Regional Director C3 Pacific
A few years ago, my friend Jake Sweetman at C3 LA tweeted, “Ministry. Thick skin. Soft heart.”
Sometimes the most profound of ideas are disguised by their pith.
The nature of Christian ministry requires from its practitioners both a thick skin and a soft heart, in approximately equal measure – respectively, good measures.
Of course, everybody understands (and demands) the latter requirement. Of what use would a hard-hearted Christian minister be? Ministry is compared to tending sheep for good reason and the ‘under shepherds of Christ’ must demonstrate a kind of tenderness and compassion that reflects well and truly on ‘the Chief Shepherd’ Himself, Jesus Christ.
But why ‘thick skin’?
I assure you, every Christian minister knows.
I recently sat with a group of friends and read out some of the more ‘critical’ correspondence that I have received in my time as a pastor. They were amused (as some of it is tragically outlandish) and shocked (as some of it is just unequivocally nasty). For sure, some of it is well-meaning. However, much of it is just plain malicious. When you add the more constant tide of analysis and criticism that you are subjected to as a pastor to these occasional, Tsunami-like waves of abuse, then you’ll begin to see why ‘thick skin’ is, unfortunately, an absolute must in Christian ministry. This is to say nothing yet of spiritual attack, nor of the personal toll of constantly sharing the weight of the burdens and crises of people that you genuinely love and care about. Being a pastor is hard.
It’s usually at about this point that somebody will raise the failings of a pastor – perhaps a public figure that fell from grace or a pastor from their own life that let them down in some way. Look, I get it. That sucks. But your pastor (and I hope you have one) is not that guy (or that gal). Your pastors are probably people who love Jesus and who want to serve Him and also you, despite their imperfections. They are probably trying their best and could probably do with more support and encouragement (and remuneration- but that’s another piece).
Now, I am all for pastors being subject to analysis and criticism – so long as it is fair. But often, it’s just not. Fair criticism is helpful, especially when it is tempered with the same sort of ‘soft-heartedness’ that you’d expect from your pastors. Oh, how I have richly benefited from well-aimed, well-timed and well-delivered critique. (And I can forgive a person with the right spirit for missing the mark on any (or all) of those three). The problem is that the pastor is a prime target for the hypocrite with a log in his/her eye and an axe to grind – which can lead to pastors with deep wounds and brave faces.
And so, thick skin. Better to develop callouses than to live from wound to wound, right?
The only problem then, is the ‘soft heart’ bit. Because it’s hard to confine the callousing to the skin. The callousing will inevitably make a play for one’s heart and when the heart of the shepherd is hardened, the sheep lose some (or all) of what God gave them their pastors to be.
Is this what we want?
Are we happy with ‘thick skin’ being a requirement for the pastor?
If not, how do we need to change?
In the mean time, I have two things to say in closing. One to the flock. The other, to the shepherds.
To the flock:
Look after your pastors. They look after you. You look after them. That’s the way that it is supposed to be.
So often, churches are terrible at looking after their pastors. They just flog them to death and then they wonder why they die. That’s why Paul writes to Timothy, reminding him (and us) that Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.”
Traditionally that scripture has been used to remind the church of their responsibility to pay their pastors a generous wage. That is most obviously what Paul is saying. But there is so much more to ‘not muzzling the ox’ than just paying your pastors a generous wage. There is a whole culture of honour, love, care and support for pastors that yields great benefits in the communities in which it is implemented.
If you look after the ox, it’ll tread more grain and for longer.
To the shepherds:
We need ‘thick skin and a soft heart’. How do we maintain this?
I love what Erwin McManus says on this: “Don’t let an arrow of criticism pierce your heart unless it passes through the filter of Scripture.”
If we humbly submit the criticism to God’s Word and it passes through, we ought to repent from the heart, lest our heart is calloused through an unwillingness to repent.
If we humbly submit the criticism to God’s Word and the ‘fiery darts are quenched’, keep it well away from your heart. Don’t let your heart by hardened through offence.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Hebrews 12:1-3
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