Empathy: A Virtue for Our Times

(By guest author Elizabeth Troyer-Miller.)  I have been sucked into the cultural and political divisions of today. Everything feels politicized. Even sneezing in public feels like something I need to hide as it may be controversial! All the normal practices to keep me grounded have been disrupted, church and Sunday school lack the community and connection, and I barely see anyone beyond co-workers and our mask-muffled conversations. I have been in desperate need of a shake-up.

In this crazy space, I stumbled upon a practice, grounded in the principles of nonviolent communication. I now have an empathy buddy. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, it was new to me, too. For me, it is an intentional relationship in which two people meet together to practice nonviolence communication. We take turns listening to each other and offer guesses about the feelings and needs expressed in our sharing. Check out this blog post from the Center for Compassionate Living.

My empathy buddy and I did not know each other; she was initially only a name and an email address. All we knew about the other person was that they shared a desire to work on skills for communicating with empathy. We used tools from the New York Center for Nonviolent Communication and formatted our discussions with guides such as The Empathy Call .

Over the last couple of months we have been meeting online weekly for 60-90 minutes. We take turns as speaker and listener, and we intentionally identify feelings and needs revealed by our conversations. We use statements like this: “I wonder if you feel ____because of your need for _____.” We end our sharing time by answering, “What is your request for yourself or for the listener?”

Through this process, I have felt a softening of my judgement of myself and of others.  1 Corinthians 4.5 is insightful here: “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. God will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.”

I have been able to see in new ways how unmet needs lead to my feelings of unrest. I have been able to develop a new sense of self-awareness and kindness to myself and others. Rather than rushing to judge a person by their actions, I have been able to work on my own curiosity and wonder what else is going on. This process forces me to slow down.

The rippling impact of this new practice has surprised me. I am discovering a new level of vulnerability that I have applied to my relationship with Christ. No longer do I gloss over my emotions, but I can name my deep sadness, longing, disappointment and shame as they may appear.

As I bear witness to the real emotions of others, I can bear witness to my own self. I have the vocabulary to unmask my true self before Christ. This vulnerability is becoming comfortable to me, as we have a savior who ‘gets it.’ As Hebrews 4:15 offers, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Elizabeth Troyer-Miller, Wood River, Nebraska


Hear and watch a 30-minute video on Empathy (TV interview with Ted Lewis in 2018)

Dr. Brenda: Cross-shaped Reconciliation

Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil from Seattle, in an interview on the Red Letter Christianity show, explains how the reconciling message of the cross of Jesus is both vertical and horizontal. Not only does it open the way for people to become right with God but it also opens the way for people to become right with each other. Entering a relationship with God, explains Dr. Brenda, cannot be separated from entering a kingdom in which disciples of Jesus find solidarity with all people, no matter how ‘other’ the other may be. 

This video interview with Tony Compalo and Shane Claiborne took place in 2014. When asked about the practical steps for reconciling with others in the context of race relations, she talked about four phases which resonate very well with dynamics in a restorative dialogue process between offending and victimized parties.

  1. Realization: opening your eyes to the validity of another’s difficult experience
  2. Identification: feeling empathy with the other; sharing a common humanity
  3. Preparation: integrating new values into your lifestyle to face the long-haul
  4. Activation: putting your faith into deeds; taking risks of love in practical ways

There’s a heart-based, relationship-driven foundation to this progression, showing that one’s outward activity for peace and justice requires deep roots that draw from the nutrient soil of restorative frameworks. This is a great reminder that love cannot be isolated from the work of peace and justice!

Church folk often prefer simplistic answers to simplistic questions: “Why can’t they just get a job?”  To this, Dr. Brenda says, “We need complex questions that lead to complex answers that can lead to complex solutions to complex problems.” (from a April 2020 interview)

Roadmap to Reconciliation is Designed for Church communities

Check out Dr. Brenda’s website which holds many videos and resources on racial reconciliation.  One of these videos is Ferguson Remembered from Jan 2015 after Michael Brown was killed. It is interesting to line up this response with our current crisis stirred by the tragic killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Her book Roadmap to Reconciliation (2020, InterVarsity Press) is a revised version of her 2015 edition which comes with an Implementation Guide for church communities and study groups.

