Empathy is an important leadership skill for pastors. Empathy is an accurate enough, genuine understanding of the other person’s emotional experience without allowing your own feelings to hinder your ability to be fully present to the other person. While some people would describe themselves as naturally empathic, empathy is a skill which ministry leaders can develop.. Empathy is not pretending to “get it,” taking on the other person’s issues as your own, sympathizing, or agreeing with the other person’s opinions/perspective. Rather, empathy allows you to walk in the other person’s shoes without taking those shoes home to your closet. Empathy deepens your relationship because it generates feelings of safety in others. Empathy is a key for maintaining connection to others during difficult discussions. Look at Jesus to see how He empathized with us in Philippians 2:6-11 and John 8:1-11, to cite just two examples. The following five principles will help you to grow in your ability to empathize with others:

  1.  Remember God’s deep empathy for you. Psalm 103 reminds us that God knows us (v. 14) and has compassion for us (v. 13). While compassion is not the same thing as empathy, the two are related. God empathizes with us and knows our limitations. God the Son “put on” our humanity without mistaking our sin for his. On the cross, Jesus “took on” our sinfulness for our sake. Meditate on God’s deep empathy for you. What can you learn about empathy by considering Jesus’ relationship with others?
  2. Empathy starts with good listening. In order to empathize, you must first listen without inserting your own opinions in your mind as the other person is speaking. When you find yourself rehearsing counter arguments or just waiting to say your piece, you are not listening! Good listening means you give your full mental and emotional attention to your conversation partner. How easy is it for you to give your undivided attention to someone else when they are speaking to you? 
  3. Practice Cognitive Empathy. The essence of cognitive empathy is perspective taking that is often communicated by “I understand.” Cognitive empathy is the easiest form of empathy for many people. When you offer cognitive empathy, you can restate the other person’s perspective. Cognitive empathy says “I can see the world through your eyes.” Remember that cognitive empathy does not mean you agree with this other perspective. In Luke 10:41, Jesus cognitively empathizes with Martha: “You are worried and upset about many things.” When you have a difference of opinion with someone, how can cognitive empathy help you to “hear” better?
  4. Practice Affective Empathy. The heart of affective empathy is resonating with the other person’s feelings. You try on the other person’s experience and ask yourself how you would feel if this were happening to you. You try it on “as if” the other’s internal world was your internal world. Affective empathy requires you to broaden your emotional awareness and your feeling vocabulary. The “as if” quality of affective empathy is important. Remember that these feelings belong to the other person, not to you. How easy is it for you to sense the emotions of those around you?  How robust is your feeling vocabulary?  
  5. Empathy says “I see you.” Cognitive and affective empathy build relationships. However, it also requires you to be clear about yourself and your emotional boundaries. At times your feelings will be exactly like those of another person and you too will be deeply moved (Jn 11:33-38). At other times, you will “try on” the other’s emotional life and remain aware that these are not your emotions. To practice cognitive and affective empathy, try responding to others by saying: “Perhaps you feel ____because ____.”  If the other person corrects you, that’s okay! You have learned something about your conversation partner and that builds your empathy muscles. Can you identify one person this week with whom you can have a conversation and practice your empathy skills?

To learn more about cultivating empathy, see the following resources:

  1. Read Chapter 6 “Validating Emotions” in Skills for Effective Counseling: A Faith-Based Integration, by Sbanotto, Gingrich & Gingrich, InterVarsity Press, 2016.
  2. Watch this short presentation on empathy by Brene Brown 
  3. Watch “Putting Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes”
  4. Thu-Huong Ha,  “5 Exercises to Help You Build More Empathy,”  Ideas.Ted.Com, May 16, 2021.

Emotional contributor: Virginia T. Holeman, PhD., LMFT, LPCC, Retired Chair of the Department of Counseling and Pastoral Care, Asbury Theological Seminary
Executive editor: Russ Gunsalus
Curator of content: Dave Higle