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Capacity for Empathy

February 10, 2014
Lallene Rector

A few weeks ago, I began the process of meeting individually with each employee of the seminary. I still have many meetings yet to go, but it is my conviction that at this time of transition in leadership it is important to understand how persons who work at the school are experiencing their jobs and to understand their concerns. I have also invited discussion about the ideas and hopes our employees have for the school as we move forward into the future. I began these meetings with the staff, those whom I have known in the comings and goings of our work together over so many years, but with whom I have never really sat and discussed their experience of being here. My own knowledge is more limited to the experience of faculty members and administrators.

I can see more clearly how Garrett-Evangelical is a slightly different school from each of these various vantage points. This is obvious, but the difference now is that I am experiencing these slightly different schools as a result of the initial meetings with the staff.  Of course, the school means different things to different people. I have not yet encountered anyone for whom this is “just a job.” Job it is, to be sure, but there are larger and more personal meanings than that for most of us working here.

These conversations have reminded me, once again, of how critically important the capacity for empathy is in our relating to each other. It requires an interest in, concern for, and/or at least a curiosity about the other. Most of us walk fairly easily through our days encased in our own perspectives, concerned with our own interests and how things affect us. I do not criticize this natural inclination for I believe it is the basic orientation we have as human beings. I don’t think it’s possible to entirely escape our own perspectives, nor do I think we are called to do that. How would we be able to love our neighbors as our selves if we had no awareness of our own captivating self-interest and concern?

A Chinese depiction, Beijing, 1879 

One of the most compelling phrases in the New Testament for me has been, “Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him” (Mark 10:21 CEB). It jumped off the page at me when I was 20 and engaged in a piece of research at Texas Christian University, a study of the synoptic gospels and the analysis of every instance someone approached Jesus with a request. Do you recognize it? It immediately precedes the account of Jesus talking with a young man who has asked what he must do to obtain eternal life. We know the story more commonly as “The Rich Young Ruler” or “The Rich Young Man.”

I have pondered many times the meaning of this phrase. It tells us that before Jesus gave the young man the hard word to go and sell his possessions (for he had many), to give the proceeds to the poor, and, then to follow him, Jesus looked at him intentionally and loved him – first. Jesus must have known that what he was about to ask would be very, very difficult and I like to believe that Jesus considered the young man’s perspective before he offered this devastating directive. I like to believe that it was this act of empathy that led Jesus to love him.

In order for us to actually engage in an empathic understanding of what others are experiencing, from their perspective, we first have to be interested in that information. We have to care about the other person. We have to be curious. We have to open ourselves to something potentially different than ourselves. And, we have to risk experiencing the direct impact of others not seeing the world as we do. We are challenged to consider that others’ perspectives have as much experiential validity as our own. Surely, this must be one of the meanings of the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Value your neighbor’s perspective – at least enough to try and understand it – as much as you value your own understanding. I am not saying that understanding means agreement, but deep understanding has great potential to change our own perspectives and, as a result, to change the decisions we make. Perhaps we already know this intuitively and that’s why we hesitate to really enter into the effort to understand another’s experience.

I have learned important things in the last couple of weeks only because I sat down to listen, truly interested in what I would hear. In a similar vein, this past Thursday we had our first  “all employee” meeting.  It was another opportunity to get to know each other better across our various work responsibilities  - to have a space in which we can come together as one G-ETS with all our gifts differing. Can we really afford as Christians to be uninterested in the experience of our neighbor and its implications for how we are to live justly?

I am committed to this work. And, I am pleased to report to you that even in the midst of emerging legitimate concerns, we are blessed to work with each other in the divisions of labor among us, committed to helping Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary be the best that it can be – together! Beyond the school, I encourage us to look around to those who are part of our ministry and life contexts, especially those who are less visible in their work and further back from the front lines. I am confident that these are often the persons without whom our work and our lives simply could not proceed well. I encourage us to cultivate our empathic interest in these neighbors and co-workers, for we are all part of the Body, together. “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26, CEB).


# Al Caldwell 2014-02-10 22:59
thanks, Dr. Rector, for the lovely image and the reflection on the Mark text. The man asks a personal question about his own salvation; Jesus answers with an invitation to participate in the salvivic work of discipleship. Save oneself, or enlist as a disciple to participate in the saving acts of God??? Interesting choice for us as well. No doubt, in our case, it is also a costly decision. I am glad you are listening to the ways in which all of the employees at the seminary are participating in the ministry of sharing good news. peace to you, Lallene and God bless you as you lead the seminary into a new future.
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# Tamara FrancisWilden 2014-02-12 17:45
Wow! What a great start! Thank you for your ministry of administration that also includes the personal touch! What a helpful model to display -- a servant-leader. Blessings as you set the tone and lead with integrity.
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# Tom Carver 2014-02-13 13:14
Thanks for your insights. Your example of meeting with staff and listening reminded me of an article I read in Forbes about leadership and listening:
We are all in a major time of transition and need transformation (but that has probably always been true).
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