Pastors Don’t Need Thicker Skin

What if the solution to painful criticism is to invite more feedback, not less?

From my earliest days in ministry, I’ve been told that when it comes to criticism, I just have to develop thicker skin. The implication is that if pastors could just develop a harder shell, we could better resist the pointed pain of negative feedback, much like thicker skin can resist the puncture of sharp thorns. The pain can’t go as deep if thick skin keeps it at a distance.

Today, 16 years into ministry, I’ve come to the conclusion that thicker skin does not exist. The problem with the metaphor of thick skin is that it provides only two options: (1) Harden ourselves to prevent the pain of criticism, or (2) Remain open to criticism and be destroyed by it. The first option is a form of thick skin that makes us unreceptive to all forms of feedback, including healthy, constructive criticism. The second option means subjecting ourselves to a never-ending onslaught of criticism that inevitably leads to burnout or despair. I tried to will thicker skin for years. It never worked, and I doubt it ever will. Surely there must be a better way.

Under attack

My journey with fielding painful criticism began about a decade ago when I was part of a faith community’s transition from its traditional style of musical worship to a more modern form. This dramatic shift, which included expected changes like louder music, lighting and production updates, and, yes, fog machines, was welcomed by some and frustrating to others. It was the kind of shift that produces new-parent levels of sleep deprivation for pastors. And it produced some unsurprising feedback: The music’s too loud. The songs are unfamiliar. The staff is too trendy.

But what was truly painful were the moments when the criticism turned into attacks on people’s …

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