This post is one that I have been wanting to write for a while now, but it is a post about a topic that I am very much still growing in and learning about each day, so, I urge you – instead of reading this and thinking, “Oh, you don’t know the half of it” try reading it with the knowledge that I acknowledge I have far more to learn and experience, and many more thick layers of skin to develop in life and more specifically in ministry. I am well aware that I am, “only 20” 😉
When you are a leader of any kind, you may find yourself in this mindset – you desire so badly to seem strong, all of the time. Especially if you’re young, you may strive for this because people so often look down upon people who are younger. If you’re in a leadership position, or taking on something that requires a lot of you, you may find yourself wanting to seem as though you are tough, all the time, as though you basically don’t have feelings, nothing bothers you, and if it does, it’s “no big deal,” because, “you can handle it.” I can recall numerous times where I have found myself with this mindset in the church setting, sweeping things under the rug instead of allowing myself to feel them and have them make me better. The hard thing about being that type of person though, is that, those things you tell yourself, don’t always work. You’re not as perfect as you want people to think you are. You do let things get to you. You can’t handle it all on your own. You do have feelings, and guess what? Your feelings are valid. The hard part is actually believing that and accepting that. It’s hard to understand that while, yes, thick skin is needed in pretty much every aspect of life, you can’t be strong all of the time. Thick skin is something that develops over time. It’s a process. You aren’t born with the thickest skin that you will ever have, and, the thing about thick skin is that it only develops by going through tough experiences – you get tough by feeling what it is like to endure trials. I think that one of the hardest lessons I have learned thus far since hearing God’s call to ministry and pursuing that call, is learning how to have thick skin, what that means, and what it looks like.
My freshman year of college, I developed a layer of thick skin that I never knew I needed. That layer of thick skin was so that I could handle people’s condemnation of my pursuit to full-time ministry due to my gender. And I can do that now – I can let such comments and rejection roll off me like rain – it’s a piece of cake, because of that whole year spent developing such thick skin. It has helped me more than I could ever tell you, and I am grateful. But as I have continued along in my journey towards ministry, diving into different areas of the Church, and interacting with different people, experiencing it all, I have seen all kinds of sides to ministry – the good, the bad, the ugly, and then some. Seeing all those sides has continuously made me realize my desperate need (for God) and for a whole new layer of thick skin that I lacked; a layer that I am still developing, day by day, experience by experience, hardship by hardship. As I said, it’s a process.
I, like many others, wish that I could look at a mentor, pastor, parent, or anyone older and wiser than me, and have them tell me that it gets easier. I wish that I could have someone who has lived longer than me, look me in the eyes and tell me how, somewhere along the line, it gets easier to have thick skin. But that’s not going to happen. It’s just not. No pastor will ever be able to tell me that and actually mean it, and I know that, because I’ve had pastors admit that to me. But, I did have one pastor say that, “you have to be so deeply rooted in your call that it sustains you through the hurt.” You learn how to handle it all better, but that doesn’t at all mean that it gets easier. You just get stronger, and your skin, thicker.
Now, before I jump into the post, I will admit before you that I am not by any means ‘qualified’ to write a blog post full of “how to’s” when it comes to ministry and having thick skin. Everyone in ministry knows that you need thick skin, but that doesn’t mean it’s something we all have an equal amount of. With my admittance of my not being ‘qualified,’ I do believe that God has used my experiences in ministry thus far to equip me to share these words with you all. I am still very much an amateur, I do not have all of the answers, and I still let things get to me way more than I should – I’m still growing, as lifelong learners do. With that being said, I’m thinking of all of the ministry experiences and encounters with people, both negative and positive, that I’ve had thus far (which I’m grateful for!) and maybe you and I share in some of those experiences or encounters. If so, I want to share some of what has helped me and what continues to help me. These are not nearly all of the ways in which I cope and learn to have thick skin, but nonetheless, these are things that God has helped place on my heart, because, the Lord knows full well that I could not do any of this without him. If I tried, I undoubtedly would have given up on my pursuit towards ministry a long time ago.
Consistent prayer. First and foremost, prayer is key. You and I know both that. When life has you down on your knees because you cannot bear to stand any longer, pray. When you’re sky high on life and all is well, also pray. When you’re struggling and finding that comments, obstacles, or people are getting to your head, and most of all to your heart, pray. I don’t think I have ever fallen before God with my arms stretched out for him to come and pick me up, more than when I am feeling as though I am in desperate need of him and of that thick skin we’re supposed to have. Thick skin is something that I have prayed for and longed for, and while I have it, I’m still developing it. It doesn’t come overnight. And know that God’s answer to your prayer for thick skin very well could be another battle or obstacle. May we learn to be okay with that, and keep ours minds open to that possibility. And do not stop praying.
Don’t take things personally. I cannot say enough how much easier said than done this is. As human beings, our desire and our human nature is to let things get to us. We overthink comments that are said to us, especially the unnecessary and sometimes rude ones. Thick skin is needed if we’re going to refuse to take things personally. ‘Let unnecessary or hurtful comments role off of you like rain’ is some of the best advice that I have ever been given. Similar to likely everyone reading this today, I have had things said both to my face and behind my back in various settings, including Church, that I have let get to my heart – I think it’s important to remind yourself that you’re not crazy for overthinking that one thing that that one person said to you; that comment which left you feeling offended, discouraged, and hurt. You’re not overreacting. But it’s also important to remember that what people say to you or about you can often be a reflection of themselves and how they feel or think about them, not necessarily you. Remember that. And remember this:
Pray for those who hurt you. This is probably one of the hardest things you will find in this post. I have found myself before God in prayer, literally in tears, because I knew that I should be praying for the people whom I was hurt by, but I just could not bring myself to do it. But friends, God wants to hear about it. He wants to hear about your hurt and he wants to hear that you have the Christ-like love to rise above your hurt and pray for that person who is likely hurting, themselves.
