A church leader recently said to me, “Leadership seems to be a continual stream of low grade conflict.” These words, coupled with a recent survey in which 86% of leaders identified that they were experiencing a little to a lot of conflict at this time, have made me reflect on how as leaders we can deal with conflict and criticism without losing heart.

Twice in 2 Corinthians 4 Paul writes…

“We do not lose heart.”

We only need to read 2 Corinthians 1:8 to realise that Paul writes these words against the backdrop of great “troubles” and conflicts in his own leadership, where he was “so utterly, unbearably crushed that he despaired.” He knows that in seasons of sustained difficulty and discouragement the leader can begin to lose heart.

Perhaps you, like myself, have at times felt like giving up, you have lost heart, because of the conflicts you have faced in this last season.
Proverbs 4:23 holds the iconic exhortation,

“Above all else guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”

At the heart of leadership is the matter of the heart.

Lasting leaders need a Tender Heart & Thick Skin.

  • Tender Heart | a heart where criticism hasn’t destroyed compassion, where ongoing need hasn’t diminished concern, and where hurt hasn’t depleted love.
  • Thick Skin | thick but permeable skin so that the right things get through (otherwise we become unmoved), but thick enough to mean that criticisms and genuine disagreements don’t damage our core identity.

There are four possible combinations of these two factors:
thick skin, tough heart; thin skin, tough heart; thin skin, tender heart; thick skin, tender heart. Knowing our tendency can help us to identify our point of growth. What category do you tend to lean into when you are struggling?

Paul continues in 2 Corinthians giving wisdom on how to nurture a tender heart and develop a thick skin so as to not lose heart:

Depend on God

“But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God.” (2 Corinthians 1:9-10). Unjust, uncomfortable and unexpected conflicts can produce profound reliance on God if we let them. As we express utter dependency and relinquish self-sufficiency the temptation to harden our heart loosens it grip and our suffering can lead to the thick skin of endurance and hope.

Don’t go alone

Paul writes these early chapters of 2 Corinthians in the ‘we’ form with one exception in 2:12 where he says that a door was open to ‘me’ to preach the gospel but instead he moved to Macedonia because he’d lost track of Titus and he wanted to find him. Can this be right? God gave Paul an opportunity to minister but he didn’t take it because he didn’t want to go it alone. Criticism can sometimes tempt us to go solo, or retreat into loneliness and unhealthy isolation. Might we pause in times of criticism and conflict to seek out our own Titus’?

Don’t look down

Sustained criticism and conflict can cause us to look down on our leadership calling, defining it by what we see, or don’t see, around us. Paul understands the difference between his inner and outer life. He presumably has scars, possibly a limp, maybe a speech impediment, and most certainly bags under his eyes, but those eyes were fixed on what is unseen and eternal comprising the primary definition of his leadership (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). He understood that his calling was glorious (2 Corinthians 3) – and by God’s grace so is yours!

Conflict and criticism will always be a part of a leader’s experience. A tender heart and a thick skin will help us to respond well, bless others, and maintain an ability to love.
Perhaps a season of sustained “troubles” have made you feel like giving up – you’ve lost heart. As you take that into prayer, verbalise your dependency on God to restore you, search out a trusted friend for support, and remind yourself that yours is worthy calling.