Dan Doriani delivered a message in a breakout session at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference titled “Only Be Strong and Courageous: Why Every Pastor Needs a Tender Heart and a Tough Hide.” The workshop explored the unique challenges faced by pastors, including five separate types of criticism.
Doriani presented a composite of leaders in Scripture who are both “strong and courageous” and also willing to “weep with those who weep.” Christ himself is the greatest example of one who is tough and enduring but also deeply loves those he shepherds. Doriani also offered comfort from Scripture for hurting pastors dealing with these inevitable issues.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Dan Doriani: First of all let me say welcome to all of you and I find it mildly amusing that two hours ago, I was telling my friend Phil [Reichen] you may need to give this talk for me because I think my voice is completely collapsing so I usually sound vaguely like this but not quite so I’m going to hold the microphone really close and hope my voice lasts for about 40, 45 minutes.
So Mark gave me a very kind introduction but maybe for those of you who are here, what’s more germane, you want to know about me is that I’m married, I’ve got three kids, I’ve been a pastor for 16 years, about four and a half years in a very small church revitalization, church that came to closing its doors. By God’s grace it still exists and has grown over the last 30 years all the way to 140 people and then I was pastor of a very large church and it had many highly gifted, highly opinionated people who were free with their counsel about my various errors and failings and I was grateful the Lord gave me a church full of really gifted people who talked and talked about how knowledgeable they were.
So let me just start off with a question if I may. How many of you [inaudible] tough tender, this is not my title, I love the title, be strong and courageous, the necessity for a tender heart and a tough hide. Who would say that by nature you’re a tough hide person? Just the way you grew up, just the way you go through life, you’re a tough hide. Hold your hand up high, I just want to see. Tough hide, who would say they’re tender by nature? A little bit more tender, okay. So that’s bad news for most of you. You have chosen the wrong vocation. May God have grace on your souls and I hope you brought an elder and a spouse with you to help you.
I want to start off with two passages of scripture. First is from the gospel John, it’s one we all know. “Jesus wept.” Jesus wept. The second one is also one we all know and that’s from Hebrews Chapter 12 Verses 1 and 2 and it says this, “Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely and let us run with endurance the race that is set out or marked out before us, looking to Jesus the founder or author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising or scorning its shame and sat down at the right hand of God.” So our Lord is both tough, right? He endured the cross, he despised the shame, he thought little of it, and he’s tender because he knew how to weep.
So I want to begin with a few stories that just describe a reality for us. There is a very famous Reform pastor whom I know or knew very little, but probably one of the most revered pastors of the late 20th and early 21st century, had an extremely wide-ranging ministry, he was very active in the media, leadership and all sorts of areas and he endured so much criticism that after 12 years of ministry, he said, “I’m going to have to quit unless somehow I can erect a wall between myself and my people.” One of the most respected men of the last 40, 50 years. Another esteemed pastor whom I knew much better decided he was done with his ministry, a long and faithful ministry, I’ll say somewhere between 15 and 30 years in a very large, very prominent church. A man of superlative organizational skills, a marvelous preacher, immensely personable, and after the many years of ministry, he told his church, he told his elders, “I believe it’s time for me to retire. I don’t want to retire when I’m 71. I want to go out on top and have energy for other things.” So they formed a search committee and this was a person and a church that I knew somewhat and they said, “Hey Dan, can we visit with you a little bit and talk about the future and who might take the place of our pastor?”
They began to describe themselves. The search committee began to describe themselves and I said, after about 30 or 40 minutes of listening, I said to the leader, John, not his name, “John, please don’t tell me that you intend to find a replacement for your departing senior pastor who is more of a shepherd than he is.” John’s face fell. He said, “How did you know?” I said, “Well it’s fairly straightforward. You started off by telling me about your family and your children and your grandchildren, you asked me about my family and my children and you’re just obviously an immensely personable guy and your church has … I’ll just say somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 or 5,000 people and your pastor naturally cannot possibly get to know everybody in your church, and you and I know both know he’s personable and also, you and I both know that it’s impossible for him even to get to know all of his elders. Therefore you long to know the next pastor better. You especially long for this because you are an intensely personable person and you’re a pastor, you’re a shepherd at heart, that’s the kind of elder you are. You’re not a teaching elder, you’re a caring elder and so you want someone who’s not going to have that relative weakness.”
I said, “The difficulty, the reason why I challenge you, the difficulty is very straightforward. You have a leader, you have a preacher, and you also want a shepherd. Now I just have to tell you there is no pastor in the world who is going to excel at all three. Even if your retiring pastor had abundant shepherding or I call it priestly skills, the sheer size of the church, the amount of work he does in his denomination, in the city, in his church, leadership, outside projects, the sheer amount of work he does makes it certain that he will not have adequate time to spend with all the people, not even all the leaders in his church. If you really want someone who is more of a shepherd, I hate to say this,” and let me just make one thing clear. I am wrapping up three conversations here, I am running together three different conversations that I had in very similar circumstances, “If you want a church in which everybody gets to know the pastor, what you really want is a church of 200 people, and so what you’re asking for is a decline of about 80 or 90% in your church. So you need to rethink your approach.”
