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The work of a church leader is difficult and can be painful. Many times it takes tough skin to shield your heart. According to Carey Nieuwhof keeping a soft heart in the midst of exhaustion and pain is a common struggle among church leaders. Resisting the development of a hard heart has to be a top priority.

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I don’t know about you, but as for me, the longer I serve in leadership the more intentional I have to be at keeping my heart open and fully alive.

That’s a polite way of saying that the longer I’m in leadership, the more I have to guard against my heart becoming hard.

Hardness of heart is a condition that people on the other side of God develop. Pharaoh had it. Israel did on occasion. And the Pharisees specialized in it. Not exactly great company if you ask me.

So it’s a little bit vulnerable to admit you struggle with it. But I do.

At times I think it’s an almost natural by-product of ministry. (Maybe it’s a natural by-product of life...but I’ve done my adult life in ministry, so I’m not the best diagnoser beyond that.)

Like a physician who sees illness or tragedy every day, you develop a way of dealing with the pain. And some of that’s healthy. But if I don’t monitor things carefully, I can move into full seasons where I don’t feel much of anything at all. My heart can grow hard.

What are some early warning signs of a hard heart?

  • 1. You don’t really celebrate and you don’t really cry. Well, you might on the outside, but in reality you don’t feel it.
  • 2. You stop genuinely caring. Enough said.
  • 3. So much of what’s supposed to be meaningful feels mechanical. From your personal friendships to your family to work, the feeling’s gone.
  • 4. Passion is hard to come by. For anything.
  • 5. You no longer believe the best about people. Even when you meet someone, you’re thinking about what’s going to go wrong, not what’s going to go right.

How does it happen? Here are a few ways:

  • You focus on patterns, not people. In my first few years in ministry, all I saw were people. Then I realized people behaved certain ways. Actually, people behave in certain predictable ways. Unchecked, that can lead to cynicism when you realize the people who say they want to change (and at first you believe them), don’t change. When I become fixated on the patterns, not the people beneath them, my heart grows hard. Patterns are discouraging. People aren’t.
  • You over-protect a broken heart. People promise and don’t deliver. Your hopes were bigger than what happened. You trusted someone and your trust was misplaced. Really, that’s just life. It happens to everyone. But how you respond is so critical. It’s easy to shield yourself from people. It’s easy to stop trusting, stop loving, stop believing. But that would be a mistake. It kills your heart.
  • You stop looking for what’s good in people and situations. Because life has its disappointments, and people are still people even after they become Christians (it’s amazing how that happens), it’s easy to focus on personal and organization shortcomings. If you keep that up, it can be all you focus on. Keep looking for flickers of light. Your job as a leader is to spot the hope in any situation anyway, to find a way when it looks like there’s no way. So keep looking.
  • You accept a harder heart as a new normal. A hardened heart isn’t inevitable, but it does take intentional effort to guard against one. When you feel your heart becoming hard, you need to take action and fight against it.

All that said, I’ve also discovered this: if you work at it, your heart can stay supple. When you pick away at the callous, something wonderful God created still beats underneath. And you enter a new season of life wiser, but very much fully alive.

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How’s your heart? Is this something you have to struggle with too? If you had to pick one thing that hardens your heart, what would it be?

Find the original article "The Early Warning Signs of a Hard Heart" by Carey Nieuwhof.