An interesting question for church employees or ministry candidates to consider which has more to do with their experiences than their expertise.
How’s Your Skin?
Recently, I was part of a committee that was hiring someone for church work. The interview was going well, but then a fellow interviewer asked a question that I hadn’t heard before.
How’s your skin?
I swiveled around to look at this person with an incredulous look on my face. Skin? It wasn’t a role that required daily outdoor work so dermatology surely didn’t matter. I swiveled back to see if there was some huge misshapen wart on the applicant’s face. Nope. So why ask this in a ministry interview?
The questioner continued:
By that I mean, how do you handle criticism? Would your coworkers describe you as thin-skinned or thick-skinned? And what experience made you that way?
It was a very good question that I tucked away for future sharing.
High School English
As a blogger and a pastor for the past 10 years, I think my thick skin came from my High School English class.
The hardest high school class I took was AP English–even harder than AP Calculus. Reading college-level books or articles and analyzing them was difficult critical thinking work, but that didn’t make it hard. The fellow students were all honors or Advanced Placement students who I was in multiple classes with, so that didn’t make it hard.
What made it hard was the pedagogical strategy of the teacher:
- She would dissect one student paper each week.
- In front of everyone.
- With the student’s name on it.
- In front of everyone.
Each week, the copied essay would be handed out to each person, and your heart stopped if you got your own essay handed to you. She would lead us through the content, asking us to critique our fellow students’ paper, then ask direct questions “Why on earth did you write this, Jeremy? Where was it in the book?” She never revealed the paper’s grade–thankfully–but it was clear who had not done well by the time the class was over. Periodically, she copied one to praise it, just to keep us on our toes.
This practice started about a month into the class, so we couldn’t transfer out, and there wasn’t another AP session. So if we wanted to take the test, get college credit, we had to endure the public scrutiny.
I probably blocked out my memories in trauma, but I think over the course of the year with 18 students, I had two papers that were eviscerated (one on a short story, the other on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and one paper that was praised (on Voltaire’s Candide).
But I learned. I found out what it felt like to be publicly scrutinized and for my writings to be battle-tested in the public arena, both of which laid the foundation for a life of ministry and a future life as a religious blogger online. I don’t recommend the pedagogy overall, but I think I found what glimmer of help I could from it.
Thick-Skinned Leaders for Thin-Skinned Churches
“How’s your skin?” isn’t just a question about a person’s temperament. It’s about what experiences have they had that gave them the ability to handle criticism, scrutiny, and public shaming. And this matters more than a ministry employment question.
In my engagement with other religious people online and in social media, how they respond to criticism is incredibly telling. If they flail out in response, change the subject, or attack the person without substance, then they may not have the formative experiences or emotional ability to handle criticism, or exist offline in a context with few challenges to their authority.
Or they are simply having a bad day–and I have those too…but not every day.
So the question is a good one for ministry candidates or for job employment at a church: how’s your skin? I’ve seen pastors get shamed during worship, I’ve seen employees get railroaded out of employment, and I’ve seen volunteers beaten down over time until they volunteer no longer. It’s not enough to have a conviction or an expertise: when it comes to church work, it takes a level of experience and emotional intelligence to see your work through.
The church is filled with sinners, not saints, and therefore finding the right ministry candidate, pastor, employee, or volunteer with the ability to handle those negative aspects is critical. If the church has processes in place to channel grievances, then you can better care for these employees or leaders, so that’s a critical component as well.
Your turn? What experience did you have that feels formative in as far as how you handle criticism and public scrutiny?
Thanks for reading and your shares on social media.