Another way to say it is this. There is no pastor who is perfect, or to say it differently, there is actually one who is perfect and that is Jesus. There is one who is teacher enough, prophetic enough, truly, fully a prophet. There is one who is leader enough, kingly enough, and there is one who is priest enough that is to say caregiver enough, a person who spends time one-on-one and that is our Lord Jesus.
Now if you are pastors, I have the sense that most of you here are pastors or certainly most of you are here in ministry in one form or another, you know that most churches actually want to be tender to their pastors and allow them to have a decent life. Again I’m running two or three conversations together, when a new pastor is called to a church, a lead pastor in a church of some size, it’s very delightful to me to notice that they say things like, “We want our pastor to have a good personal life. We want to have lots of time with his family. We have bought him a membership in the local gym, in a club, he’ll meet people, he’ll work out, he’ll take care of himself. We want to treat him well,” and then sometimes they’ll say, “We want to treat him better than we treated our last pastor, who was visibly exhausted for the last two years of his tenure.”
One of the people with whom I had this conversation, hey, they bought me a gym membership and he’s been there three years now. I said, “So how’s it going? You getting to the gym enough?” He said, “I had to drop my gym membership because it was such a waste of money.” So they wanted to treat him well but it doesn’t always work that way and if you’re a pastor and you’re here because you’re hoping I’ll tell you how to get tough skin, the first thing I’m going to tell you is probably just about everybody wishes for a tougher skin. Almost every well-known pastor you will ever hear of suffered brutal criticism from the people around him. This would of course apply to people like [Augustin] and Athanasius, [inaudible] if you know the history, certainly apply to Calvin and to Luther and to Zwingli and to Spurgeon and to Edwards who received not criticism but brutal criticism from the people often who were the closest to them and even in fact betrayed them.
So we all suffer criticism and we all need a tough skin, and I’m following the outline more or less now and I want to distinguish … I’m going to say five kinds of criticism we receive that tempts us to be tough-skinned and not to listen. We have to distinguish the different kind of criticism. I’m going to start with the worst kind of criticism and that’s the full-blown antagonist and I hope none of you ever have one but I know some of you have. The full-blown antagonist is the person who would answer this question this way, “Ma’am, if you could bring this pastor down, see him fired, in disgrace, see the church ruined, but you would have to forfeit your life within the next 30 days, would you be willing?” I truly believe that in my large church, there were at least three people who would say, “Yes, I will forfeit my life. In fact I would be willing to be torn apart by wild dogs if I could live to see the day of this man unveiled in all of his wickedness.” So there are full-blown antagonists and of course with them you have to … Just know where the delete button is and when those letters come in and when those emails come in, just completely and utterly ignore them, number one.
Number two however, it is true that as in the church I pastored relatively recently, I went back to academia about six years ago. We get what feels like criticism from folks who actually love the church and love you and respect you deeply. They just happen to be very talented, very opinionated, very knowledgeable, and maybe they’re accustomed to being in charge. And so when they come to you, the approach you want to have is not to resist them with tough skin but be as tender as possible and take their comments as a quest to help you make good decisions and to lead well.
The third kind of problem we have is when a lead pastor has subordinates who stray or when a subordinate is caught up in the errors of a senior pastor. Let me just spin that out a tiny bit. In a church of any size, eventually there will be someone who does something wrong. There will be a moral failing of some kind. When that happens, ordinarily the leader is asked the question how did you not see this? Why did you not address this when this was an early nascent incipient problem? Some kind of a failure of leadership on your part and of course if you’re a subordinate you’re not held to account as much, but you’re part of the team, why didn’t you call the elders in when you saw things going wrong?
Of course I experienced, many of you experience this sort of problem. What happens most commonly is that the folks on the team recognize there’s something wrong with this person and they try to ask questions and they can’t discern what it is that’s wrong and when finally the problem breaks or erupts, you say, “Oh. I knew there was something.” So you’re going to be criticized somewhat unjustly and yet it’s true still that a leader should do his best of course to try to take care of the staff that’s underneath him.
