We are to submit to more mature believers:

You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the Lord’s people. I urge you, brothers and sisters, to submit to such people and to everyone who joins in the work and labors at it. I Corinthians 16:15-17

We are called to submit to our earthy leaders:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority I Peter 2:13

And just like vulnerability, submission is not something that can be imposed on one person by another, it is only something that be offered up, unforced, as a gift.

Before I got married, back when I was a complementarian, I was talking to my mom about what it was like to be submissive to one’s husband. She said something I have never forgotten: “It’s easy when you know he’s right.” The unspoken words hit me between the eyes. I realized that there would be times when I knew my husband was making a poor decision, and I would need to submit. Times when I would know he’ wrong. It doesn’t get more vulnerable than that![2]

None of us struggle to submit when we are in total agreement about the direction that leadership is taking us. It’s a totally different story when we disagree. Take the current political climate in the United States. I can’t tell you how many Christians I know refused to submit to President Obama’s health care plan. I can’t tell you how many Christians I know refused to recognize President Trump as their president. They refused because they felt vulnerable. In fact, it seems to me like most of the US Press corps preys on people’s fears of being vulnerable. People think they are being brave by “standing up to power,” but I’m not sure we should consider a stinging post on Facebook “standing up to power.” I think we can do better.

What if all those who are prolife reached out to pregnant teens or took in a single mother? That would be vulnerable/courageous.

What if all those who are against the building of a wall invited a refugee family for dinner? That would be vulnerable/courageous.

What if Christians started trying to figure out how to make sure every sick person get the care he or she needed, rather than focused on changing the laws? That would be vulnerable/courageous.

What if we all reached out to those who vote differently that we do and tried to find common ground and build genuine friendships? That would be vulnerable courageous.

And every one of those things is an act of radical submission. Submission to the Word of God, which actually, literally, calls us to do all of things.

My research is on missions in the 21st century, and I believe that we are called to stop doing missions TO or missions FOR the other, but missions WITH. Missions with is completely dependent on mutual respect and submission, and will only work if people are willing to lay down authority, and trade it for vulnerability and courage. There are peoples and cultures that are much better at this than North Americans. Will we step aside and let them lead so that we can learn from them?

In order for us to do missions with, the missionary must submitting to the national partner by coming to serve and by being teachable; the national partner must recognize the gifts that missionary brings and invite the missionary to put those gifts to use. There is a mutual yielding, an attitude of mutual respect and deference. This is the body of Christ.

But there is a lot of push-back from North American sending agencies, many of whom are not ready to relinquish their power. They resist becoming vulnerable, and of they refuse to change, they will miss out on being brave.

[1] Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts (New York: Random House, 2018).

[2] By the by, as a complementarian, I was called to submit. As an egalitarian I am still called to submit. But now I am also called to lead, if and when my husband should choose to submit to me.

About the Author

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Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

12 responses to ““Submission” is Christianese for “chosen vulnerability””

  1. Jay says:

    Hi Jenn!

    Great title! Got me thinking instantly…

    And thank you for your bravery. When I read your Blog I also thought about our prior book, FAILURE OF NERVE.

    You are bold, strong, and right on, “Missions with is completely dependent on mutual respect and submission, and will only work if people are willing to lay down authority, and trade it for vulnerability and courage.

    No failure of nerve on your part! Thank you.

  2. Great post, Jenn!

    I have to admit. I never heard of Brené Brown until this week. I was amazed by her applicable points, her transparent writing, and her approach to vulnerability.

    You pose the question, “Jesus—the epitome of courage and vulnerability. So why does it seem like mission organizations struggle to learn from leaders like Brené Brown?” Perhaps, it’s because Christians have been challenged to be the antidote, instead of Christ. This places all the pressure on ministers and sets them up to fail.

    I’m currently reading a book on fundraising for LOUD and every single chapter is littered with practical tidbits and templates, but it’s devoid of the author’s vulnerability. The text is topnotch, but the lack of transparency from the author forces missionaries to perform and progress, instead of understanding how their weaknesses highlight God’s strength.

    Do you think that this lack of vulnerability causes missionaries to feel alone on the field? What specifically needs to change in order to create spaces of vulnerability for missionaries?

    • Such good questions, Colleen.

      First, I’m inspired by your commitment to LOUD and how you are so intentional with everything that you do.

      Second, I think lack of vulnerability isolates us all, but yes, that is certainly pronounced on the mission field. Missionaries who are unwilling to consider the possibility that they might have something to learn or need the help of another person will also shoot themself in the foot in terms of effectiveness.

      One of the quotes I’m using in my dissertation is about a seasoned missionary who says there are two kinds of missionaries: those with 30 years of expereince, and those with one year of experience repeated 30 times. Without vulnerability, we lose the ability go grow and evolve and adapt.

  3. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Jennifer,

    This is a powerful post. There are so many aspects that speak strongly to leadership. You tied in last week’s discussion and called out the discrepancy many U.S. Evangelicals hold that submission only relates to married couples. Your list of tangible actions of vulnerability reminds us that genuine vulnerability requires commitment and ‘skin in the game’. Finally, your desire to transform mission agencies to be more egalitarian rather than complementarian once again demonstrates that the real issue is about power and control. Yet, I am convinced that in all of these cases Brown’s text offers a new and more relevant way to practice leadership but I, like you, can’t comprehend why there continues to be so much resistance to change when it seems that vulnerability is a more genuine reflection of the life to which Jesus calls us.

    • I think many Christian leaders recreate Christ in their own image, to make Hims fit into their preferred leadership model. I once shared about how our organizations follows a shepherd leadership model claiming this is the kind of leader Jesus was. I see Jesus as a servant leader. Which of us is correct? We can both make “biblical” cases for our position. This is why I TOTALLY agree with you that the issue comes down to power and control. Those who want to share power are considered “weak” leaders, even if they produce more fruit! Whereas Christians all over the world flock after powerful leaders, even if there is no fruit in their lives. Lord, have mercy on us all!

  4. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Jennifer,
    I like the idea of missions with, I think that is a great thing. I also love your writing on submission. Yes those are all great ideas born out of a love for God and others. Thanks so much for your heart.

    Jason

  5. Greg says:

    Jenn. Great walk through the call to submission. We all have struggles with this idea of submission. I appreciated the comparison with vulnerability and the real examples of where we submit and where we fight.
    I had a conversation this week with someone from IMB. (SB group) They were talking about how long that group has been in the country I live in and why there weren’t more local leaders at involved at administrative levels. I am not throwing them under the bus as much as it made me look at what my org does and how we are moving forward. The transfer of power is a true from of submission and vulnerability. Scary but necessary.

    • Yep, with my idea of Missions WITH, there would not need to be a “transfer of power” because no one would claim power in the first place. Churches would be planted WITH, a foreigner walking alongside a local from the beginning, as they mutually mentor one another and submit to one another. Everything gets built together. and so then if and when the foreigner leaves, the local structures are stable and functioning. People are less concerned about “the transfer of power” and more concerned about grieving the loss of a dear and cherished friend who is moving away.

  6. Shawn Hart says:

    Jenn…fantastic post!! Just to share; my daughter and her husband have been working for over a year to raise funds to work as missionaries in Germany. No, not a short mission trip, but rather two years (at least) serving under a local minister and church to learn how to become integrated in the community, rather than just look like a couple from the states who are there to shove Christianity at them. They have take language classes, culture classes, and have been in constant communication with the church as a means of preparing them for their integration into the family. The bonds have been growing so much over this time, that when they were short with some of their support, their own church members have been raising money for them to get them there quicker. I believe they are going to be changed in a way that neither of them can ever imagine.

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