When Empathy Becomes a Barrier

shallow empathy transforming mission group

This is the third in the series, “Who Will Name Reality?” This week Tim continues exploring one of the three barriers to naming our current reality: empathy.


When I was a student in seminary, I was trained to be sensitive to the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of the others. It was part of being a good pastor. I still hold to part of that training. Identifying with another person’s feelings and experiences is a blessing. As a pastor, understanding how others feel is good.

I still consider empathy a gift; a God given gift. But I discovered over my years of ministry, and most particularly as a district superintendent, that empathy can easily become a barrier to the future. Empathy can hold us back from prophetic leadership –  the leadership we need to hold our purpose, our mission, above all other concerns.

Said another way, when we get stuck in a routine of being nice, make decisions so as to not offend a friend, or mask our niceness as grace, we over process empathy.

It is becoming a cliché, but the world was different when I was in seminary. That does not mean that empathy is not important today. But it does mean we need leaders with a different focus.

Who Will Name Reality?

Let’s imagine that you and I are congregational leaders of Bias Memorial. The church is full of Biases.

  • Racial Bias and his family
  • Gender Bias and her family
  • Cultural Bias and their crew
  • Worship Bias and their musical preferences
  • Educational Bias and their societies
  • Residential Bias and the people in his neighborhood

When the time comes to address the Biases, who will have the courage to step forward and speak? When the Biases impede the mission of the church, who will have the courage to name reality?

I know what you’re thinking. I know the feeling, too. If we say something the Biases might leave. We don’t want to hurt their feelings. They have done so much for our church.

Could it be our lack of saying something is holding us back from being the church God is inviting us to be?

Empathy Has Become Our Default Response

Together, the past and present have us facing an unavoidable reality: Empathy has become an escape. In these times of uncertainty and anxiety, empathy is a default. When we resort to a default response, we will fail to have our hand on the pulse of the community where God sends us to lead.

It is time for us to move beyond the routine of being nice. Now is the time to boldly lead into the future. With our mission clearly before us let us not fall prey to being a “chaplain to the empire.”  If that is all we know to do, we must help one another discover new ways to lead.

It is time to step into a new day. Let’s practice speaking the truth in love, naming our current reality, and living into a future…all while we claim our mission for this day and time.

So, my question is, “Will you be one of those courageous leaders?” Are you a chaplain of the empire? Or a prophetic leader of God’s love for a new day?

Will you be one who names our current reality?

-Tim Bias


Read Part 1: Who Will Name Reality?

Read Part 2: An Exclusive Walk Down Memory Lane


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