Criticism four comes from those who are going to resist changes you propose. We all know that you shouldn’t walk into a new church and start changing things right away. Nonetheless sometimes change is demanded and you may wait 10 months, you may wait two or three years, and there will be opposition. I don’t get to quote Machiavelli approvingly very often, this is my chance. Machiavelli said that, “When a leader is proposing a change, everyone who has done well in the old order will resist it fiercely because they will see what they will lose with clarity. Whereas those who stand to gain something from the new order will be reticent to support fully because first of all it may not transpire and second the benefits of the new order is not as palpable.” So you’re going to have strong opponents and weak allies. Now Machiavelli of course was a bit of a pessimist, but the truth is more people resist change intrinsically or by nature than like change and so any time you’re going to propose a change, you need to have some tough skin because there will be people who resist simply because they’re afraid of their loss or they’re pleased or they invested themselves or maybe even they’re the creators of the order that you want to change.
The fifth category, and here we very much need to be tender of criticism is criticism that is actually directed at your sins and failings. As I list the ways in which you criticize, it is very important that we stay here for a moment and admit that we’re all sinners, we all get angry when we shouldn’t or we’re silent when we should speak or we advocate self-control and in some way or other we don’t practice what we preach and your people notice this, they notice your skills, they notice your weaknesses. You will probably show up inadequately prepared and so we must listen and in this regard of course have a tender skin and receive what people have to say.
Again, you have to a little bit watchful so if you have a larger church and you’re the preacher, you kind of have to be a little bit aloof. You have to be willing to sit alone with the books and not spend time with people if you’re going to work long and hard on a sermon. If you’re with people all the time you can’t prepare a good sermon and therefore almost by nature good preachers are ordinarily slightly aloof people and you will be criticized for that, you need to hear it, you need to try be as sociable as possible, you need to try to marry someone that’s more sociable than you are to cover your flaws. You have to [inaudible] and be a little more social. You also have to be willing to say, “You know, I’m going to be tough on this because I have to have my tough alone with the books. I’m expected to be a preacher, I have to do my work of meditation.”
Now let me say all this in a somewhat different way or to recapitulate a little bit. In Israel there were three offices, and the offices are prophet, priest and king. So a priest is a caregiver. A priest is with the people, one on one, hospital visits or something they love. The prophet of course is the preacher, is the teacher, and the king is the organizer. If you think about the history of Israel, how many people were recognized for two of the three offices? Just virtually nobody, [inaudible] was both a king and a priest, right? And David was a king and a sweet singer of Israel, so we would say he had a prophetic life. Almost nobody has two of the three, nobody has all three. Therefore it is inevitable that the people in your church will point out that you don’t have all three skill sets. What you have to is be tough enough to hear what they have to say and not unduly suffer the burden of trying to be what no one is, that is to say what no human is, no mere human, prophet, priest and king.
If you don’t know where you stand, let me offer you a simple test. If somebody gave you two hours, let’s make it two hours, if somebody gave you two hours and they said, “Here two hours just opened up in your schedule. You can use it one of three ways,” and I love to do audience participation so if you would, raise your hand, which one you would pick. You have two free hours. Who here would love to get down to the hospital and visit somebody that is in need or to hospice or to visit some of your shut-ins? Who would say, “I’m going to visit a couple people who are in great need,” raise your hand. We got about maybe 15 people, not a huge number. Who would love to plan some program, I want to dig my teeth into the obstacles and the opportunities for some transformative project for my institution, my church. Who would do that? Okay, so [inaudible] and who would love to spend time on a sermon series honing that message, who would do that? Okay, so there we are.
What that means is then that … Something like two thirds or three quarters of you are going to occasionally be criticized for not planning enough or for not caring for people enough and if your call … Now look, if you’re an associate pastor and you preach once every six months, I hope you learn to put your hand down about wanting to work on your message but if you’re a regular preacher, you’re going to have to endure criticism for not being with the people enough or not planning enough because no one is omnicompetent.
Okay, so let’s talk about practical counsel and a bit of realism for a moment. So I’ve been saying the church freely criticizes its pastors for failing to attain perfection. We can easily add that any church that expects their pastor to be an equally adept prophet, priest and king probably has some idolatry in them, expecting the perfection of their pastor that can be found in Christ alone. What hurts more is that pastors idolize their … Sorry, churches idolize their pastors one day and vilify them the next and you’re the best pastor there ever was and three weeks later, the same person you find is criticizing you harshly. Americans can’t bear disappointment in silence very well and I find that church members act more like Americans than like Christians and so they’re going to verbalize their disappointment, and so I think it’s good … You may not be the one to say it as much as somebody else, but it’s good to remind people that the Book of Hebrews says things like remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God, consider the outcome of their way of life. Imitate their faith, obey your leaders and submit to them for they are keeping watch over your souls. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning.
I realize you might not be the easiest person to deliver this message, but maybe if you’ve had an elder leader in your church say, “Friends, let’s allow our pastor to operate with joy because they’re watching over your souls. Let’s treat them in a way that allows them to be joyful.” That’s one thought.
