One of the themes in The Crown, Netflix’s lavish retelling of the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reignis the unique responsibility of royal leadership in the modern world.

  • Shortly before her death, Elizabeth’s grandmother, the Queen Mary, tells her that the monarchy is God’s gift intended to dignify the world, and therefore, the crown answers only to him, not to the people.
  • Winston Churchill regularly warns of members of the royal family asserting their “individuality” or showing too much personality, because giving the public too large a window into the life of the royals might “break the spell.”
  • Even the decision to televise Elizabeth’s coronation, hailed by her husband, Prince Philip, as a way of inviting the country into the ceremony, comes with a caveat: the most sacred moment must happen without the cameras present. Behold, a moment too holy to be captured on film!
  • When Elizabeth and Philip have a falling out that results in raised voices, they are horrified to find that reporters have caught the altercation on camera. A humbled Elizabeth (humble, yet still the queen) politely suggests that their spat is all-too-common in ordinary marriages, and despite the extraordinary circumstances of this argument within this marriage, she expects them not to release the tawdry details. The reporter hands her the film canister.

The Crown gives voice to this tension inherent in all leadership positions:

  • How much individuality should one show?
  • How does one hold authority as a sacred trust?
  • What is the right balance in a leader showing his or her vulnerability?
  • When should a leader take steps toward meaningful action, and when should a leader remain silent?

The Crown and The Pulpit

Pastors wrestle with these questions regularly. A generation ago, many pastors saw their vocation along the lines of Queen Mary’s comment above: the pastorate is a sacred trust, designed primarily to set an example for the congregation, which implied that personal struggles and human frailties must remain hidden in order for the example to be without tarnish.

This philosophy extended even to a pastor’s wardrobe. Many senior citizens today cannot imagine seeing their childhood pastor in anything other than a suit and tie, even at a church picnic under a tent in the stifling heat of July. Some liturgical traditions maintain the use of the clerical collar, which, in ways similar to the crown, reminds people of the special, set apart-ness of this individual for this vocation.

In its worst forms, the “don’t break the spell” mentality led to seeing the pastor as “super-Christian,” which often concealed the reality of miserable families grown accustomed to hypocritical smiles, or the darkness of persistent sexual sin, or loneliness and depression due to a pastor’s inability to ask for help or seek out counseling. The impenetrable walls around a pastor’s “persona” became like the walls of Buckingham Palace, where the frailty and sinfulness common to all humanity was kept away from the public eye, so as not to spoil the carefully crafted image of dignified spiritual leadership.

Vulnerability on Display

In response to the excesses of masking our vulnerability, many church leaders have undertaken a new experiment altogether, in which the honorable way forward is to demonstrate how “authentic” and “real” the leader can be. Pastors may feel the need to trumpet their vulnerabilities and do whatever possible to show that they are just common people, no different from anyone else in the church. The title is just a title. The role is just a role. Honesty demands one be “transparent.”

This trend has several healthy elements. It dismisses certain aspects of the “clergy vs. laity” divide, which are more cultural than biblical. It provides a hopeful pathway for a pastor who, in a previous generation, may have felt like the only way forward was into the dark depths of secrecy. Showing an appropriate level of personal vulnerability, or being open about some of the challenges the church is facing, can serve the congregation well by giving a more accurate picture of reality.

Importance of Hidden Vulnerability

But what if, in some cases, we have overcorrected? Should we always see the public airing of personal struggle as “honorable”?

We are well aware of the unhealthy patterns that result from the old way of thinking. What about the unforeseen results of the new way? What wisdom might we glean from the past?

In Strong and Weak (my #1 pick for Favorite Reads this year), Andy Crouch writes of “hidden vulnerability,” which he describes this way:

Almost by definition, leaders have evident authority—but almost by definition, they also bear vulnerability that no one else can see. . . . This is what it is to be a leader: to bear the risks that only you can see, while continuing to exercise authority that everyone can see.

Andy asks us to consider the intelligence briefings the president receives every morning. The president is deeply aware of the vulnerabilities of our nation, the places of insecurity, and the threats against our people. Were he to publicly speak of all of these vulnerabilities, he would paralyze the nation with fear. Were he to constantly speak of his own personal struggle to deal with the stress of bearing this burden, he would undermine his own ability to move forward with meaningful action.

Pastors must ask similar questions. What is the point of a pastor being totally open about his biggest sins and struggles, or the biggest vulnerabilities of the church, if most of his listeners cannot act in any meaningful way to resolve these issues? Andy writes:

If any of us, let alone those entrusted with leadership, showed up and were completely transparent about all the dimensions or vulnerability in our lives, nothing else would get done, any more than if every citizen knew of every threat to the nation’s welfare. . . . Audiences have no authority in these vulnerabilities—no capacity for meaningful action to address them. Others in my life do have that authority—my supervisor, my friends, my confessors, my wife. But a hall full of strangers could only listen, with sympathy or alarm, to the reality of my—or anyone’s—broken life.

Furthermore, there is the danger of leaders who seek to appear more vulnerable than they actually are. This is manipulation:

Manipulative leaders have learned to fake vulnerability—to seem exposed to risk and thus committed to flourishing. But in fact they use their ostensible vulnerability to shore up unbalanced authority. These are leaders who can produce tears on command, who share carefully chosen heartfelt anecdotes of personal failure, who seem empathetic and kind—or leaders who call attention to every little threat to their power and constantly warn of the power of their enemies, while secretly consolidating their ability to control.

Price of Leadership

There are no easy answers here, and different contexts will address situations of authority and vulnerability in different ways. But The Crown serves to remind us of the inevitability and importance of hidden vulnerability in leadership roles, something that will never go away as long as true leadership for the benefit of others’ flourishing is taking place.

Andy Crouch is right:

Transformational leadership helps people see and address real vulnerability. But leaders exist to match that vulnerability, as much as possible, with commensurate authority. So our job is often to increase others’ authority while gradually, in a measured and intentional way, alerting them to vulnerabilities (including our own limitations, foibles, and blindness). In the meantime, we must bear vulnerability that others cannot see, and sometimes will never see. Hidden vulnerability is the price of leadership.