The Right Kind of Empathy?

This is a tricky prompt for me because I’ve struggled a lot with how to calibrate my own empathy.

I really like connecting to people who think differently and believe differently than me. That’s one of the best parts of working with a team of people, too. I welcome push back and alternative ideas and suggestions.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time with friends in our local Amish community. My Amish friends are some of the most curious and interested people I know. Because they are secure in their own beliefs, they have deep interest in other people’s views. I try to follow their example.

There are, of course, limits to the space I have for other points of view. Here at the PRC, we say that we’re happy to work with anyone as long as they’re working in a way that is healthy for them and for their organization. While not always perfectly clear, this guideline has worked fairly well for us, especially when we personally disagree with an organization’s theology.

The people that I struggle to find empathy for are not the people I disagree with as much as the people who seem to have no agency. The people who are inward looking always and seem to have a bunker mentality about whatever problem they’re facing. Perhaps it’s because I am relentlessly enthusiastic in my problem solving that I really struggle to relate to people who are bent on maintaining, even if it means failing.

Here’s an example: On Tuesday, a foundation we relate to called to say that they would like our help with a project they’re working on. Working with RIP, they would like to wipe out the $39 million in medical debt here in Lancaster County, which they can do for $39,500. They could do this on their own, but they wanted to include churches in this project, if they could. The publicity for this project will be strong and they wanted churches to benefit, if they can.

This is the kind of project I love because it’s a concrete step that, while small, makes a substantial difference in people’s lives and pushes back against a system that is deeply broken. I also love that it crosses theological lines and that churches with very different faith understandings can agree that eliminating crippling medical debt is a good and important thing.

And so it was with enthusiasm that my co-workers and I set about calling fifty local churches (with whom we have long relationships) to see if they wanted to be part of what felt to me like a small miracle. I’ve worked with churches for a long time, but the negative responses we received from many of them stunned me. Why didn’t they want to participate? Because it would take money away from them.

I think I understand this perspective, and it is a common theme when dealing with churches. But one thing I think that most likely indicates whether a church will thrive or barely survive is how outward facing they are in their approach to their communities. Maybe this idea isn’t right for them, but do they connect to their communities in other ways? Or do they hunker down and just hope things don’t fall apart?

Father Boyle, who I adore, always says of people who drop out of the Homeboy system that they just aren’t ready yet. I like this approach because it’s open, leaves lots of space for return or reengagement, and yet draws boundaries and honors the work of those who get sober, leave their gang, and choose a new path for their life.

I try to think of these inert churches in this way. They just aren’t ready yet. And frankly, part of my job is to get them there. But sometimes they’re never ready. And I still struggle to know how to respond to that.

3 thoughts on “The Right Kind of Empathy?”

  1. Thank you, Kate, for your post. I appreciate the distinction you make between struggling to find empathy for people who disagree with you vs people who seem to have no agency. Later in your post you mention that you see part of your job as helping get certain churches to a place where they connect with their communities. Do you foresee calling back the churches on the same topic to see if they reconsidered the RIP request? Do you plan to re-engage them in other ways in the future? How do you work with groups or people with whom you have a hard time empathizing, and how does it differ from the work you do with empathy?

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  2. Kate,

    Thank you for sharing this example. I can understand your excitement and frustration. This can be an opportunity of a lifetime for a significant impact.

    What other pieces of information can help you better understand their position? How can you bring them along? What are some steps you can take to help these leaders be ready?

    What did you learn from this process? How did it make you feel? Did anything surface for you?

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  3. Hi Kate! First off, congratulations to you and your organization! The fact that the foundation approached you in this way speaks volumes about how your work is valued.

    As you try to see the world through the eyes of the folks whom you describe in your post (I’ll call them the Pro-status quo), what else do you see shaping their resistance other than a desire to maintain their current levels of funding? Are there past experiences, trust issues, leadership issues, etc. that also play a role in how the Pro-status quo view this opportunity?

    After having put yourself in their shoes, do you feel better equipped to coach/challenge them in areas where they may need to be pushed? Can you think of allies who might be as or better positioned to do that coaching/challenging?

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