A second thought is the Lord himself is both tough and tender and he is working in your life, as the Holy Spirit changes you and conforms you more and more to Christ, we all have I’ll say as our new birth right the privilege of being both tough and tender. So what do we hear about the Lord and his tenderness? Well for example, we have Psalm 103, Verse 13, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.” That’s the Lord, he’s our father, we’re children of the father, therefore let us expect to resemble the father or take Jesus, who sees the crowds, Matthew Chapter 9, Verse 36, and we read this, “That when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion in them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.” If you ask the question why is Jesus kind to people, why does he heal people, the most common answer is because he has compassion or mercy. Therefore it is our privilege to be, like Christ, compassionate. It’s in you by your rebirth. It is also in you, and remember that most of you raised your hands saying you wished you were tougher, it is in you to be tough because you are followers and you are members of the family of Christ.
Jesus was the toughest guy there ever was. Jesus finished arduous tasks. When he died on the cross, he said, “It’s finished. I finished this task. This terrible, painful, horrific task. I took it to the end.” He waged war against the Satan, the opponent of God’s people, and he prevailed. He bore almost unbearable physical pain and spiritual pain on the cross and prevailed through it. Jesus is tough. He crushes the head of the serpent and you my friends are heirs of toughness. I don’t know what to say, I urge you to hold onto that. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who endured the cross and despised its shame. You can, because you’re great, because you’re united to Christ, you can endure pain. You can endure the hardships of ministry. Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” and he said that to everyone.
Furthermore there are all kinds of places in the Bible where it says things like, “Be strong. Be courageous.” You know that’s the word to Joshua which is repeated a number of times both at the end of Deuteronomy as well as in the Book of Joshua, but also when Paul talks to Timothy, his successor, he says things like, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules and it is the hardworking farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.” Just a quick question, how many of you have been involved in an athletic competition that counted? How many of you have been involved in one that … Like people were watching, standings, you heap shame or glory on your team. If you’re in a really tough contest [inaudible] long and hard, one question is who wants to quit? If you know the other person, your opponent is exhausted and wants to quit, you’re probably going to win. Do you want to endure as Christ did, as Paul tells Timothy, to endure?
Now enduring and being tough is complicated by the ordinary facts of life, so [inaudible] something you know, I’m just going to label something that we know but we don’t like to say and that is besides all the ordinary problems that pastors have in the ministry, they also have all the ordinary problems of life everybody else gets. One of my most gifted students, I talked to him maybe six weeks ago now, started a church, planted a church, maybe six, seven years after he finished seminary and in God’s providence, that church grew rapidly and became the largest church in his small city within about 10 years. Church has over 3,000 people now, and it’s only 20 years … Not even 20 years old. In that church, they did everything they could possibly do to prevent the pastor burnout that occurs when a church grows rapidly, right? They handled it, they made the decisions, they built it in, they did everything right, and then a genetic disease struck him so that he is in constant physical pain. Often debilitating pain.
We talked about this. I said, “You know, this reminds me of that place where Paul runs through all the difficulties he had, beaten, stoned, lashed, tossed in prison and so forth. Then he says that he was also shipwrecked three times. There’s something about that that I love and hate. It’s like first of all I’m at sea and when I get off I’m going to preach and they’re going to vilify me and beat me and toss me in jail and stone me, but you know Lord, at least you could have kept my ship from breaking apart in the waves. Could you just have done that much for me? No actually, you let me down three times. My ship broke up. Like where are you Lord? Don’t you know how hard my life is? How can you let my car break down in the middle of a highway? Don’t you know that I have your business to do?
Now we all know this but it’s important, it’s important to realize that … I’m going to say it’s a tough-tender moment. We have to be willing to face the pain that we’re in, face the fact that we’re creatures just like everybody else, and have some level of internal toughness. I’m just going to say personally I always had the view because I think … There’s [inaudible] prosperity gospel in my background when I was an early Christian that if I’m faithful enough, most of my … The toaster won’t break if you’re loyal to God, and all your car choices will be good ones if you’re loyal to the Lord.
In the year 2011, 2013, it sounds long, sounds like three years, about a 22-month span, first of all my oldest daughter was infertile, just couldn’t have children for four years and then she got pregnant twice and lost them both to miscarriage. At the same time, I’m just going to say a great misfortune struck one of my other children, I have three children, three daughters, and at the same time my youngest daughter’s husband said one day to her, “I am moving to Australia. I am not telling you where. Do not follow me. There is no reason for my abandonment of my vows. I am just leaving. I don’t want to be married anymore.”
At the same time that those things were happening, my beloved pastor of pastoral care resigned, he was 67 and 1/2 years old, you’re allowed to do that. At the same time, I had three assistant pastors, associate pastors, fantastically talented. I knew it wouldn’t keep them forever, but they all went to get … Three of them went to get a PhD the same month, July 2012 they all left. They all have their PhDs now, great, way to go, and my senior associate became a pastor at another church all at the same time.
