It’s time to be tender

Friendly Reminder: A weekly reflection from the Quaker Leadership Center

A Friend recently shared a passage from Quaker Margery Post Abbot. In her book To Be Broken and Tender, she writes about the kinds of mentors and meetings she seeks:

“These days when I want to describe someone I would like as a mentor, or a healthy, vibrant Quaker Meeting, I tend to use the words ‘broken and tender.’ A broken, tender community contains many individuals who have found that place in themselves where they can be still: a place where love has broken apart the bounds of the ego. Such people are transparent: compassion is visible in their movements and intent. They are formed by the Meeting even as they shape it. With even a few such people present, community is more tender in its care for one another and more passionate in its concern for the well-being of the world.

A broken, tender person or Meeting is far from flawless. People still bump up against each other roughly and do foolish things. People still hurt each other even when the intention is not there. But there is space for seeing to the heart of the matter and coming to know what was meant. There is space for mending what was broken and coming to forgiveness.”

After reading this quote, I found myself both moved and unsure. It’s a beautiful sentiment, but I have to admit that I’ve seen the language of “brokenness” used in unhelpful ways. Some have used the language of being broken to dismiss and marginalize others–“they’re just broken people.”

I’ve also seen leaders share their brokenness in unhealthy ways. They refuse to deal with their own baggage, so they are constantly (though often unconsciously) asking others to heal them or meet their needs. Or, a leader may use their brokenness to manipulate others–“you have to forgive me, I’m a broken man” and so on.

Finally, I’ve seen “broken” language used in ways that spiritually and theologically harmful. Preaching about the need to let God break us can approximate spiritual violence, especially when used to silence critics or keep folks from marginalized populations from standing up for themselves.

And yet, neglecting our inner wounds can easily be just as damaging. It keeps us from seeking professional help. It keeps us unaware of unhealthy patterns in our life and leadership. And it keeps others at a distance, when they feel like they can’t relate to someone so “perfect.”

So how should leaders relate to their own wounds and tenderness? I think Abbot is right, we need let our egos be broken so our true selves can emerge. And I think Henri Nouwen is right when he said leaders can make their wounds available to God and others (like Jesus did) and thus become “wounded healers.”

We don’t need to dump our baggage on our communities and use our ministry conversations as therapy. But neither do we need to use our energy for image-management and pretend we have it all together. Sometimes sharing our struggles, vocalizing our questions and naming our hurts can open up a free space for others to share their own struggles, questions and hurts. Maybe Friends need leaders with surrendered egos, honest answers and a tender touch.

Maybe it’s time to be tender.

Yellow flower in the hands of a person looking from above.