Nov 13, 2017


Thick Skin and Tender Hearts in College Ministry

Rudy Hartmann reflects on Eric Geiger’s “Thick Skin, Tender Hearts” principle and applies it to college ministry leadership.

I remember one of the hardest moments in my first year of ministry, back in 2015. Two of the leaders in our college ministry, an older couple that had served faithfully and had a massive impact on the lives of several of our students, were stepping down and moving to another church to be with their adult children and grandchildren who went there. This couple had been instrumental in shaping me through college and I had come to the church really excited to work with them in building the college ministry…and by the end of the first year they were leaving.

They had a good reason, but I was still hurt, and wasn’t sure how to process how I was feeling. I understood that they wanted to be with their family, but I felt like they were abandoning me. What was happening?

My pastor at the time led me well in this moment by laying out a principle developed by Eric Geiger, of Lifeway Leadership, on having “Thick Skin and a Tender Heart.” He helped me understand that while my heart was tender, my skin was thin. I wanted to love this couple well, but I was finding my value and identity in their approval of me, which I evaluated based on their attendance and presence. This moment opened my eyes to a framework understanding not only what was happening in me, but what was happening in our students and leaders as well. Further, I began to see how Jesus was a perfect model of this, and began to understand that by looking to Him, I could grow in these areas.

The grid and explanations below has been a great tool to help develop students into leaders who love of those around them but do not find their identity in the opinions and actions of those they are leading or leading with. This is great to walk through with a student, a leadership team, or even yourself. My hope is that this is a helpful tool for diagnosing and discipling different students and leaders in your ministry, and helping them to look and lead more like Jesus.

Heart & Skin Grid:

Quadrant 1 – Thick Skin, Thick Heart
Explanation: This is, quite simply, an unhealthy place to be. It is both apathetic in regards to any heart passions, and yet not very teachable, because their skin is too tough to receive correction or guidance. Likely, it is due to the thickness of the heart that has resulted in the tenderness of the skin.
Strength: It is difficult for this person to find their identity scarred by the words and actions of others. Further, they might be solid followers, but only out of a sense of duty, not desire or passion toward a missional end.
Issue: It is difficult for this person to deeply care for others, often making them ineffective disciplemakers. Again, they may disciple out of duty, but not desire. If in a position of leadership, they are quick to treat people like projects and not people. Further, it is difficult for them to care for themselves well for the same reasons.
Growth Step: Ask this student what it would look like to fall more in love with Jesus and how that might translate to loving others more. Keep asking “why?” to get to the deeper issues – often that apathy and callousness exists due to a lack of space to be transparent and open in relationship or community. This has likely led to a pattern of stuffing experiences – give them room to expose them. Try to disturb what has caused their heart to grow more calloused. When God begins to do the work of changing of this person, their reaction will often be a complete 180-degree turn to the Tender Skin, Tender Heart.

Quadrant 2 – Tender Skin, Tender Heart
Explanation: This is the student who is likely known as the one that “anyone can go to.” They’ll talk with anyone about anything, always ready to listen, and always ready to comfort and show affection. The tenderness of their heart draws them to people, but when someone walks away, shuts them out, or is sharp toward them, they feel it deeply – even if they don’t externally express the hurt. This is the person who will fall on the sword for others, but will bear that weight and feel that scar. Often these can be some of your best, most faithful volunteers who desire to be behind the mission, but also have to hear encouraging words to be sure that they are pleasing those around them.
Strength: Incredible counselor-type leaders. Always down to step into the one-on-one meetings with other students. Active listeners, driven by a genuine desire to see others know and love Jesus more.
Issue: Easily offended, even if they don’t express it. Their tender hearts will move them to hide the hurt of someone offending them or even being sharply rebuked, by moving them to put on a good face. Some with tender skin will wear their emotions, but others will hide it to keep the appearance of someone who is welcoming. In immaturity, they feel that to really show affection toward others, they have to hide what they’re feeling so they don’t burden those around them. This can lead to a stuffed, insidious bitterness. They will also struggle deeply with unmet expectations in others, and will be incredibly slow to confront sinful living in others, if they ever do – the irony being that this could possibly be one of the least loving things they could do
Growth Step: Help this person see where they are finding their identity in the words of others, while simultaneously helping them to maintain their affections for others. Help them discover where they have people-pleasing tendencies, and walk them through the portions of the Gospel they may be forgetting surrounding their identity in Christ. The tension here is to help their skin thicken, while their heart remains tender. If not careful, their stuffed bitterness and feelings of hurt run the risk of flipping this tension, and moving toward having a thick heart and tender skin.

Quadrant 3 – Tender Skin, Thick Heart
Explanation: Much like the first quadrant, the thick heart of this person makes caring well for others difficult. However, where the strength of the first quadrant is a thick skin and settled identity, this student is one who struggles to love well and is easily offended. This may be the worst position to be in, as their identity is easily wounded, but their heart does not easily change. The adage “hurt people, hurt people” is evident here. This student is prone to lash out and respond to most approaches to help or shepherd by hurting the one who approaches them.
Strength: None.
Issue: Their self-centeredness has led to a higher sensitivity toward what they think others feel about them, and a lack of sensitivity in regards to how they treat others.
Growth Step: The temptation is to strongly push on this student, and point out the weaknesses they have – but this will likely drive them away, and they will spiral deeper and deeper into their hurt and bitterness. This may be a slow work, but there is hope for this student. It has been said that the same sun that melts the ice, hardens the clay. These students need the Gospel to both melt their heart, and harden their skin, by giving them a passion for others, driven by humility, and a settledness in the identity they have in Christ. Often, these students will move into one of the previous phases before being positioned to grow into one who has thick skin and a tender heart.

Quadrant 4 – Thick Skin, Tender Heart
Explanation: This is the student who gathers and loves people in accordance with the way God has made them, while simultaneously not finding their worth or value in what others think of them. Fluent in the Gospel, they know how to speak with grace and truth into the lives of others and toward themselves.
Strength: These are the students it is easiest to trust with leadership. They know how to receive a rebuke or correction, and are wise in how they learn and grow from it. They are compassionate, but know how to set boundaries that are healthy. They are more concerned with what Jesus says is true of them, than what people think or say about them.
Issue: Maintenance. As a student, life is changing all the time and the cataclysmic moments can sometimes shake their centeredness. Someone leading this student should constantly be celebrating right rhythms and catching early where there may be deviations.
Growth Step: Help this student understand the value of having thick skin and a tender heart – and how rare it often is. Eventually, give them space to operate in leadership and influence other students and, even, the culture of your ministry with this combination. This is where we desire our students to be – where they are compassionate and driven, but not decimated by the words and actions of others. Where their hearts’ beat for what Christ’s beats for, and their identity is hidden and safe in Him.

Processing Questions:

  • Where are a majority of students in your ministry on this grid?
  • Where are your leaders on this grid? How can you help them take the next step?
  • How can you rightly give room for the Quadrant 4 student to lead and influence others in your ministry?
  • Where do you fall in this grid? Where do you, personally, need to take growth steps toward having thick skin and a tender heart?

about the author

Rudy Hartmann

Rudy Hartmann is a church planting candidate with the Salt Company in Ames, IA. He previously served in college ministry in Tampa, FL.