Remember those antagonists I told you about that would have lost their life to wild dogs? That was their apex and there’s more. I didn’t give you everything. So how do you live, how do you live when you’re in the crucible and you need to be tough and yet you feel like you’re overwhelmed. What I’m going to do is take you to Psalm 13. You know the Psalms of course often have multiple themes to them but at least to some degree, 60 of the Psalms are psalms of lament. 60 of the Psalms have some lamentation to them and I learned during this period of time and I recommend this to you to live with the laments. God has given us a way to pour out our sorrows before him, and I’ll use Psalm 13 because it’s short and it’s easy to understand and it has a movement in three parts which we need.
It begins this way, “How long oh Lord will you forget me forever?” I just want to pause there. What he says is, “How long will you forget me? I’m not asking if you forgotten me. That’s assumed. I just want to know if you’ll forget me for a week, a month, or if you’re going to forget me forever.” This is accusatory and yet it is inspired. This is language we can use, we’re allowed to say, “Lord, it feels … It’s so bad that I wonder not if you’ve abandoned me, I’m wondering if it’s going to last two years or ten years or it’s going to go on the rest of my life.” God has given this language to us. How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Then we have part two, and many, many psalms of lament have a part two like this and that is after the extreme lamentation is poured out, then there’s a plea for help. “Lord, I do believe you can see, you can hear. I believe you can do something about this. Please do,” and this is what he says. “Consider and answer me, oh Lord, my God.” As bitter as he is, he’s still “my God.” “Light up my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death.” Bring that sparkle back to my eyes, it could be translated. “Lest my enemies say I prevailed over him. Lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.”
Then there’s a break. I don’t know how many of you have ever tried to write a song or tried to write a poem or tried to write a sermon, had to put it down and come back a month or two later. How many of you have done that, come back to something months later? Yeah, most of you have. So maybe this is months later, but something happens so that by the end, he is exalting in God’s deliverance, “That I have trusted in your steadfast love, my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me.” Different hypotheses put about how on earth the psalm changes so radically. Maybe the psalmist went to the temple or the tabernacle and had an assurance of God’s presence. Maybe he visited a prophet or a counselor and was given assurance. Maybe just four months past or six months past, but somehow, the tone has changed and I believe this gives us language when we’re languishing.
My friend Dave [Pallison] also points out Psalm 129 which is one of the neglected but one of the most precious psalms to me when I’m in distress and it goes like this, it goes, “Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth. Let Israel now say.” Come on, let’s all say it together. “Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth.” Come on, let’s sing it together, that’s what he’s saying. “Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me. I have been afflicted, I am tender, but they have not prevailed. I have not despaired. I have not abandoned the cause. They have not prevailed against me.” Then it says, “The plowers plowed upon my back, they made their furrows long. The Lord is righteous, he has cut the cords of the wicked.” The powers plowed upon my back, can you imagine somebody taking a plow, a literal plow to your back? Tearing up the muscles, tearing up the sinews, breaking the bones? They made their furrows long, and yet the Lord has cut the cords. What does that mean? It means that when someone really is a foe, it’s going to feel like they’re plowing up and down your back. Up and down your soul, and you will bear the scars for the rest of your life. No one has their back plowed and sees all the scars go away.
You can still say they have not prevailed. The Lord has broken their cords. They hurt me but they are not binding me. I am wounded and I am tender, but by God’s grace, I have found toughness. Now the beauty of course is that even as the Lord demands shall we say toughness of us, he is very tender with us even when we’re not as tough as we would like or as tender as we like and if I may I will take you to Matthew Chapter 12. “The Lord is tender with us,” and of course that is both a fact in itself first and it is also a model for us in the ministry. You may remember that Jesus had a startling tendency to cure people on the Sabbath day and the … The Pharisees weren’t so kindly disposed to that and they could criticize him because by their lights, their teaching said that you should not heal somebody unless they’re on the verge of death, on the Sabbath day, it’s unnecessary labor. Jesus of course did not see it that way and so he endured their wrath.
