One of my favorite and, simultaneously, least favorite aspects of being a therapist is the empathy requirement built into a relationship between a client and his or her therapist.
Meaning, that therapists, counselors, psychologists, even psychiatrists, are ethically mandated to empathize with a client’s situation, experiences, or issues bringing him or her to treatment. Within the broad scope of the helping professions, one name repeatedly mentioned across disciplines is that of Carl Rogers, the grandfather of the modern approach to counseling soft-skills, who created what he termed a “Person-Centered” approach to psychotherapy.
At the core of this approach to working with a client, a couple, a family, or even an entire institutional framework, is the belief that every person is doing the best that he or she can with the resources and information available to him or her. The job of the therapist, according to Rogers, isn’t to direct, force, alter, or bring about change in a client, but through stubborn empathy and a (maybe naive) belief in the inherent strength of people, to allow space for the client to direct, force, alter, or bring about necessary change in his or her own life.
Essentially, Rogers believed that people, families, and institutions just need someone to hold the space for them, to scrape the bugs off of their windshields, so they can better see a way forward. A way that’s probably always been there, knocking at the door of their troubled souls, awkward thanksgiving dinners, and contentious budget meetings, but one that’s likely been obscured by a fundamental lack of belief in their own inherent worth, value, and strength.
Therapy, at least according to Rogers, was both much harder and much easier than we sometimes imagine.
One phrase he and many other post-modern, humanistic clinicians became fond of saying, in the face of nubile therapists desperate to “make a change” in the life of another person, was:
“never work harder than your client”.
At first, this sounds a bit like a fortune-cookie aphorism we all squint our eyes at and knowingly nod through while completely ignoring the philosophical aftershocks ravaging our rather Western belief in the power of human effort to change the minds, hearts, relationships, and drinking problems of other people. Therapists can occasionally begin believing that their education, experience, and expertise gives them acute insight into the unique particularities of an individual’s ongoing dysfunction, and thusly (because we are (sometimes) getting paid for this) this belief creates a sense of responsibility for the life choices of another person over whom we have absolutely no control.
So we sweat our way through question after question after question searching for just the right moment when our clients will finally experience breakthrough, insight, or growth. When, in reality, as most studies have shown, there’s very little evidence to support that anything but a strong, empathic relationship between client and therapist is a very good predictor for success in therapy.
Which is why Rogers often said very little when he was in the room with a client. Because, he believed, that the space, the absence of anxiety and desperation for another person to do anything at all, is the only motivation for actual change, growth, and new thinking. Which is also why I can tell I’m out past my depth, when I’m doing most of the talking and thinking and dreaming and imaging on behalf of another person or group of people.
As I said earlier, therapy is both much harder and much easier than we sometimes imagine.
During the other days of my work week, my business card typically reads “pastor” (or “coordinator” when I’m working in traditions that don’t recognize my heavenly credentials that have historically allowed me to park up front at nursing homes and to administer the metaphorical blood and metaphorical body of Jesus indirectly into the mouths of congregants once a quarter).
However, unlike my education into the art of sitting with my legs crossed while attempting to make unbroken eye contact with the raw data of another person’s life, my pastoral training did not involve the work of Carl Rogers, and his dogged belief in the elemental sacredness of another person’s inherent strength and ability to change. Instead, my explicit and implicit training in the art of theologizing, sermonizing, praying, and bible-studying my way through life, involved the expectation that I somehow possess (because of experience, education, and expertise) the ability to change the hearts, minds, relationships, and worship preferences of other people if I try hard enough.
Put bluntly, the rule was: “always work harder than your congregation"
Therefore, when congregations aren’t growing, aren’t changing, aren’t transforming, aren’t altering the raw data of their existences on this earth together, as a pastor, it’s the fault of my sermons, and my prayers, and my theology, and my preferred Bible study schedule, and my dress, and my gender, and my ethnicity, and my sexuality, and my training, and my education, and probably most specifically: my faith, or lack thereof.