A new addition to this study set is the Restoration Cycle, a restorative tool to help churches strategically implement the value of reconciliation throughout their congregation.  Check out the church consulting services offered by Dr. Brenda and her team that can assist church leaders on the road to reconciliation.

It’s time for the followers of Jesus to embark on the prophetic journey that leads to reconciliation and transformation around the world. Many of us may already be aware of the need for reconciliation in our own backyards. . . . We cannot ignore the plight of the people around us and as globalization continues its relentless march onward, we cannot turn a blind eye to the world at large either. We have to face the realities here at home and we must also embrace the stories of people all around the world. – Dr. Brenda



Peter Steinke Addresses Anxious Times

If these are times that test our souls, it is truly a time for church leaders to think clearly, to be present calmly, and to challenge effectively. This is a time when leaders cannot be as anxious as those they serve, otherwise, the system is leaderless. Anxiety flows down like water from a leaky pipe. To lead effectively we must understand the impact of powerful emotional forces on people’s behavior, especially in anxious times.

Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times helps leaders understand the powerful impact that emotional processes have on the people they lead. Peter Steinke, bestselling author of Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, draws on decades of work on system conflict and personal experiences to share real stories of challenges leaders have faced and how understanding the power of emotions has dramatically influenced their success.

In this book, readers will observe important leadership characteristics such as separating oneself from the surrounding anxiety (“self-differentiation”), making decisions based on principle and not instinct, taking responsibility for one’s own emotional being, staying connected to others including those who disagree with you, being a non-anxious presence, focusing on emotional processes rather than the symptoms they produce, knowing people naturally influence one another, and recognizing leader and follower as complements.

Peter  L. Steinke’s other books, promoted by the Alban Institute, have helped greatly to make Bowan and Friedman Family System Theory applicable for broader audience, especially for church congregations. One of those is…

How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems

In this book, Peter Steinke shows how to recognize and deal with the emotional roots of such issues as church conflict, leadership roles, congregational change, irresponsible behavior, and the effect of family of origin on current relationships. Discover why working relationships may be “stuck” in certain behaviors. Psychologically sound, theologically grounded, and practically illustrated with case studies, How Your Church Family Works will help you better understand how your congregation works and how to keep it healthy.

Hear Peter Steinke on a youtube video.  A nice introduction to emotional system theories, along with the importance of HOW we respond to situations with high anxiety.

Read an interview with Richard Blackburn, director of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, on the topic of how national-level anxiety can affect congregations.

View a comprehensive listing of Alban books printed by Rowman and Littlefield (on healthy congregations, clergy leadership, conflict resolution, etc.)

R Ch Website Seeks Input Partners

One of the key values for the R Ch website project is collaboration. The hope now is to include content recommendations and submissions from diverse partners who can make this site fuller and relevant to broader audiences in the church world. As a Euro-descended white man, I am limited in what I can do to generate and guide new content for this site. I seek partnership with brothers and sisters in faith who represent communities of color to create meaningful content that is relevant to wider audiences. As a male, I seek stronger involvement of women in this collaborative effort.

It is clear to most that race relations and racial reconciliation are central issues to our current times. This of course is a large topic, and this site is not aiming to replicate what is already out there.  The parameters of the Restorative Church project limit content that includes all three of the following aspects: (restorative / church / dialogue)

  1.  Restorative justice / restorative practices, either relational or systemic
  2.  Church related, either communal (inward), inter-group, or missional (outward)
  3.  Dialogue-based, either with prevention or intervention focus

If you have recommendations for new content or written pieces that move between all three of these areas, please send your initial thoughts to Ted Lewis through this site’s Contact system.  Forthcoming content can include stories, links, programs, articles, etc., that serve to inform and inspire the imitation of good work being done.

This fall, a team of diverse people will also be put together to select and steward all new content for the R Ch website, and steer related projects and events in the future. If you are a writer, practitioner or educator who weaves together the above three areas, please contact Ted.


Howard Thurman Quote

“Look well to the growing edge! All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge! It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and men have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash. The birth of the child — life’s most dramatic answer to death — this is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge!”