the shape of leadership

Building Bridges

How empathy can make you a better minister

Chris Colvin on May 10, 2017

All professionals strive to be better at their jobs. Accountants study up on new tax laws. Salesmen perfect their pitches. Even plumbers take continuing education classes. It’s no different for ministers. We must continue to improve at our craft if we want to present ourselves to God as workers who do not need to be ashamed (2 Timothy 2:15).

One area of continuing improvement is how we interact with others. As ministers, God’s glory is our goal, but people are our focus. In a way, our job is to build a bridge between the people we serve and the God we worship. Whether you’re speaking to an audience, leading a team or just lending an ear, there is one surefire way to build that bridge: empathy.

As ministers, God’s glory is our goal, but people are our focus. 

It’s not always easy to remain empathetic in ministry. At times, it can be difficult to relate to the perspectives of broken and rebellious people. But whatever your area of ministry expertise, God is calling you to become a bridge builder. 

What Is Empathy?
Empathy is simply an awareness of someone else’s emotional state. It’s the ability to orient yourself to their point of need. What are they feeling? What are they going through? And what is their likely response? 

But aren’t empathy and sympathy the same? Not at all. Sympathy is feeling for someone else. Empathy is feeling with someone else. When you sympathize with someone’s condition, you can see that they are hurting and identify the cause of it. Sympathy is merely acknowledging a problem. But empathy is feeling it. You begin to imagine yourself in their shoes. You can feel what they feel. You may even begin to respond along with them.

For example, think of someone smashing their thumb with a hammer. Hearing about it, you would know that the injury was painful. You could even feel bad for them. “I bet that hurt,” you would say. 

But empathy goes a step beyond. Imagine you’re there, watching as your friend is driving nails into the fence. On one swing, he misses and smashes his thumb, leaving a blackened, bloody mess. If your immediate response is to feel pain in your own thumb, that’s empathy. You may even say out loud, “Ow!” From a close vantage point, your response changes, too. Instead of just asking whether he is OK, you will likely jump in and help. “Let me get you some ice to put on it.”

It’s in the Gut
In the Bible, empathy usually shows up in the form of compassion. It’s a translation of the Greek word splanchna, which literally means “inward parts” or “guts.” It comes from that sick feeling in your belly when you see someone hurting or in need. 

In the Gospels, splanchna is a word almost entirely reserved for Jesus. This type of compassion is divine and incarnational. This is the way God our Father felt toward us, how His Son responded while on earth and how our Lord in heaven regards us even today. Incarnational ministry, then, requires us to act out of empathy. 

Ministering from empathy means that we can see the world through the eyes of the hurting. We imagine what they’re going through and feel their pain. And we respond in anticipation of what could be coming next. It’s the first step in building a bridge between their place of need and their compassionate Father. While sympathy may lead you to console, empathy will lead you to act. Empathy makes us better equipped to show compassion and care. And it makes others more open to the Spirit of God because they see our sincerity and love. 

How to Increase Your Empathy
Some people seem to have an inborn inclination toward empathy. Either they are more in touch with their feelings or they find it hard to compartmentalize when needs present themselves. But even if empathy is easier for some than others, God wants to do a work in each of our hearts to increase our ability to feel and show compassion.

There are three main elements to empathy: sensitivity, understanding and response. Sensitivity means that we are aware of needs around us and the emotions of those who are going through troubles. It requires active listening when we encounter people throughout our day — really hearing their needs and giving them our honest attention.

But it’s more than just being sensitive and listening. We must understand them as well. That requires us withholding judgment and allowing them to feel what they are feeling without restraint. In times of difficulty, those facing tragic circumstances have every right to their emotional state. Later, when heads are clearer and the situation is well in hand, we can help them sort through their emotions. But at the moment of immediate need, the best reaction is to be caring and understanding of their issues. 

Lastly, we respond. This is not a matter of fixing their problems, though. Many times, we think we have the right answer, and we’re just waiting for them to step out of the way so we can make their lives better. But the type of response that accompanies empathy requires that we walk with them through the solution. This could be a slower path, and it may take more time and energy. But when we minister from empathy, we are showing the patient heart of God at every stage. 

If you want to be a bridge builder, working on empathy is a great way to do it. Next time you encounter someone in need, which will probably be soon, take time to listen closely. Acknowledge that person’s feelings in an understanding way. Then walk through a solution together instead of just pointing the way. Once you begin building bridges, you’ll discover new avenues for sharing the gospel and making disciples.

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