“If I could wish one thing for Christian leaders, it would be a thicker skin.”
That was some of the wisest counsel I ever received. It came early in my ministry.
Members of flocks might wish shepherds were more sensitive to their needs. But the reality is, when shepherds find their sheep can bite like wolves, they easily become too defensive to act in their own best interests, let alone that of their flocks. This is true not only of pastors, but Christian leaders of all sorts.
I wrote recently about our culture of cynicism. Christian leaders expect to be ridiculed outside the fold, but when it happens on the inside it can lead to alienation and burnout.
Scripture has much to say about cynicism. From the very beginning cynicism has been one of the adversary’s most effective tools. You can hear the mocking tone in the serpent’s question of Adam and Eve: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” The serpent skillfully makes God’s command seems utterly ridiculous, leading the woman to caricature God’s command further by adding something God did not say, “neither shall you touch it” (Gen. 3:1-3).
Cynicism reduces and reframes truth so we can more easily dismiss it and willfully go our own way. All of Adam and Eve’s subsequent sons and daughters have paid dearly for the serpent’s cynical bite into their innocence.
What can a leader do?
We must remember it was cynicism that hung a blameless savior on the cross, not realizing this “King of the Jews” could have stopped the process at any time. We who lead should not be taken aback when Christian ministry provokes echoes of that same cynicism.
We must not be surprised when cynicism surfaces within our own Christian circles. Our sheep, like us, are in process, are being transformed. Perhaps one of the most important lessons of the book of Acts is that sin, failure, rebuke and rebellion are the realities of the Christian church. God wants to use these things in the life of the church to help us all grow. Cynicism tries to shortcut that process and deny the truth.
In these times in which we live, Christian leaders must move counter to the tide. Proverbs warns repeatedly that anyone who takes on mockers “invites insults.” Mockers “resent correction, so they avoid the wise” (Prov. 9:7, 15:12). It is part of a leader’s job to challenge a culture of cynicism and to take the guff for it. The leader must set the pace and nurture a mutually supportive atmosphere within the ministry by resisting the temptation to ridicule and mock. Humor is a powerful tool in a leader’s hands. A few wry words can reduce tension and ease the friction in the room. Yet that humor can easily be used at others’ expense.
In the words of one of the world’s greatest leaders, “When you talk, do not say harmful things, but say what people need – words that will help others become stronger. Then what you say will do good to those who listen to you” (Eph. 4:29 NCV).