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.

Trying to Decide…

I am one of the most decisive people I know. I know immediately how I feel about almost any question. It’s a weird quality and it comes from a mix of gut reaction and a quick but careful weighing of the odds. But there are few decisions I regret, even if the outcome isn’t what I hoped for because I know that I considered the odds as well as I could. And because I make many decisions at work, I am pretty easy going about decisions in my personal life. I don’t care what restaurant I meet friends at or what movie my family watches.

What was most interesting to me about this exercise was thinking through my own decision making process. Here’s a recent decision I made that followed a process similar to what is outlined in the prompt:

Goal: To start an annual poetry day beginning with Naomi Shihab Nye, the Palestinian-American poet. Include a mix of poetry writing with elementary kids as well as a contemplative event focused on reclaiming language.

Possible choices: This opportunity came up in July and we were working to include Franklin and Marshall, a local college that we often partner with, as well as a local prep. school. October worked as a date for all of us, but it was there enough time for us to properly plan and market a series of events?

  1. We could wing it and hope for the best. While this sounds unwise, we have a mailing list of more than 17,000 people, an eblast list of more than 4,000, and a pretty good publicity machine. With F&M and the prep school on board, our potential audience grew significantly. But there was real cost to bringing her and we needed to do a lot of planning in a short amount of time.

2. We could keep it simple and just do an evening event. We do these events regularly and have hosted Anne Lamott, Krista Tippet, Father Boyle, Rachel Held Evans to name a few, here at the PRC. We typically have them speak at a big evening event and then take lots of time for questions and answers. Calibrating their speaking fee with the number of tickets I think we can sell is a pretty careful formula.

3. We could wait until October 2020 to do a two-day event that incorporates all of the elements we want to include and give us multiple events which allows to spread the cost/risk. It would also give us more time to promote the event and include additional partners like local public school districts. It would mean that staff and I were less stressed as well.

My normal instinct is to charge ahead with a project like this. Waiting, when we have partners lined up, when we have exciting ideas, can frustrate me. But we decided to wait. This is one of the few decisions I’ve made recently that I question. But I’m also relieved that we didn’t try to cram this into an already packed fall. We will bring Naomi next year, I hope.

RS: Thanks, everyone, for your comments! It’s always so helpful to hear from everyone and reconsider my assumptions in the first post. While October was the original date, April, which is national poetry month, could also work. It might be a little tricky with school ending but doable.

I should have said that while I’m very decisive, I think team work is really important and whenever I can, I work to make decisions as a team. I always assume that my co-workers have a different and often better solution than I do. But sometimes someone has to decide and if that’s me, I know that I can quickly. I see a lot of bookkeeping clients agonize over a decision that often only gets harder the longer they wait.

Three Takeaways

Takeaway 1:  It was wonderful to meet you all in person! Our in person meeting confirmed that one of the great values of this process is the connections I’ve made to each of you.  I had one of the shortest trips to D.C. and I was impressed that each of you took time and energy to travel to the workshop and annual meeting.

Takeaway 2:  I look forward to taking a deep dive into the CPA documents Felipe has provided.  I’m trying to connect with major donors again and complete four grants this next week (and we have a major event Saturday night) so I’m really pushed timewise this week and next.  But I have questions about how this could financially work in Lancaster and am interested in working through more of the details.  It was great to talk a bit about how small churches fit into this work and I am interested to discuss it more.

Takeaway 3:  Last week was exhausting mentally, emotionally, and physically.  This cohort, if I’m honest, can feel like one too many things when I feel too pushed.  But sitting at the Annual Meeting on Wednesday night hearing so many talk about the benefits of CPA reminded me why I really want to make this work in Lancaster.  The great upside of my work is that moment when a church is struggling to make something happen and through their connection to the PRC it does.  I heard that over and over again Wednesday night and it reminded me why I do this work and why it’s so important to continue this work.  Is it hard, yes.  But when it works, it’s so worth it!

RS: Grateful for your thoughts and questions! From the get-go, my general weariness has been, perhaps, more evident to all of you than it is to me. It’s certainly something my family talks with me about frequently in recent months. Sometimes I feel like I should explain that my tiredness comes, now, from a sense of overwhelming opportunity more than a slide into failure. My brain is often pushed to the max these days trying to sort through what is important to do immediately and what idea, no matter how good it is, should we wait on so that the team here at PRC doesn’t burn out.

