Someone once told me that being a pastor- or in the ministry in general- requires a thick skin. While they were probably intending this to mean a defense against criticism and conflict, it really got me thinking.
Galatians 6:2 says this:
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
This verse reminds me of a book I read in one of my ministry classes last year. Compassion by Henri Nouwen is one of the most powerful books I have ever read. In this book, Nouwen outlines the true meaning of compassion. The literal translation is to suffer with. This is the very life that God is calling us to– especially those in ministry. For us to develop a thick skin is to close ourselves off from the suffering of others.
Let me emphasize something: I understand self preservation for the sake of avoiding burnout. Unfortunately, burnout is something that can quite easily and rather quickly hinder or even destroy a ministry and a minister. But what happened to faith in God’s grace and empowerment? If God intends for us to suffer with those that are suffering, will He not give us the endurance and ability to do so?
In my own life, that endurance has come at a price. With all that I have struggled with and continue to struggle with, I have built a surprising amount of compassion and empathy. I have been the lowest of the low. I have felt pain so deep in my being that nothing could make it stop. I now see that in others. In a weird way, I’m thankful for the trials I have endured. They have prepared me for God’s purposes for my life.
So should we have a thick skin? Or should we let ourselves feel the pain of others? Show compassion? Suffer with them?
Oh, and by the way: if you thought this message was directed towards pastors and other members of the clergy, you are mistaken. We are all called to ministry- to compassion. So get ready to love people when they’re at their lowest- by getting down next to them.