I confess. I have cried in professional meetings. Many times. In fact, three weeks ago in a meeting I cried so hard that I could barely speak.
A few things to keep in mind. First, I work in ministry. I’m not a PepsiCo executive sitting at a boardroom table crying over shrinking distribution numbers or a software engineer suddenly overcome with emotion because I screwed up a line of code.
Also, I’m not much of a crier in general even though my maternal family is full of criers. My grandpa can never make it through the dinner prayer if any of his grandkids are at the table. My mom has been known to cry during commercials and in restaurants. I may be equally tenderhearted, but I probably cry (the kind with tears sliding down my face) less than ten times a year.
So when I cry, it means something. My soul is engaged. Something I deeply care about is being probed.
As a pastor, I work both with people and for people, as an advocate. I regularly step into messy situations and respond to raw emotions. In 15 years of ministry, I’ve witnessed premeditated acts of hate and their aftermath. I’ve been a first responder to traumatic events like attempted sexual assault. I’ve been the person who showed up in the middle of the night, took the bottle of Advil out of shaking hands, and called for help. In my office, people process some of their most intense experiences — the effects of abuse, the loss of a loved one, rejection, mental illness, loss of faith, suicidal thoughts, and sexual issues.
This is not the kind of work you can do well and remain untouched. You can have great boundaries in ministry and still need to cry. Sometimes tears are the only way to expunge some of the toxins you’ve been exposed to.
My dearest hope is that my “work” reflects the deep love that God has for each and every human being. Since I ultimately serve God, it’s important to me that I strive for excellence in my work. I exercise best practices in counseling. I attend conferences for professional development. I read new research and consult the works of experts in the many fields that affect Biblical studies, ministry, and theology. I believe that ethics are as important to a ministry environment as they are to any other work setting. All that to say, I’m a professional. I try to be the best professional I can be.
But I still cry in meetings.
As a Christian pastor, the Bible is the most important book in my life. I believe its pages tell the story of God’s love for all people and reveal God’s plan of redemption for broken individuals. In a world that is slowly but painfully wasting away, I believe that the message of Jesus is the greatest news. His words are hope for the disillusioned and for aimless wanderers. They are a fresh breath of life for the suffering, the oppressed, and the depressed. They’re a warm light for all the people forgotten in the dark or dirty corners of our streets. God’s story and his life-giving words are precious to me.
Because I love God and his word so dearly, it can be tough to live in a pluralistic society that denigrates the church, the Bible, and the people who worship one God exclusively. Sometimes that makes me cry.
But I think it’s far more painful to be a Christian among other Christians. It’s disheartening to sit down with your spiritual family, to read the Bible together, and to have such divergent views of the same text. This is a book we all revere and cherish because it’s God’s. We are all sincere and loving, and we serve God well in our unique ways. We even love each other. So it doesn’t feel good when we disagree. It hurts to see smirks or eyes roll as someone shares their opinion. It’s painful when people make light of topics or passages that impact other people every day. It’s dismaying when we see each other’s blindnesses but we can’t find a way to gently expose them.
So this month I cried in a meeting.
But no matter who I am with when I cry in meetings, I usually walk away feeling a little embarrassed. Our culture isn’t very welcoming to public displays of emotion, is it? We’re even less accepting of emotions in the workplace. There’s an unspoken belief that strong emotions are a sign of immaturity, or weakness, or irrationality, or overreaction, or instability, or of (said in a hushed tone) being hormonal. And those things don’t fit the excellent or professional persona, so tears are generally unacceptable at the office. Instead, our culture champions clear logic, precise speech, and undisturbed rationality.
After I cry during a meeting, I worry that people think less of me. That they will regard me like a whiny puppy who just needs a pat on the head to be quieted. And I hate thinking that my tears may make others disregard my words altogether.
But here are some things that I believe are true about emotions. All human beings have them. We all have a wide range of emotions that we can experience: from rage to sorrow to utter joy. I believe God designed us this way. It’s we humans who choose to either express or suppress our emotions. Which way is healthier?
I also believe that God gave us brains capable of keen intellect, logic, and impressive creativity. The same brain that houses these things also houses our emotions. We are all both rational and emotional beings. Both things make us human. Both reflect the image of God.
So why is laughter safe and respectable in a meeting, but tears are not? Why do we prize rationality but look askance when people express their emotions? And why do we always talk about rationality and emotions like they are the opposite ends of a spectrum? They may be closer together than we think. We might be wise to consider that they are linked.
There have been times in meetings when I was crying and thinking clear thoughts at the same time. Imagine that! Now, sometimes it is hard to verbally articulate my thoughts amid the stirring emotions, but that doesn’t mean I am just a puddle of messy feelings. My identity is not reduced. Instead, what you are witnessing is a powerful moment of realization, something deeply true that finally crystallizes, or a strongly held belief that’s been triggered. Such moments are rarely emotionless.
When I cry in a meeting it’s because my mind is engaged. In these moments I am, perhaps, more fully human because I’m experiencing and expressing thought and emotion at the same time. My brain is firing on all cylinders. You may think it looks messy, but maybe you could learn to see the beauty too.
When I cry, I hope you will learn to read my tears. This is what my tears might say — this is a very important topic to me. What we are talking about has very real implications for me, or for you, or for people who we love. That thing you just said? It was either deeply true or it missed the marked, but it certainly moved me to respond. Sometimes my tears say that I’m grieving. Sometimes they say that you’ve caused me pain. Emotions are a language all their own.
So rather than avoiding eye contact or patting me on the head, would you offer me an equally human response? When you see my tears, would you sit up and pay better attention? Would you consider, or even ask, what my tears are saying? Would you be patient if it takes me time to get the words out? And would you offer me more compassion than I’ve come to expect, and not think less of me?
I cry during meetings. When I was a young professional I would apologize profusely, swipe away the tears, and try to tamp down my emotions. I rarely do that anymore. I’ve learned to be kind to myself and to not be ashamed of being a human being who feels. I’ve come to accept that this is just a part of who I am.
I love and serve a God who grieves when his people suffer, and when they wander far from him. I think my tears are often a reflection of the heart of God.
When I cry, when I express any emotion, I’m being human. I’m resisting the tight bindings of cultural norms because there are just some things that need to be expressed. Triumphs and tragedies call us to respond. I want to be the kind of person who listens and responds well to the needs of the world around me. I hope my tears invite others to be and do the same.
I cry in meetings. If my tears make you uncomfortable, so be it. I’m being real. I probably won’t stop any time soon. And we might all be better for it.