The other side of emotional intelligence we began in a previous post regarding numbness for the pastor is becoming “thin-skinned” or hypersensitive. Do you ever, like me, feel like you have reached “critical mass” on a social front and do not possess the wherewithal to handle any additional connection with people? Being emotionally overexposed can literally make the church leader cringe at every human-generated noise or touch.
While common in a calling involving so much interpersonal interaction, it cannot be ignored or ultimately tolerated. To do so is acidic to both the soul harboring it and everyone it influences. (The intent of this post is not to be dismissive toward real, unresolved needs in you that demand immediate consultation with professionals to help address legitimate physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.) At almost every preacher gathering with your average mix of ministers, this subtle vibe is lurking either overtly or just beneath the surface. Here me, dear ministry leader. The moment you develop a victim complex you cease to be the effective spiritual leader God has called you to be!
As one pastor put it, “we must have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros.” How do we strike the balance by not being numb but also not being too sensitive?
Here are five commitments that I have found help us toughen up and maintain our “pastoral hide”:
Toughen judgmental skin with gracious consideration.
How do you feel when someone opts out of a ministry or event about which you are extremely, publicly passionate? The best way to avoid a critical spirit toward the “less committed” is spend a few moments standing and walking in their shoes. This happens by focusing less upon their shortcomings and more upon their burdens and your part in helping them. Don’t allow your understandable zeal for your local church ministry to distract you from actually ministering to the needs of those in your church-even at the expense of your programatic pursuits. Here is a key maxim: no one will ever likely have as much passion for your local church as you-that is why you are the pastor. Graciously embrace that tension between your vision and the lagging understanding and buy-in of your congregation.
Ph 2:1-4 “If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, Fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.”
Toughen defensive skin with positive assumptions.
Believe it or not, not everybody is out to get you and conspiracies are not quite as pervasive as you are tempted to believe. Most of the words and actions that frustrate or wound you were done unintentionally-stop with the woe-is-me disposition. A pessimist’s guarded mindset is, “Either I will be proven right or pleasantly surprised.” The problem in pastoral ministry is you cannot be right or do right if your bent toward others is always to assume the worst. To not give the benefit of the doubt will taint even the most precious relationships in your life-including your immediate family. Why? Because negative assumptions spread like wildfire! One of the best ways I have found to practically deal with defensiveness toward an especially difficult person is to make a list of their positive qualities and praise the Lord for them! There are glimpses of grace in every person if you would only look for them. That is tough to authentically do, but will be personally transformative through the love of God at work in you.
1 Co 13:4-7 “Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”
Toughen antisocial skin with intimate connection.
While antisocial tendencies tempt us to cope by further withdrawal from others, what we actually need is to draw closer to those God has providentially put in our personal space. If we are not careful, we pastors can insulate ourselves from interaction with others on equal footing. As I stress with our small group ministry, “You must plug into not only the top-down instruction of pastors but also the parallel influence of your peers.” Do you see how a lack of this philosophy harms not only those “under the preacher” but the preacher himself? I believe in the need for no-frills, Acts 2 kind of connection so much that we would have intimate gatherings in our church if only for emotional and spiritual well being of the pastoral staff and their families! Do you view authentic life-on-life kind of connections in your personal, peer-level space as extremely vital?
Ro 15:6-7 “Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God.”
Toughen embittered skin with faith-filled anticipation.
This “skin condition” has the most to do with hypersensitive aversion toward the Lord directly. The sequence usually goes like this: “Lord you called me to this specific group of people and I don’t like them and therefore am not pleased with you.” Too often we allow our past or present context alone to shape our view of God’s love and grace. What about the future? God is always leaning forward! The pastorate typically begins with idealism, optimism, and vision of what God can do through us. As the years go by and we are stretched by the predictable wounds and disappointments of ministering in a fallen world, we tend to lose those traits…and therefore not just “naiveness” but an accurate view of God and His redemptive future. There is more going on than meets the eye and even bruises your heart! Just this week someone posted, “Question – what can a pastor do to help his church grow? Answer – learn to love people, truly love people!” Bitterness can only kill the future of your church and ministry. Anticipatory love, on the other hand, will cause it to thrive…if you will but persist with a little thicker of a hide.
Hebrews 12:11, 15 “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby. Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled;”
Toughen self-absorbed skin with a fresh vision of Jesus.
Ultimately our hypersensitivity is the result of making the pastorate way too much about us. Although it is wholesome to get our eyes off ourselves by focusing upon other people, that ever-shifting target is not enough. Our thick skin must be formed by a frequent glimpse of our Master that refines out of us the constant digression toward shallow, self-infatuation or self-loathing. (Both extremes are all about us!) As Burk Parson wisely asserts, “Gurus sit on mountain tops, speak to the masses with polished words, are never too close to get hurt and stay clean. Shepherds walk in dark valleys with the sheep, speak the unvarnished truth, carry wounded sheep, get hurt and dirty, remembering always they are sheep themselves.” To become too sensitive toward the sheep is to forfeit the ability and privilege to shepherd! Don’t allow that pervasive tendency to happen in your pastorate. Remember we are undershepherds to the Chief Shepherd who was more than tender but also “set his face to go to Jerusalem” as the paschal lamb whose own skin was to be greatly buffeted, bruised, and pierced for our salvation. According to Isaiah, “His visage was marred more than any man.” The least we can do is embrace our minuscule portion of suffering for His bride, the local church.
Co 1:24-25, 27b “Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church: Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God…which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
The holdouts in your church probably don’t hate you. The passive aggressive posts online are likely not as big of a deal as they feel. The apathy in your church programs and services is more typical and less personal than you think. Even the raw, rip-your-heart-out moments of your ministry experience can be redeemed by an all-powerful God if you will let Him. You can do this…you just need a thicker skin by God’s grace. Would you join me in begging God to give us that supple (adjective meaning “bending and moving gracefully”) balance embodied in Christ between ready tenderness and resilient toughness that will sustain each of us for the long haul in gospel ministry for His glory?