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Thick skin, thin skin

August 20, 2013


In the pastorate you have to master the seemingly impossible art of having, at the same time, thick and thin skin. How can you possibly pull off such a feat? And why would such a chameleon-like skill even be desirable?

First, why do you need thick skin? In a word, as pastor you will receive your fair share of criticism. The lion’s share of criticism should be placed into the “ignore this stuff” category. People often complain about the silliest things: the time of the worship service, how frequently the church holds activities, the types of illustrations you use in your sermons, the fact that you pick the same hymn too frequently, the color of your tie, or the kind of beverage you drink (for the record, I’ve personally had all of these complaints). I have to say with great glee, that I simply smile, note the complaint, and then move on. I let the words flow off my back like water off a duck. At the same time, I have also had complaints about very serious matters, though they have been grossly unwarranted. People have complained that the children’s Sunday School was run like a concentration camp (true story), I have had people yelling at me at the top of their lungs, and I have had people complaining sobbing with tears about how insensitive I’ve been because I failed to foster their unique relationships with each member of the trinity (true story). Again, I had to let these comments roll off my back. If you let every single comment weigh you down, then you’ll quickly end up very tired, burned out, and looking for a career change. I think the inability to have thick skin is one of the reasons why men leave the pastorate in droves. So, you definitely need thick skin.

Second, why do you need thin skin? If you only have thick skin, then you will quickly become impervious to all of the criticism and complaints and think you’re bulletproof. In the midst of the noisy din of complaints there are frequently critical words that require serious reflection, consumption, and engagement. If you ignore them, you do so at your own peril and perhaps even to the detriment of the church. And sometimes, complaints come from people for whom you might have the least amount of respect. In other words, sometimes crazy people make accurate observations. I can remember in Sunday School, in front of everyone, a person that many in the church ignored told me, “You are formulating an answer in your mind before you have heard the entire question. Please listen to the whole question before you run off to answer it!” This was a thin-skin moment—one where I needed to heed the complaint. The person was absolutely right and I acknowledged this. I quieted my mind and listened to the person’s question.

All of this is to say, in the pastorate you need wisdom to know when to ignore criticism and when to take it to heart. This is one of the reasons why as the pastor, or any person for that matter, you need to be in constant prayer to ask Christ to give you boldness and confidence to ignore inane or baseless complaints on the one hand, and to have humility to accept valid criticism with grace and charity on the other. Pray therefore, that Christ would give you thick and thin skin!