Have a tender heart. I know that we have all heard this quote before: “Have thick skin and a tender heart.” We are all undoubtedly capable of having a tender heart. So train your heart and train your mind to be tender when it comes to tough situations, especially situations that involve a person or persons. And I know that it’s hard. I know that is never what we want to hear. It’s much easier to resent people or situations that make us feel low and discouraged. But again, it’s what Jesus exemplified for us in the Bible. In the Church, doing ministry with so many other people, we have to follow his example, and his example shows us compassion, empathy, and tenderness. He has called us to have those very attributes when it comes to interacting with our fellow brothers and sisters. Jesus did it, and as a follower of him, we can do it, too.
Get used to it. You may have read those four words and thought, “This is awful advice, Ashley.” I debated putting those words into this post, but I wanted to, because it’s something that I’ve told myself, and something a lot of other people have blatantly told me, too, including my own mom, over and over and over again. If I’m ever struggling with a comment that someone said to me, or a tough situation, especially in ministry, being told to, “get used to it” actually helps. You’re always going to have that. Always. That’s a harsh reality. Learn to let comments go in one ear and go out the other. You’re always going to encounter difficult people. That is not limited to the Church. You’re going to encounter difficult people in every job field, in every area of life, everywhere you go. But you’re also going to encounter really beautiful people. If we’re being honest, everyone has beauty in them. So even when you encounter someone you would consider to be ‘difficult,’ show them love. Try to search for their internal beauty. We all have it.
Step back. There is no harm in taking a step back. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and need time to process whatever it is that’s testing your thickness of skin (AKA whatever you’re struggling with), stepping back can be good. You don’t want to get burned out. Go have church on a mountain if you’re like me and love to hike and be in creation. Go visit a different church that you’ve never been to before and worship there. Have quiet devotion time by yourself instead of going to Bible study at your church if time alone is what you need. Take Sabbath. Sabbath is important (and I can and will write a whole other blog post on the importance of that). When you step back from a ministry setting, or whatever setting it may be, that’s presenting you with challenge, a hurt heart, or exhaustion, you’re giving yourself time and space for renewal and rest. So, when you’re done and ready to step back in, you’ll be re-energized and ready to take on whatever gets thrown your way.
Pray prayers of thanks & praise to God for tough experiences. These tough experiences that you have gone through, are going through, and will go through – they grow you. They strengthen you. They prepare you for the next tough experience. I know it’s very difficult to sit there before God and say, “Thank you” for trials when what you really want is to look up at him and ask, “Why, God?” But I guarantee you, you will eventually know why, and that ‘why’ will be revealed to you the next time you encounter a tough situation, when you’re able to handle it 10x better than you were able to the last time. I know that it stinks to realize, but yet another harsh reality is that you cannot always dodge crappy experiences. You can learn from them. You can allow them to make you better. When you open yourself to that kind of vulnerability and rise above the hurt in order to have it contribute to your development of thick skin, you’ll thank yourself, and you’ll thank God for the growth it caused.
Seek the wisdom & counsel of those who ‘get it.’ Think about the people whom you trust. Think about your mentors. I encourage you to let go of any fear that you may have of being vulnerable, and seek wise counsel, as the Bible instructs, when you’re in need of some guidance. It’s okay to admit that you do not know everything! Nobody does. But there are people who love and care for you, and who are willing to offer you guidance about how to get by – these are people who understand and have walked or are walking where you are walking now. Personally, if I had a dollar for every time that I have called my pastor or another mentor of mine and straight up said, “I need help” or “I need wisdom” I would be rich, because I am still growing, and when you know you have people who are ‘there,’ you learn to use your resources and seek their help, knowing that they have been where you are and can help you. This has saved me in so many situations; being able to get off my high horse and admit that I need help dealing with a difficult situation or difficult encounter with someone. If nothing else, it helps to know that you’re not the only one who has dealt with what you are dealing with. There are other people around you who have developed thick skin from fighting and getting through exactly what you’re going through. So do not hesitate to reach out, knowing that there is zero shame in doing so.
So friends, those are just some suggestions from a mini preacher who has learned a lot and still has a ton left to learn. I want to note that I am indeed incredibly grateful for the beautiful and messy parts of ministry that I have witnessed thus far, as I acknowledge developing thick skin down will help me later (though that growth will never stop!) And even after witnessing the ugly sides of ministry that have sometimes left me hurting and discouraged, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, because the beautiful parts and the passion far outweigh those negatives. (So, bring it on, world). And while this post itself was geared towards those in the ministry, you can apply these points to really any job setting, career aspiration, or life situation. No matter what you do in life, you’re going to be encountering people. No matter what you do, you’re going to encounter tough situations.
Know that you – yes you – have thick skin, and you are continuously developing thicker skin. Believe that, okay? I know how ridiculously hard it is to believe that and I know how easy it is to think to yourself, “Wow, why in the world can’t I handle this?” But it is in those moments you must pray and talk to God about it. I know that I put prayer in that list three times, and that was intended in order to show the significance of prayer when it comes to ‘having thick skin.’
To my brother or sister reading this today, remember: you’ve got this. There is nothing you cannot handle with The Almighty by your side.