Could Our Lack of Empathy Be Limiting Our Ministry Impact?

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Could Our Lack of Empathy Be Limiting Our Ministry Impact?

Empathy: em-pə-thē, "the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another"

Important Note: Don't skip this post because it doesn't seem immediately applicable to what you do.

I'm not sure when I first began to suspect the importance of empathy in ministry, but I can tell you exactly when I learned what empathy meant and how it applied to reaching people no one else was reaching.


I was working my way through The Ten Faces of Innovation by IDEO's Tom Kelley and in a section on The Anthropologist (one of the ten faces), I learned that:

"Anthropologists share such distinguishing characteristics as the wisdom to observe with a truly open mind; empathy; intuition; the ability to "see" things that have gone unnoticed; a tendency to keep running lists of innovative concepts worth emulating and problems that need solving; and a way of seeking inspiration in unusual places."

The section went on to describe how IDEO, one of the leading design companies in the world, leverages empathy to truly understand the customer, designing products that satisfy the customer's often unexpressed needs.

I can remember thinking, "This applies directly to ministry!"

I can remember reading Matthew in that same time period and coming across this line:

"When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." Matthew 9:36 NIV

My immediate thought was Jesus had empathy for the people in the crowds. He truly understood the feelings of the people in the crowds.

My next thought was if I want to reach people no one else is reaching, I need to understand their needs like Jesus did (truthfully, I didn't think it that way because Craig Groeschel hadn't said it that way yet).


A few years later, while reading Creative Confidence (another great book by David and Tom Kelley), I came across this line on the subject of learning to empathize with the end user:

“empathy means challenging your preconceived ideas and setting aside your sense of what you think is true to learn what actually is true.”

You know what I thought? How often do we look at the crowds and instead of having compassion on them (because we have deep and genuine empathy for them), we feel frustration and discouragement because they aren't responding to what we've created for them.

Instead of learning what is actually true about them we've held on to our sense of what we think is true.

How does this apply to us?

When we're designing anything, from first steps out of the community to next steps into a small group, we need to ask ourselves "will this meet a need people actually have or just the need we think they have?"

The true test of our design? Results. See also, An Openness to New Ideas.

Further Reading:

Set Aside What You Think Is True to Learn What Is Actually True

Here’s a Lesson in Empathy

Do You Really Understand Your Customer?

4 Obsessions of the Extraordinary Small Group Pastor

Image by Jan Truter

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  1. David Rhoades on May 31, 2017 at 8:20 am

    Great insights! I especially liked what you discovered about IDEO.
    I would add that a truly empathetic outlook may not have results immediately, but may begin with an extended period of seed planting.

  2. Mark Howell on May 31, 2017 at 3:15 pm

    That’s right! Good insight David.