Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
The work of leadership, pastors, teachers, and chaplains is the work of making decisions. Pastors and other leaders often feel as though they are on an island and often work alone. While there are still a few large congregations with full-time staff, for the most part, the days of multi-staff congregations and full-time staff are behind us. Many pastors find themselves preparing bulletins and vacuuming carpets! Seminary faculty must do their own copying while handling a large teaching load. Hospital chaplains are stretched over several hospitals and have little administrative help with their work. Religious leaderships in various forms are faced with expanded roles with extended time without matching compensation. They face complex problems with varying and contextual answers with even more severe consequences. The demands of religious leaders to have an answer quickly and correctly is matched by the requirement to be relvant, approachable, and “without all that spooky spiritual stuff” in their replies.
As my colleague and Executive Presbyter of Pittsburgh, Sheldon Sorge, likes to say, “Lord give me a tough skin and a tender heart in this work that creates a thin skin and tough heart.”
I’m writing to leaders who may judge themselves harshly for not keeping up or when they make a mistake. I’m addressing those who experience internal guilt when they fall short of their high internal standards and to those who blame themselves when things don’t go as planned. I’m writing to myself.
I have been helped this Advent season by the book Transforming Church Conflict: Compassionate Leadership in Action by Deborah Van Deusen Hunsinger and Theresa F. Latini. They spend a bit of time on the subject of self-empathy. Self-empathy is needed when we hear a negative comment, fail at a task, or things don’t go as we would like. It is needed when we respond internally with words like, “I should have known better,” or “What an idiot I am; I can’t believe I did that,” or “I’ll never learn.” They write, “With this kind of response to criticism, we set ourselves up for chronic stress, guilt and shame. If it becomes a deeply entrenched pattern, it can lead to depression.”
Empathy is the ability to listen, connect, and relate to others. Self-empathy demands the same attention and compassion that we share with others to be applied to ourselves. Through self-empathy we hear things differently and respond in healthier ways. It is a way to lighten the burden of leadership by emphasizing our acceptance by God and valuing our feelings and needs in our relationships and lives. As we practice self-empathy, we will learn to love ourselves as we love others.
Rev. Craig M. Howard