While swapping stories with another ministry veteran, we shared some of the best advice we received when we were starting out as pastors. My friend told me, “A mentor put his arm around me one day and whispered, ‘Develop thick skin, but keep a tender heart.’” He then said, “It’s been harder than I thought it would be. It’s easier to develop thin skin and a hard heart. But my mentor’s guidance helped me endure as a leader.”
Why do ministry leaders struggle with this? There are many reasons, but let’s highlight three. First, ministry leaders deal with people at their worst and with no-win situations – which can lead to becoming jaded. Second, ministry leaders are emotionally involved with people – making leaders vulnerable to being wounded. Third, ministry leaders can become preoccupied with meeting the needs of others and neglect spiritual self-care. These are occupational hazards of ministry leadership. They must be managed, not avoided, as we engage people through our work.
What helps us keep a soft heart while developing thick skin? You keep your heart soft by maintaining vital, regular, personal devotional practices focused on deepening your relationship with God. Spiritual care is different than preparing to speak to or meet the needs of others. Practicing these disciplines does more than anything to keep your heart soft.
A thick skin may be harder – and more painful – to develop. Keeping these things in mind has helped me. First, don’t personalize every problem. Just because you have to deal with it doesn’t mean you caused it or that it’s directed toward you. Second, don’t lose long-term perspective on issues. What seems urgent in the moment often doesn’t matter five years later. Third, don’t be confused about what constitutes a real problem. Global ministry leaders who face daily persecution, service without compensation, a paucity of ministry resources and primitive living conditions laugh at what worries us.
Ministry leaders need a thick skin and a soft heart. Don’t get those backwards. Thin skin and a hard heart are a path to discouragement – maybe even an exit strategy out of ministry. Take my friend’s advice. Keep these straight to endure as a ministry leader.
Jeff Iorg is president of Gateway Seminary, Ontario, California. He is a graduate of Hardin Simmons University (B.A.), Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.) and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (D.Min.). He is married to Ann, has three adult children, and five grandchildren. His hobbies include reading fiction, cheering on the Oregon Ducks and searching for the world’s best barbeque restaurant.