The failure of a church, at least according to the belief system baked into our American religiosity, is the personal failure of a pastor. As I’ve seen more and more of my friends (or myself) occupationally self-immolate in the face of institutional malaise, I’ve been wondering if the problem for most of us clergy folk is rooted in something a bit more elemental than a lack of training in millennial worship preferences and successfully interacting with people on your church Facebook page.
What if we’ve completely misunderstood empathy?
I say all this, not with the confidence of an Internet carnival barker brazenly convincing you that THIS TIME SOMEONE HAS FINALLY SOLVED FOR “X,” but with the wounded resolve of someone who has spent the entirety of his life using other people’s reactions and choices as some sort of metric for whether or not he exists or matters or is “called” to the work of bearing witness to resurrection.
As a young pastor I used to believe that it was terribly difficult to ask people to pay you for things you then, in turn, ask them to do for free (like show up to worship on the weekends), and whenever I felt them take advantage of me, or ignore me, or undermine my work, or talk about me behind my back, or refuse to respond with cold chills and teary eyes every time I used my "sermon voice" to perfection, I resented them for it.
“Sure, we can argue for the next 45 minutes about a 4 paragraph email you sent me about a sermon point (I didn’t make) that REALLY offended you while my family waits in the car for me.”
-Every pastor, across all time.
To be fair, it wasn’t a white-hot or even lukewarm resentment, it was this slow burn that, when left unchecked, ended up setting fire to my relationships, savings account, and resume that I’ve now spent the last 3 years attempting (badly) to finally put out.
On the shores of whatever has run aground in our personal and professional existences, I dare say there is a chorus of shaming voices reminding us constantly of all the ways we came up short. Saying that we, as a profession of priests, prophets, poets, and preachers, don’t understand empathy isn’t me attempting to sing baritone in the choir of your shame, it’s (hopefully) a quietly salvific reminder that you simply spent too much of yourself attempting to change things about the lives of other people.
Your job interview weakness of caring too much was actually true, you didn’t properly empathize with your congregation, not because you didn’t want to, but because you weren’t taught to trust that there really is a God and that God isn’t you and your lapel mic.
Empathy isn’t a program, or a policy, it can't be leveraged pointedly as a way of producing a preferred result in another person, like some Evangelical sales-pitch that begins with the presentation of a problem that only you (and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ) have a solution for. Empathy also isn’t heroically caring more about the problems of other people (or congregations) than they do, that's actually enabling, codependent, mentally unwell behavior.
I can’t tell you how many late nights I spent reading emails and worrying about what people said about me as a pastor.
I can tell you how many late nights I've spent reading emails and worrying about what people say about me as a therapist (think: “less than 1”).
The severe difference in these two numbers isn’t because I care less about my clients, it’s actually because I care for and respect them far more than I ever did the people in the pews around me. And in so doing, I end up caring far more for myself than I ever did as a super-reverend desperate to have you change everything about your life in the name of Jesus, amen.
Cellular empathy, of the Rogers variety, is the naive belief that people are made of something sacred, even when everything they are, and everything they do, and everything they say is profane. In my experience, people can tell when the slip is showing on your empathy, when it comes from a place of your own pain and anxiety and need to be wanted, effective, successful, or a “good” version of whatever it is you do with yourself. This kind of empathy only produces anger, frustration, resentment, and the kind of frenetic, suffocating space that we’ve all been in before where we felt like part of ourselves was somehow intolerable to the person sitting across from us, gritting their teeth through our baggage.
Church often feels like that for most people, especially the person up front with the microphone.
But what if didn’t have to, and what if the absence of anxiety (about stagnation, growth, success, change) didn’t betray our best instincts as the people in charge, but was actually the only prerequisite for creating the kind of spiritual home for people that most feels like the loving embrace of a God who never seems all that concerned about the length of time it takes people to figure things out.
Who knows, maybe attendance would take care of itself even without making congregants advertise your church in their yards like it's running for city council?
But until that day is this one, maybe you could simply try to remember that it isn’t strong to work harder than your congregation, it’s weak, and destructive, and will set fire to everything you love.
Trust me on that one.
*image courtesy of Creative Commons