That’s the backstory, Verses 9 and following and then Jesus comments on it in Verse 18 and following as the Pharisees are angry with him. It says this, “Behold,” this is quoting from Isaiah, “Behold my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well-pleased. I will put my soul upon him and he will proclaim justice to the gentiles. He will not cry, quarrel or cry aloud nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break and a smoldering wick he will not quench until he brings justice to victory and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
Do you know the name Richard Sibbes, who knows the name Richard Sibbes in this room? Okay, a good number. One of the most translatable of the Puritans in the 17th century. He wrote a book called A Bruised Reed, and this is his starting point for the book, and he says, “You know it’s interesting that Jesus will not break a bruised reed.” Reeds are worth very little if you’ve been in Israel or any part of the world where there are reeds. They’re numerous and they’re of scant value. At the time they could be used maybe to make pens or some other things. They’re of little value when they’re whole, a bruised reed is worthless. Jesus does not break a bruised reed, he does not quench a smoldering flax, which is almost worthless. It creates just smoke. Jesus is tender. Jesus is kind and Sibbes writing for his church but I think also if I understand him correctly writing for a pastor says, “It’s important to recognize that we are all bruised reeds.” Jesus when he says he doesn’t break a bruised reed is saying he’s tender with us.
Sibbes points out that when the Lord describes believers, he uses terms of weakness. When the Bible describes us in terms of an animal, we are sheep. When he describes us in terms of a bird, we are doves. When he describes us in terms of the plant kingdom, we are bruised reeds. He is very tender with us and it’s imperative for us to receive that and to see that we are bruised reeds.
Now some of you are tough-minded by nature, by disposition. I’m one of those that sort of enters the world in a tough-minded mindset and evidently the minority of the group here and the tough-minded person who wants to achieve and do accomplish and silence the critics by just doing so much you can’t possibly accuse me of anything, we need to recognize that we are bruised reeds. And those of us who are more tender-hearted, we understand that we’re bruised reeds and we give thanks for the Lord’s tenderness with us even if our flock isn’t always tender with us, even if our own elders or deacons or leaders are not tender with us. The Lord Jesus is. He does not crush, he does not allow our tenderness to be snuffed out.
So I want to go again to the theme of tough and tender and tell you one more time that Jesus is tough. Hebrews Chapter 2, Verse 14, “Jesus took flesh and blood that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, even the devil,” Jesus is tough. But he’s also tender as a consequence, Verses 17 and 18, same chapter of Hebrews 2, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God to make propitiation for the sins of the people, merciful and faithful.”
“We do not have a high priest,” Chapter 4, “Who is unable to sympathize with us in our weakness.” Yet we do have a high priest who is tough, he’s finished the race, he endured the pain. So what we have to do I’m going to say and to be honest, I misjudged. I kind of thought we’d have a 50/50 split on tough-tender, so I’m just going to say a little bit more about people who are tough for a moment. If you’re a tough-minded person, what you have to do is look for opportunities for the Lord to teach you tenderness. How can that happen? Well, for one thing you can become a dad or a mom and when that happens, not only do you learn your weakness, but you also see your children suffer, and there are times when you can do nothing about it. So you are tender with your children and when you’re a pastor, sometimes people just die all of a sudden and there is nothing you can do except sit with your friend and say, “I grieve with you and your loss.” There’s no preparation, they’re just gone. So learn tenderness from your inability to do anything about it.
When I was a pastor of that small church, my first call in that failing town. Six weeks into my tenure, the largest employer in the county went out of business, closed its doors, and the unemployment rate shot up by 10% overnight. All you could do is set with people and lament. There’s nothing I could do to make those jobs come back, and so sit and be quiet and lament.
Now I think I’ll close with a story about a situation I had where I had to be both tough and tender, and it goes like this. So here I am with my friends, complementarians and I’ll just say some time in the last four years, to be nice and vague, a small denomination decided to reconsider the question of women’s ordination and somebody contacted me and they said, “We would like you to be the speaker in favor of the complementarian approach and we have this very notable person who is far greater than you are so you can be afraid who is going to advocate the egalitarian position.” I said, “Okay, that’s very interesting. Tell me a few things about it if you would.” You ask all the questions and one of them is, “So what’s the audience? Is this going to be an audience of egalitarians or complementarians?” The inviter said, “Well our denomination is about 85% complementarians and so you’re going to have a friendly audience and they’ll be with you, the vast majority,” and so I created a talk appropriately, “Here’s how women can thrive in a complementarian setting,” and kind of light on the scriptures and the proof and the demonstration.
When I got there, the first 15 people I met were all egalitarians and I know something about the way it works when you flip a coin. I know that the chances are something like one in 48,000 that you’ll get 15 in a row, and so I concluded that this was not in fact 85% with me and that maybe it was 85% against me. My suspicions were confirmed when the first speaker, allegedly neutral, was clearly an egalitarian and the second speaker who was allegedly neutral was clearly an egalitarian and my suspicions were further deepened when I was at breakfast with a group of people who were talking, everybody’s trying to be nice to me because it’s a nice denomination, nice people, they’re my brothers and sisters but when one person found out that I was the complementarian speaker, she just stopped talking and turned away and didn’t talk to me anymore. I thought, “Okay, this is interesting.”
