In American culture, empathy is like a drug. How we feel about anything has become more important than how we think about something. Elevating the importance of one’s feelings allows us to justify whatever we do and frees us from accepting responsibility for our actions, but doesn’t allow us to make progress on our most pressing problems.
Here’s an example from my work:
Jan called, and said her friend referred her to me. In her voicemail Jan mentioned her friend suggested I might be able to help her with a few problems she was having at work. I had been a therapist for about ten years and had gotten many calls like this one. But as I listened to her voice mail something made me think there was more to the story.
In our first session Jan told me how much I had helped her friend and that her friend had told her I was a very understanding and caring person. Generally when I am being flattered before someone has had any experience working with me I become cautious. Jan had already seen several other therapists but not surprisingly they hadn’t really helped much. One thing I know for sure is that I am not a lot smarter than every other therapist!
Jan was an attractive and clearly talented woman whose performance did not match her abilities. She felt she was unfairly passed over for promotions or not given opportunities that she felt she deserved. As she told me her story she became increasingly upset with how she perceived her supervisor and her peers were treating her. After listening for a while, I gently asked her if she thought she had any part in the problems she was experiencing at work. She again explained what she thought was happening. Perhaps thinking I hadn’t really heard her the first time. I asked Jan again was there anything she might be doing unintentionally that might be creating part of the problem. She said, “ I thought you were an understanding therapist. I don’t think you have an empathic bone in your body.”
“Is that why you came to see me?” I asked, “for understanding and empathy? I thought you were coming to make changes that would allow you to realize your potential and become successful in your career. You don’t need empathy from me because that won’t help you.” I said, “Jan, you could never get enough of what you don’t really need! Do you want to make progress in your life and in your relationships or do you want to continue to blame others for not realizing your dreams?”
I saw Jan for about six months and she made great strides at work and in her personal life. At the end of each session she would smile and say, “ You know, you’re not very empathic for a therapist”. And I would smile back and say, “yes I do know.”
As I coach, I work with pastors all over the country. One thing many of them share is that they are genuinely caring and empathic people. But it’s the misuse of empathy that lays the foundation for the frustration and the burnout so many of these dedicated committed men and women experience. Feelings are important but only in the service of thinking. They are clues that can be used to increase your self-awareness. And self-awareness is the foundation of accepting responsibility for the actions and decisions we each make every day.
Don’t get me wrong; there are times when empathy is appropriate, especially when someone experiences a loss of a parent, child, or friend. But when people come to us for help and we fail to hold them accountable for their actions and their behavior, we have done them a disservice. For many pastors it’s difficult to hold people accountable whether it is staff or volunteers or their congregation. Yet this is a crucial role the pastor, as the good shepherd and the leader, of his or her church must be willing to embrace. Therapists suffer from some of the same beliefs pastors do but most of them know to seek supervision. Most pastors need outside support in the form of executive coaching and every church should support their pastor in getting what they actually do need and can use. The Gospel has always been and will always be counter-culture. And as our culture moves farther from the Gospel, paradoxically the Gospel becomes more relevant. The regressive anxiety in our culture can only be diminished by effective leaders and where better to look for leadership than the Gospel.