Empathy in Leadership- Part Three of the Godly Leadership Series
Have you ever taken a spiritual gifts test? I took one early in my spiritual journey. While I was excited that I scored well for the gifts of exhortation and teaching, I was shocked to realize I scored very low in mercy and empathy. Out of a possible 100 points, I scored a FOUR in the gift of mercy. A FOUR. It doesn’t take a math wiz to realize that a 4 out of 100 would be a failing score on any test.
I asked a mentor if she could help me understand how I could be gifted at exhortation (insinuating that I am an encourager by nature) but score so low in mercy and empathy and she put it this way:
Two people are walking one day and see a third person stuck in a deep pit. The person gifted in exhortation calls down and says, “Hey! How’d you get stuck in this pit?” The person answers, “I’m not sure. I’m just here and can’t get out!” The Encourager says, “Hang on! I can help! I’m going to go get a ladder so we can get you out!” When she comes back with the ladder, two people are in the pit. She calls down, “Hey! Why did you get in the pit with them?” And the other person says, “Well, I saw they were alone and I knew I could help by sitting with them in the dark.”
My mentor said, “You are the person getting the ladder. You have sympathy and want to fix the problem. But the person who crawls into the pit with them? That person has empathy.”
I knew I needed to develop better empathy skills if I wanted to lead like Jesus. In a recent Replant Bootcamp podcast episode, JimBob discussed this invaluable characteristic of a Godly leader and the difference it can make in the life of a replant pastor.
The Definition of Empathy
There is pushback in some circles toward the idea of “empathy” toward others in a pastoral context. We seem to sometimes equate it with “acceptance” of a person’s actions. Unfortunately, this not only mis-defines empathy, it misses an important aspect of mercy in our ministry to others. Empathy, by definition, is not ignoring the actions that brought someone to where they are– it is putting yourself in their shoes and feeling their pain as though it were your own.
Some of us have also equated empathy with sympathy. But, again, we miss the definition of both when we conflate the two. Sympathy says, “I’m sorry this is happening to you.” Empathy says, “I am with you in this pain and this is happening to us.” Sympathy allows you a lesser sense of involvement because it allows you to stay removed from the pain of another person.
A third definition is helpful here, too, when we look at empathy. Compassion is empathy in action. You are so motivated by the pain of someone else that it moves you toward action. This response can be difficult for those of us who were never shown compassion from our parents. If the reply to your pain was an exasperated parent saying, “Well if you hadn’t done XYZ, then this wouldn’t have happened.“ Or “get over it. You’re fine,” you are going to find it very difficult to come to a place of empathy with others. Likewise, if you had a very emotional parent who made your pain more about them than about you, you will likely have a hard time dealing with being empathetic toward someone else’s emotional pain. You have not had empathy modeled for you, so it will be hard to understand why you need to give it to others.
The Demand for Empathy
While all pastors should practice empathy as they counsel and work with the people their team, replant pastors have a unique role to play as they serve. In a replant, there are likely to be two issues that demand we respond with empathy. The first is the propensity toward change in a replant. In a separate blog and podcast, the Replant Bootcamp team discussed the emotional cycle of change. As you guide your church through transformation, empathy helps you seek to not only understand negative pushback toward change, but also to navigate through someone’s emotional response to it. The second issue a replant pastor faces is the need to reach the community around them. The experiences in the surrounding community may be very different from your own. Your response to their pain must be from a place of understanding and empathy. People who are hurting need to hear and know that you care and have compassion for them so that they can hear the hope of the Gospel.
This isn’t a new idea. This characteristic of compassion and empathy is modeled in the way Jesus saw and ministered to people. Jesus repeatedly felt compassion toward people and moved to action by his care for them.
In Mark 1:41, the Bible tells us Jesus was “moved with pity” as he healed a leper. In Mark 6:34, he “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd and he began to teach them many things.” In Mark 8:2, Jesus states that he “had compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat.” He then directs his disciples to feed the crowd. In Luke 7:13, Jesus heals the widow’s son after having compassion on her and saying, “do not weep.” And in both the parable of the good Samaritan and the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus states that the character’s actions came from a place of compassion and empathy for the person in need.
Jesus consistently treated people with empathy, and his compassion moved him toward action. He didn’t condone their sin or become frustrated with it. He simply cared about them enough to show them grace and mercy so that they could hear and receive the ultimate answer to their needs– the Gospel.
The Development of Empathy
Fortunately for me, failing in the area of mercy and empathy doesn’t have to be a permanent position. Empathy is a skill any leader can develop with time. There are 5 ways that you can become more empathetic toward the people you serve:
- Be fully present. The people you serve need to know that they are important to you. Give them your full attention.
- Be an active listener. Engage people and actively listen to their stories. You may want to put your phone down and exercise curiosity. Ask about their perspective and their background. What led them to this moment? What experiences have they had?
- Suspend judgment. Seek to understand where someone is coming from before you make judgments about them. Remember their experiences have informed their emotions and actions, and their experience may be different than yours.
- Create compassionate understanding. Before you attempt to “solve” an issue, try to understand the other person’s perspective on it. Be compassionate as you try to help them move toward resolution.
- Practice proactive caring. Meet the person’s needs as you’re able to, whether that’s being actively involved in meeting physical needs, or simply sitting with them as they need you.
When we practice Godly empathy, we are modeling Christ’s compassion for others. To truly be a godly leader, one must be willing to sit with someone else’s pain the way He did. Jesus allowed himself to be moved into someone else’s pain, even to the point of weeping with them or over them.
Sit in the pit with the person, and then crawl out together. You’ll both be grateful you did.