The problem is that I had a friend with me on this trip and he had arranged for me to give my same complementarian talk to a group of PCA churches and somehow or other that lasted from 6:00 p.m. till 11:00 p.m. so I had essentially … From 6:30 in the morning to 7:30 in the morning to change my talk to make it fit the situation. I will tell you that in that moment, it was very much a tough-tender sort of choice that I had. I don’t like to be disliked. I did not want to stand up in front of a room that would fold their arms at me and scowl at me and read their cellphones during my talk and get up and walk out. I wanted to be tender and likable and soften them up. I didn’t really want too much but there was something in me that wanted to be a likable person. You’re such a soft complementarian, we hardly even know what a complementarian is, and so there was a false desire for tenderness. Of course there was also a false desire for toughness because in fact the speaker right before me said things that were … That weren’t matters of opinion, they were palpably, demonstrably false and dangerous and I wanted to kill the guy, and I had five minutes to prepare to kill him.
Tough and tender. We go back to Aristotle, my friend Brian [Chappell] has appropriated him for all of us. He says, “You know when we get up to speak there are three things that you need.” Ethos, which is competence, and I figured they would give me that, ethos, he has credentials, and then there’s logos, that’s content, you know, I’m going to demonstrate things, and there’s pathos, I’m connecting with you as a person. The great temptation was to cut down on the logos and to bring the pathos up. In fact I did cut down on the logos a little bit and tried to say a little bit less and assume less and I did pump up the pathos a little, I told some really nice stories about my kids. One of whom had just gotten married and it was so sweet and they’re all, “Aww, isn’t that nice,” and I admit I was manipulating them a little bit but they … But I’m going to tell you the most important thing.
Before I speak to a group of strangers, there is a prayer that I’ll offer and the prayer is this. “Lord, these are people I do not know and maybe never will know, and I pray that they will sense your love as I preach, and that they will somehow sense at least a little bit that I’m trying to convey your love to them.” I pray that a lot and I prayed it much more. I had a certain amount of time to prepare and most of the time I prepared was prayer time to be tough enough to say enough and to be tender enough so the people felt that I was speaking the truth because I loved them.
I don’t usually like to tell stories about things that turn out well for me. You’re not supposed to do that as a speaker, you’re always supposed to talk about your failings and I’ll be happy to tell you more about my failings later, but at lunch I went through the woman who had turned away from me at breakfast. We just happened to go through the line together. There are hundreds of people there and she said, “This is kind of weird but I feel like I need to tell you that it seemed to me as you were speaking that you actually care about us.” I said, “Well I do. We’re brothers and sisters in Christ.” She said, “Yeah, but it was really weird. I had this sense that you actually love us.” I said, “Well you know, I do. I mean we disagree, but I do.”
So what I’m saying of course in this is that tough and tender is going to be a matter of a constant battle, to try to get it right. We’re going to fail and fail and fail again because we’re vulnerable, we want to be tough to cover up our vulnerabilities. We’re too tough, we think I’ve got to be tender, we’re never going to arrive the side of the moment when we meet our Lord and he makes us new like himself. But we can pray and we can say, “Lord, you have made me to be tough and tender and I want to lay hold of as much of you as you can possibly give me.”
So that’s my prayer for all of us and maybe I’ll pray just now and then we have a little time for Q&A. Heavenly father, I thank you for these men and women. It is one of the great challenges of ministry to try to be both tough and tender and I pray that by your grace we can see that you’re both, Lord Jesus, [inaudible] god, you are strong and you are kind and we pray that we look to our models in the faith and to the heroes of the faith and look to you in prayer so that we can gently deal with the issues of the day, deal with them and deal with them gently. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.”
So we have just a couple minutes for questions, I think. I forget when we’re supposed to … Are we supposed to stop? We have 10 minutes yeah, so questions or comments. Yes, and please make it a tender question if you would. Yeah, go ahead.
So I’m just going to pull back the veil a timely bit. I grew up in a violent home and people who grew up in a violent home have really sharp antennae about when you’re messing up and so I think I can usually read the horror on people’s face when I’m being too tough. Even if they’re trying to mask it, I can usually tell just by their body language, micro shifts in their face and in their posture. If somebody even just does this, just a tiny adjustment backward or their face just gets … They just do that, a tiniest motion backward or their features get flat, you’re probably being too tough with them. It’s not for sure, but that’s a strong human tendency, just micro pullbacks when you’re being too strong.
When you’re being too tender, I don’t know what to say. I’m never too tender, so … No I think when you’re too tender, it’s usually a matter of compromise. You know you’re not saying something you need to say. You think I’m speaking half of what needs to be spoken or taking half the actions or a quarter of the actions that I know need to be taken. So a good conscience I think will be your guide on that one. That’s my subjective answer. Other people might have other answers.
