Because ministry is centrally about relationships, we see the whole human spectrum of behavior—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Like other people-serving roles (police, physicians, counselors, social workers) it’s tempting to give in to jaded assumptions. We find ourselves expecting the worst in people. We’re quick to get frustrated and angry—ready to jump into battle with the “sheep.” We need a change in our approach, an altered perspective, and a heavy dose of empathy…
Empathy is fueled by wonder instead of judgment—we simply slow down to explore things from another person’s perspective. We put on the shoes of another person, as the saying goes, and walk a mile. Collectively, we are moving through a season when our nerves, and our patience, are frayed by years of division and cultural conflict. Emotionally, we are trigger-happy people.
So, when we are tempted to assume the worst in a person, an empathetic leader offers the benefit of the doubt and slows down to wonder about the situation from the person’s perspective. We tap into the compassion we’ve been given by Jesus, offering a little bit of it to the vexing person in front of us. We’re not acquiescing to poor performance or overlooking patterns of negative behavior. We’re simply giving grace before we jump to conclusions and think the worst. We stop to consider the issue from their perspective. And we try to better understand their situation, assume the best, offer forgiveness if needed, and then move on.
Because we’d have no empathy to give if we hadn’t first “tasted and seen” the goodness of Jesus toward us—the grace and mercy of His empathy—we’re walking in the way of Jesus when we are “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32, ESV). When we offer to others what Jesus first offers us, they experience Jesus in us. It’s a difference-maker.
A slow-down-and-wonder approach allows us to consider where other people are coming from, understand their challenges, consider their opportunities for growth, and even appreciate their talents and strengths. We recognize people as human and fallible, just like us. And we recognize the wonderful lurking potential in them, just like us. Empathy supports the long-term growth and success of the people around us. And it creates the conditions for thriving in our congregation. People will open themselves to grow and establish deeper connections with God and one another when they feel safety in their relational environment. And empathy is a powerful communicator of relational safety…
Think of the parent-teenager relationship. Adolescents are plagued by immaturity and, often, poor attitudes. But we know that our role as parents is to respond with grace and restraint. Why? Because parents understand their child’s future potential. Given the right opportunities, teaching, and time, their teenager can become a successful, well-adjusted adult. Likewise, it’s the ministry leader’s responsibility to ensure their team members are growing and developing. This can only happen if the leader thinks like a parent, always contemplating that future potential—offering opportunities, training, and time so that their team members can grow and develop. Without an empathetic heart, leaders would cut their losses and move on.
Leading with empathy means providing an environment that is grace-filled, compassionate, and concerned for the well being (development and growth) of the people around us. Only when we give people the benefit of the doubt, and consider them in a positive light (which targets their future potential) will we be capable of exercising true empathy.
Note what happens when you shift your posture to assume the best in people, thinking about things from their perspective… How does this inpact and strengthen your relationship with them?
Jason Bland is a certified leadership coach, trained in Vibrant Faith’s Ministry Leadership Coaching School. His coaching and consulting approach is focused on helping leaders find the solution that fits their unique personal & professional strategic goals.