Credit for this post goes to a friend who, weathering some storms in ministry, recently asked me, "What does it take to grow a thick skin?" I'm basically setting forth my reply in writing, with some added material that comes from having had several days to reflect upon what I said.
The way I weather a crisis has changed down through the years, but I have not yet grown a thick skin. In other words, in some ways I experience hurt and disappointment in just the same way that I did when I was 22 and when Tracy and I went to our first church together, and in some ways that experience has changed.
What Remains Unchanged
It still hurts. That hasn't changed. It hurts every time someone leaves my church. It hurts every time someone criticizes me behind my back. It hurts every time someone says something negative about my church. Perhaps a day is coming when it won't hurt any more, but I can't detect any indicators of that day's arrival. Not only does it still hurt; it still hurts just as much as it did back then.
I wonder who I would be if it didn't? Would that make me an unfeeling automaton managing the affairs of an organization rather than an under-shepherd who loves the sheep? Would I be a jaded, calloused, bitter survivor just biding my time until I could afford to get out? As things stand, I still care and therefore it still hurts. Just as much. Sometimes MORE than it did before.
What Is Now Different
Alongside the hurt, there used to be a lot of fear back when I was younger. I can identify at least two ways in which I was afraid during my earlier crises in ministry.
First, I was afraid that I would be fired and then unemployed. How would I provide for my family? How would I fulfill my calling? Would any church consider hiring me if I were to get the boot from my present church? What would I do? Let's call this fear about the consequences.
Second, I was afraid that maybe my critics were right and maybe I actually am a failure at ministry. What if it would be best if I couldn't get another ministry job? What if I am doomed, if I remain in ministry, to be the ruination of a string of churches foolish enough to hire me? Let's call this fear about my competency.
Although the hurt remains, these fears for me are mostly gone. I've just realized some things along the way that have helped me.
As to my fear of the consequences, down through the years I've watched as some real jerks, having been rightfully booted from one church, have been able to find another church right away. This summer has involved the revelation in the news how we have infamously done this with regard to sexually abusive pastors, but this weakness in our polity extends far beyond sex abusers. There are people who abuse no one sexually but who abuse a lot of people spiritually, and yet they seem able to keep moving from one church to another.
So, I finally came to conclude, if such people can find churches who will hire them, then probably so could I. I'm no longer afraid that one problem at one church would utterly shipwreck my ability to pursue my calling.
As to my fear concerning my professional competency as a pastor, although I have retained an awareness of personal weaknesses in ministry (and I'm trying to work on those), this fact dawned upon me: There are some 42,000 or so churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. I dare to be boastful in this way—I do not believe that I am the 42,001st worst pastor in the SBC. And if I am not the 42,001st worst pastor in the SBC, then so long as I remain biblically qualified for ministry, there is a church in our convention of churches who needs me.
God does not require perfection in me. God is the one who supplies perfection in the gospel equation. He needs my surrender to His will and my willingness to endure hardship like a good soldier. He'll put me where He needs me, and I'll try to be faithful there to serve.
I didn't realize back when I was younger how much it was the fear, not the hurt, that was tormenting me. The hurt…well…hurts. There's no denying that. But the fears can terrify a hurting person. Taking away the fears makes a big difference. They have gone away, in part, because of the realizations that I mentioned above. They have also gone away thanks in part to a growing faith on my part. My faith in God has grown. I believe that He will take care of me. Also, over the course of two decades, my faith has grown in the people whom I serve as pastor. I'm not the only one in our congregation who loves Jesus and is trying to do the right thing. Assuming the worst about what they will do is foolish and disrespectful.
Maybe this will be helpful to someone this morning (after all, today IS Monday). Don't worry too much about thickening your skin. You may find that bolstering your faith and pondering upon some facts will be all the help that you need.