DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Responsibility Greater Than Empathy?

Written by: on October 17, 2019

I have taken my time with A Failure of Nerve and dismissed all the usual reading hacks for this one. I decided this summer that this would be one I would read and digest slowly based on the high recommendation from several mentors. I have not been disappointed. I am benefiting from Friedman’s thoughts on our need for playfulness, our poor understanding of self, our addiction to data, triangulation and so on. This book has been timely for me.

Let me touch on my need for this material in my home life briefly. I have had a growing awareness that in this season with more vocational space that I may have a tendency to over-function as a parent. There have been times that it seems as though my kids performance means more or weighs more than it should. One of the most helpful insights from Friedman’s writing is that “children who work through the natural difficulties of growing up with the least amount of difficulty are those whose parents made them least important to their own salvation.”[1]Hello self-differentiation.

I have revealed in earlier writings that I have empathy in spades, according to Strengths Finder. As with any strength, there is great beauty and great danger to manage. Empathy has served me well in pastoring and building teams. It is very useful at the altar with someone hurting. And yet Friedman asserts that it may not be the end all, be all in leadership and families that it has been purported to be.

So which one leads and wins – empathy or responsibility? In ministry leadership contexts this tension becomes problematic. From my vantage point, accountability and responsibility are more lucid in the for-profit sector. Results are the clear indication of a person’s performance. But in the church world, this is more nuanced. Perhaps it should be.

Empathy has amazing gifts to offer the world but it has its limits too.  When empathy and feeling for the other suppresses taking responsibility, it can lead to dangerous places. As Haidt and Lukianoff point to, when safety gets elevated to an ethic and coddling is the norm, things begin to fall apart.[2]Surely this kind of setting would not be conducive to taking responsibility but would easily lend itself to the practice of empathy.

Putting your own oxygen mask on first is a useful metaphor for this tension as it has to do with “leaders putting their primary emphasis on their own continual growth and maturity…the focus on empathy, because it encourages primary emphasis on others, subverts the nature of the self-differentiating process.”[3]

I am not sure exactly where I would place responsibility and empathy on the primacy scale but I am grateful that Friedman has given me a good deal to consider. I can see the limits of empathy a bit more clearly. It has been tempered a bit. My respect for responsibility increased. I am benefiting from Friedman’s deep work and am truly grateful.


[1] Edwin H. Friedman, Margaret M. Treadwell, and Edward W. Beal, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2017), 213.

[2] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 24-7.

[3] Friedman, Failure of Nerve, 147.

About the Author

Andrea Lathrop

I am a grateful believer in Jesus Christ, a wife, mom and student. I live in West Palm Beach, Florida and I have been an executive pastor for the last 8+ years. I drink more coffee than I probably should every day.