For years I didn’t think these opportunities would materialize and I worked long, hard hours hustling rebuilding relationships, showing up, and listening to people’s frustrations. I have to do a lot less of that these days and I do more strategic work, more fundraising, more networking on a more abstract scale. It can be less emotional, but I’m also dealing with bigger things and saying yes to something can shift my workload quickly. And I’m still in the mode of saying yes to everything because I may not get the chance again.

I’m the child of two entrepreneurs, two artists who advocated for adventure over stability. And I definitely suffer from shiny new things syndrome and get the most adrenaline from starting something than continuing it. But this is way of working isn’t, ultimately, sustainable. These days I’m much more focused on carefully expanding things in what I hope offers longterm sustainability to the PRC. We’ve moved from critical to stable and I need to really recalibrate my energy. After years of feeding off of adrenaline, I need to find a new way to keep myself engaged and to deal with the years of fatigue that I ignored in the past by picking something new to do that could distract me.

Or at least these are the thing I tell myself and my family when we discuss my weariness. I think it’s true. I also think I’m relaxing for the first time in years and that can have a funny effect. All that I’ve held at bay can come rushing in at once.

This cohort has been wonderful in terms of building relationships with other folks who are asking the same questions I am while also looking for honest answers. This work can be lonely at times and certainly the connections to other likeminded folks is key to not getting bogged down in the bad and focusing on the good.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in the last six months to have two key work relationships develop that have been really lifegiving for me. One is a new staff person who is creative and entrepreneurial. These can be hard people to find in the nonprofit world, especially in the church nonprofit world and I am grateful to have found her. The other is a development consultant who has a great ability to take my ideas and take them the next step, which is incredibly helpful.

Finally, I’ve gotten a lot better at taking care of myself, too. I spend a lot more time outside, a lot more time exercising, and more time free of sound (too many podcasts overwhelm my brain, I’ve discovered). It all helps!

Figuring out the right relational approach

Perhaps I am approaching this prompt a bit differently than most of the group because I have spent the last five and a half years building the relationships necessary for determining two of the three key questions Felipe outlines in his prompt. Are they a leader? What decision making power do they have? I have a pretty clear sense of this for most of the organizations we hope to work with in this co-op model.

The middle question–What institutional needs do they have?–is not always as easy to answer, even for the people I’m meeting with regularly. I find churches and nonprofits are often trying to solve a short term problem when a longer-term, or maybe bigger fix is a bigger/better solution. It can be hardest to convince a volunteer, because that’s the role of most of the folks we relate to around these questions, that a more involved solution is going to be less of a hassle in the long run for them. So building a relationship and trust and having a lot of patience has been key for us as we work at bookkeeping and will be key to having success with expanding into the co-op.

Reading through the questions provided for the prompt, I find I really struggle to respond positively to the questions posed. I worked in sales for 10 years so I certainly understand the potential value of showing vulnerability and interest in the other person as a way of building a relationship. In peer-to-peer relationships, the idea of vulnerability feels more comfortable. But I realize that as a youngish woman who is generally relating to old, white men on finance committees or property committees, vulnerability often means something different to me. It can often set up a dynamic where my authority, already in question because I’m a woman, is further diminished.

What does vulnerability mean to PRC’s CPA who has more than 25 years of experience when she is being lectured by a 80 year-old man, who only doubts her ability ultimately because she is a woman. What does it mean for our accountant who has to exert her authority with a man who questions her decisions without reason other than she’s young?

Vulnerability can mean many things, but for many of us, calibrating it so that it allows for relationship building without the diminishment of self or authority can be tricky. I felt like I needed to name the response I had when reading the prompt. None of this is to say that we shouldn’t be friendly or authentic or acknowledge what we don’t know, but there are challenges for many of us in knowing how to balance all of this, I think.

My general approach to building relationships is to ask genuine questions and listen as fully as I can to the other person’s response. Often I have an idea how I want to work at a problem, but many times talking with someone pushes me to reconfigure that solution into something new. And after listening to their thoughts, frustrations, and ideas, I’ll run my adapted idea by them for their thoughts and suggestions. I find that this approach often allows for by in from that person from the beginning and helps them feel like they’re part of the team.

I am being open and potentially vulnerable through this approach, but I’ve often found that it’s a better way for me to establish a peer-to-peer relationship that in the long run allows for more collaboration. If we can find a way to work together through offering ideas and solving problems together, we build a level of trust that creates good boundaries and respect. I don’t think I’m answering this question as you hoped, but I felt like I needed to be honest about what kept tripping me up as I worked at my response.