Yeah absolutely. I think there’s a time to say to somebody … And if they won’t listen to you, maybe get an elder in your church or a godly woman or a team in your church to say, “Look, we appreciate your viewpoint, we really do.” Especially if it’s antagonism type two which we think you’re making a terrible mistake and then if it gets bound up with you’re also a terrible person of course it’s more complicated but you can say this is the direction of our church and if you want to be an active part of this church, you’re allowed to criticize and suggest but you’ve come to the point you’re disrupting our ability to fulfill our ministry and so we really think it’s best for you to go elsewhere.
Of course there’s a place for church discipline if they’re slandering and lying but I do think it’s appropriate not often but occasionally to say, “There are other churches that come closer to approximating your vision of faithful ministry and maybe it would be good for you to go there. I’m clearly frustrating you and I want you to be able to come to church and worship and not think about how I’m upsetting you and failing you over … You need to worship. Go to a place where you can worship in peace.”
It depends. Obviously if it’s someone who means well and they just have a very sharply different view of things you don’t have to warn them but I certainly warn if it’s one and two combined, the hatred antagonism and different opinions, absolutely.
No no, that was my daughter’s husband or ex-husband in this case. So he just said, “I don’t want to be married. There is no reason.” He and I talked for an hour. I said, “I know my daughter has her faults.” “No no, it’s all me. I just don’t want to be married. I don’t know why I got married. She’s great, I just don’t want to be married. I’m leaving.” Much more to it than that but that was a part of it, yeah.
Yeah, right, four actually. Or five counting the one that retired. Well, it was the hardest period of my life. I lamented a lot. At one point I did say to my elders, I said, “I don’t need a sabbatical but I do need … I need to go walk in the woods a lot, and so I’m going to try to work 35 hours a week for the next month which basically means I’m going to preach my sermons and run some crucial meetings and do a discipleship meeting and I’m going to ask you to let me work 30, 35 hours a week for a month,” which helped a lot.
Even the question, my heart flutters as I think back on that time. It was very difficult. I have a wonderful wife, and so she told me how much she loves me many times and in God’s providence I had many wonderful friends and fantastic elders who were so supportive. So I got a lot of support, it was still hard. Right, so I’ll just label what I did wrong and I said I grew up in a violent home, there was some physical violence but it was more emotional violence so my father told me literally thousands of times, “You’re good for nothing and you always will be.” So I was trying always to prove him wrong by accomplishing a lot, so I did my MDiv and my PhD in 47 months just to kind of show I could do it. My dad didn’t notice, no surprise there. So that was … Deep within me is the answer to a critic is to prove them wrong by doing everything and in the start of that time, I was working 17 hours a day. I’m just going to do everything so you can’t possibly criticize me. I’m going to answer every email within 45 minutes.
That was the path of death and I needed to pull back. [inaudible], godly friends, elders, wife, told me, “This isn’t working. You’re not going to solve this. You’re not going to do the work of three people while the searchers are going on and silence the critics and the pain in your heart about what’s happened to your kids, you can’t solve all that by just working hard.” That was my big mistake.
What I find is … When you’re under stress, who here eats too much? Who eats more than they should? Okay, and who stops eating? Okay, very good. When you’re under great stress who works too much, who thinks I’ll solve [inaudible] work work work work, who stops working or doesn’t work enough? Phil here says I don’t make either of those mistakes. Way to go, you should be giving this talk. So most of you … You have to recognize your tendency, right? I finally saw it. I mean I saw it for a while before I acted on it. I saw that my approach is to work too much and it took me a while to break from that. So figure out who you are. Are you a stress eater or a non-eater, are you a stress worker or are you stress lazy, sleep 14 hours a day and try to get talented, godly, loving people around you to help you overcome your propensity to go off the cliff one way or the other.
Yeah, in the back. Yeah. The short answer would be if you have to say something or do something, it helps a lot of people including tough-minded people, to script it out a little bit. I’m going to talk to this person who is misbehaving, I’m going to say these things. Go over it a little bit and make sure you cover your points. We’re going to have to reload our leadership program or posture in these one, two, three, four words. I’m going to say it, that’s going to help me be tender. Tough I mean, but you still have to pray and if you’re tender by nature, it should be easy for you and just pray it through.
I’ve got like 30 seconds left. One more question, and I’ll try to answer it in 10 seconds.
Dan Doriani: Yes. Yes. If you’re tender, hire tough. If you’re tough, hire tender. Good word. Amen. You’re dismissed.
This episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast is brought to you by Crossway, publisher of Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church by bestselling author Paul David Tripp. Drawing from decades of ministry experience, Tripp offers 12 gospel principles to help churches battle the issue lurking behind every pastoral failure—a lack of a strong leadership community. Sign up for a free Crossway+ account by Thursday, October 15, and enjoy 40 percent of this book at crossway.org/PaulTripp.