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Empathetic Leadership: A New Way of Heading into General Assembly

By June 7, 2012 No Comments

The Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly is soon upon us. This biennial gathering of commissioners, special interest groups, GA staff members, reporters, and other church leaders will commence on June 30 in Pittsburgh and respond to proposed overtures and reports sent from presbyteries around the country. Those near and far will be watching closely for the voting results on this year’s most contentious and fiercely debated pieces of legislation—e.g., gay marriage and civil unions, property rights for congregations seeking to leave the denomination, and the restructuring of presbyteries to allow like-minded congregations to affiliate with one another outside of normal geographical boundaries.

GA is really like a well-oiled machine. I walked around slack-jawed at my first one many years ago. It’s impressive on many levels. Robert’s Rules of Order work, and Presbyterians know how to do RRO. (It’s that whole “decently and in good order” thing.) To be more precise, GA works when it comes to making large-scale decisions in a fairly democratic manner. But it doesn’t work so well when it comes to the kind of adaptive changes needed to fulfill the church’s mission in an era of conflict, crisis, and change. Rarely is the conflict that exists in and between PCUSA congregations and their leaders transformed at GA. I suspect that the current structure simply cannot support that kind of work.

Nevertheless, I do think that participants at GA could commit to empathetic leadership, a way of being in relationship to self and others that contributes to the transformation of conflict into communal connection. At the very least, empathetic leadership involves both a willingness to enter the heart of the conflict that exists in ourselves and in others and the knowledge and skill to address that conflict in such a way that, by God’s grace, it is transformed into compassion, care, and renewed ministry in the world.

Listening first

Empathetic leadership begins with listening. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him.”[1]

Fully attentive and receptive listening, which God first gives to us in Jesus Christ, is the paradigm for empathetic ministry in the church.  Yet such listening, if we are honest, is not easy. It does not come naturally. It involves being fully present (physically, emotionally, spiritually) to others in the midst of their grief, anger, disappointment, perplexity, and so on. It aims to understand others as fully as possible, and in doing so, to convey that we value and care about the particularity of their experience. Empathy doesn’t try to persuade, convince, or fix others; it doesn’t educate or console. Instead, it hears and acknowledges that which matters most to others in any given situation. As such, empathy is a skill to be learned as much as it is an innate capacity.[2] Further, the key in empathy is hearing and acknowledging needs. Hearing others at this depth not only conveys respect and understanding but also fosters attachment and a sense of belonging. Empathy nurtures relational bonds and, as studies have shown, is a contributing factor in healing our minds.[3]

Hearing anger but sinning not

Empathetic leadership boldly faces the problems and possibilities within anger. Most expressions of human anger tear down, wound, and dishonor those who are made in God’s image. It is not surprising that the warning to “be angry and sin not” is couched in a discussion on the upbuilding of the body of Christ. For anger can be volatile, contagious, and destructive when unleashed in communities. When it is denied or suppressed, the effects are just as lethal: our passion, creativity, and energy for meaningful activity are dulled. We lose interest and hope, because anger has a “life-serving core.” Disconnected from that core, we lose the opportunity to transform anger into passionate life-giving action.

How we hear and respond to anger, then, can either encourage or discourage others in participating in the mission of God in, through, and in spite of the PC(USA). Minimizing others’ anger, fanning it into flames, or shaming them for it: these responses to anger exacerbate conflict and undermine the church’s ministry.  In contrast, helping others to discover the buried treasure within their anger can lead to a renewed sense of vocation.

At the core of anger lie potent, energizing needs and values. Masking these needs are highly evaluative and frequently moralistic judgments about the church and/or its members. Sometimes these judgments take the form of enemy images – e.g., left-wing bigots, truth squads, schismatics, apostate.s  When caught up in these moralistic judgments and enemy images, we are prone to cut-offs, triangulation, scapegoating, and distancing, the very kinds of relational postures that diminish authentic community and tear down the body of Christ. And this is to say nothing of the fact that we also are breaking the ninth commandment!

So to hear anger and sin not, we avoid reinforcing these enemy images. We give space for others to vent with the intent of helping them to identify and connect with their unmet needs/values buried underneath their judgments. Underneath the evaluation that the church is full of left-wing bigots may be chronically unmet needs for fairness, honesty, and trust. Underneath the label of truth squads may be chronically unmet needs for respect and humility. The key in empathetic leadership is to listen for and acknowledge these needs, and in so doing, to honor the values of the one who is angry. 

And when we ourselves are angry, we can ponder the significance of having our values for trust, integrity, fairness, honesty, etc. met in and through the church.  When we identify and connect to the fullness of these needs, our anger shifts from moralistic judgment to identification of what matters most to us.  Anger can then become passionate commitment to our most cherished Christian values.

Blessing those who mourn

Mourning is one of our most basic human needs and, when combined with lament, a spiritual practice that enhances our connection to God, each other, and ourselves. When we fail to find strategies that adequately uphold the values of a diverse group of Christians, when empathy is not reciprocated and our best efforts do not transform vitriolic discourse, we need to mourn. When we feel pain and disappointment about denominational decisions, we need to mourn before we act.  

Empathetic leadership creates space for mourning, for full expression of one’s thoughts, feelings, and needs. It focuses less attention on what the church has or hasn’t done and more attention on needs that are unmet. It encourages others to experience the full range of emotion related to their unmet needs. It considers their stories to be sacred, a fallen but real participation in the grand narrative of God’s work in the world.

Mourning takes time, perhaps months or years. It cannot be rushed. We bless those who mourn when we sit with them, figuratively and literally, in the midst of their grief. We bless them when we remind them that ultimately God, not the church, is the source of all our needs. Grounded in the One in whom all things hold together (Col. 1), mourning can create in us a broken-hearted compassion for the world (and church) that God loves. It can lead us out into mission even in and through the PC(USA).


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (Harper & Row, 1954), p. 97.

[2] In recent years, neurobiologists have demonstrated an innate capacity for empathy present in young children and even primates. New schools of thought, such as social neuroscience and the neuroscience of empathy, have emerged from these findings.

[3] See Daniel Siegel, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (Guilford Press, 1999).

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