Empathy is a good thing – the capacity to see and understand the perspective of another person. That is something I, for one, would like to see in a Christian leader. I would like those who consider themselves to be leaders and who profess to be carers of my spiritual life and custodians of my spiritual gifts, to at the very least to be empathic people. Before they make any decisions or issue any pronouncements about me, I would like them to have spent time to understand me, to have first enquired and then imagined what it was to walk even a couple of miles in my shoes. This kind of empathy is always good, even if it may, from time to time, lead to painful correction or tough love.

Empathy and compassion are closely-linked, but they are not the same. Compassion is far stronger than empathy. It drives you to do something about the suffering of another. Compassion is empathy plus wise practical action and it pulls no punches.

I’m sure all will agree that empathy and compassion are basic requirements of spiritual leaders, and ought also to be the aspiration of all decent human beings.

But there is another dimension to this. Can empathy be carried too far? In my experience and observation of church life over the last 5 decades, the answer is, yes. Let me give you some examples.

  • When it causes burnout
    Leaders who are overly empathic tend to give out and keep giving out until there’s nothing left to give. They run out of resources – emotional and otherwise. An exaggerated sense of empathy can lead to ‘saviour syndrome’, the belief that it all depends on you. Neglect of yourself, your family and alone time with God leads to a tragic exhaustion of personal resources. Tragic because the energy you expend on others is a renewable resource, if you know how to pace yourself. The priority of self-care is highlighted every time you watch the airline crew give the safety demonstration. They always point out you must don your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others with theirs.

  • When it leads to loss of individual identity
    Many leaders who overdo empathy soon find their identity enmeshed in their ministry. Your identity is what you bring to ministry. Ministry can never be the source of your identity. Get this wrong and the otherwise admirable quality of your empathy will rob you of the clarity or presence of mind you need to lead others. The ability to take a firm stand for what you believe and to act decisively in the best interests of those you serve.

    End up there, and you will have lost your ability to do any real or lasting good to anyone, including yourself.

  • When it traps you into abusive relationships
    Self-absorbed, narcissistic and abusive people lock onto super empathic leaders and use them as fodder for their selfish egos. There is a growing awareness of the phenomenon of spiritual abuse directed against church members, but we ought to recognise that members can also abuse their spiritual leaders. An over-empathic leader can easily succumb to manipulative demands, be battered by cruel criticism and be run into the ground by the unrealistic expectations of some of their members. I can bring to mind several horrendous cases where ministries have been shipwrecked on the rocks of membership cruelty, directed not just to themselves but, more painfully, also to their families.

  • When it re-enforces irresponsible behaviour
    If empathic leaders do not check their desire always to please those whom they serve, they can end up enabling the very behaviour they are supposed to confront and correct. We are always to bind up the broken-hearted and to give attention to the weak and the hurting. But this does not mean that as leaders we give into to every demand people make on us. There comes a time when we can no longer absolve people of their responsibility to correct their own behaviour and discipline themselves into the ways that lead to their own freedom.

So much for the problems caused by taking empathy too far. What about some solutions? In the next blog I will address the below-the-surface issues that often manifest in problem empathy. But for now, here are some simple, but effective pointers:

  • Draw your boundaries
    For some, this means re-drawing boundaries that have failed to protect. Others may never had any boundaries in the first place. Either way, it is very difficult to put correctives in place midway in the relationship between care-givers and care-receivers. But it is essential to correct any imbalance that has been allowed to set in. Frank and open conversations must take place, together with admission of faulty pastoring while establishing clear and agreed-upon new ways of doing things.

  • Be willing to be disagreeable
    The word ‘no’ can be shocking to those who’ve never heard it from you before. They may respond in a highly negative manner, even accusing you of not caring and not being willing to fulfil your duty. This can be devastating to those who lean towards over-empathising. Every leader must learn to have the right level of disagreeableness, otherwise they will become weak and ineffective in ministry. Their job is not to be liked by everybody all the time. Rather, it is to lead people into God’s best for their lives, even if people do not see it at the time.

  • Be prepared suffer loss in the short term
    It is almost inevitable that people will be offended at your new stance, but you must hold firm. Some will threaten you and find ways of punishing you for not meeting their expectations. Be patient with them. After all, you are partly to blame for re-enforcing those expectations in the first place, by not exposing them as unreasonable. Some will be sure to leave. After all, that’s the surest way of hitting back. But, if the leader has been clear, communicated compassionately and behaved correctly during the re-setting process, there is nothing to fear from some temporary losses. They will be far outweighed by the long term gains for both leaders and members.

In the next article, I will examine some beneath-the-surface issues by asking, ‘What do narcissistic leaders and empathic leaders have in common?’

Church Matters Series


What if I told you that narcissistic behaviour and exaggerated empathy are merely different forms of the same root problem?

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Colin is always on the move, so keep up to date, interact with him and pray for him.