RS: First, thanks to everyone for your responses. I appreciate many of you sharing your own experiences with this. I learned a lot from your comments. Thank you.

I think it’s important to say that my vulnerability is often assumed. Older men often see me as a daughter or granddaughter first and a professional as a distant second. Perhaps this is an experience different that what other people know, but it’s my regular frame of reference.

Felipe, it would be helpful for me to know if many of the churches you’ve worked with through CPA are fairly large with a staff person dedicated to facilities or large capital expenses. If that’s the case, then it’s very different from many of the churches I work with here in Lancaster. Many are worshiping 20-50 people on a Sunday. They’re tending an enormous building and they’ve given much of their time and money to something that they believe is failing quickly.

I’m deeply empathetic to this and understand that a leadership role in a congregation was once a honor but now often feels like a burden. I understand that a lot of the emotional flailing that I encounter is the result of fear, embarrassment, and uncertainty. I know that standing still and letting the slow drip of failure happen can be less scary than taking a major step in a new direction, even if that step could save them a lot of psychic energy.

I’m OK with all of that–I have enormous amounts of patience. But I also need to draw lines in terms of my time and the level of service we provide. We can’t offer these services if we can’t make them somewhat efficient. It’s not a good idea for me to go many, many rounds with a volunteer who refuses to work within our system. I also need to protect my employees. It’s more often that I need to set boundaries and back them up when they insist on professionalism. I can’t lose an employee because a volunteer at a church is asking her, without realizing it, to violate professional standards or excellence.

It’s a balancing act. And I think it’s important for us to discuss that, too.

Is Lancaster Ready for a CPA?

Goals: My goal is two-fold–first, by January 31, 2020, I want to have 15-20 faith and/or nonprofit leaders on board with the CPA concept and second, by December 31, 2019, I want to have further refined our timeline and business plan for a CPA model.

Obstacles: The greatest obstacle to this plan is time. I (and by extension PRC, the organization I run) have the relationships necessary for these conversations. And many of these individuals know understand the need. They may even relate to us through the back office services we provide (bookkeeping, CPA-reviewed financial services, payroll, QuickBooks set-up, website design, and administrative services). But they’re all really busy and so am I.

Additionally, we have a timeline and business plan well underway. We have funders who are interested in helping to fund a pilot project. We have proof of concept because of the back office services we already offer. And we have community partners who are interested in participating. But we’re a small organization that does more than 100 events a year, runs a two-year training program, works with more than 85 churches in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Time goes quickly and balancing all of this work, and the opportunities that routinely come our way, is challenging.

Skills and Knowledge: We’re a pretty nimble and flexible organization with a great team. Breaking down big projects into manageable steps is what we do a lot. And we are an organization that relies on relationships for everything we do so we’re well versed in bringing people together. I am also very grateful for the excellent resources CPA offers as well and we will use those as we continue to work at this project as well.

People: As I’ve mentioned above, we work with over 85 member churches and connect to about 150 churches regularly. Lancaster is a small city so I also know most of the nonprofit leaders in the community and we have a good working relationship.

Next Steps:

  • Identify 60 local nonprofits to research as potential founding members;
  • Perform 20 feasibility/relational interviews to determine the most impactful focus of a Lancaster co-op similar to CPA;
  • Recruit 6 leaders from Lancaster nonprofits to establish a co-op Steering Team;
  • Select and enroll 20 Lancaster County nonprofits as founding members of the co-op;
  • Continue to refine our pitch to funders; and
  • Continue to refine our business plan and rollout timeline.

RS: Thanks everyone your comments and thoughts. Apologies for the delay in responding. I had a sinus headache much of the weekend and looking at a screen was a bit overwhelming. After reading through your comments, I am wondering if I should have titled this post: “Is Kate Ready for a CPA?”

I am, but I also realize that I’m navigating an abundance of riches right now and it can be harder to navigate that than when, five years ago, I couldn’t get anyone to return my phone calls.

While I think we’re well on our way, I appreciate, Felipe, your comments about defining what sets our bookkeeping services apart. It’s a good question and one that we can articulate, but it’s helpful to remember that we should.

Paul, your comments were generous and kind and right on target. I shared them with the important people in my life and they were in full agreement. Thank you! I think a personal goal for me, after reading through your comments is to continue to build in time for Sabbath, to regroup and have the space to consider this all.