My father is a doctor. When I was growing up, he hoped I would follow in his steps, so he often shared stories about the wonders of his profession — Like the day when he cracked a case that had stumped other doctors for weeks. It turned out to be a parasite acquired in the South Pacific during World War II.
“The man had a dormant worm in his gut for over 50 years!” my dad exclaimed with a victorious smile. “Medicine is amazing.”
A few nights later, however, he would point his index finger at me and declare in exhaustion, “Never become a doctor. You just stick your finger up peoples’ rear ends all day.”
Message received. I became a pastor.
When I was 18, my father learned what it was like to be on the receiving end of a latex glove. He was diagnosed with cancer. His type was very survivable if caught early—which could only be known through surgery.
I sat next to him in the waiting room before the operation. It was odd seeing him in a hospital not striding with confidence into a patient’s room or giving orders at a nurses’ station like a battleship commander—something I had witnessed many times as a boy accompanying him on Saturday morning rounds. Instead he sat in silence with his shoulders rolled and hands shaking.
“You know doctors make the worst patients,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because we know too much. We know the thousands of things that can go wrong that most people never imagine.”
Thankfully his cancer was caught early and he survived, but something important happened when the physician became the patient, when the expert became the examined. He gained something that can’t be taught in medical school or acquired from years of practicing medicine.
Cancer gave him empathy. I saw his compassion for his patients grow following his own health crisis. Doctors may make the worst patients, but patients make the best doctors.
Like medicine, Christian leadership is a calling that requires both knowledge and skills. Many of us have spent years, even decades, studying Scripture, theology, history, and culture to faithfully connect God’s Word to our world. We’ve learned to lead others toward life with Christ. Within our communities this makes us the experts, the go-to people when others have a struggle or need advice.
Sure, we have our moments of self-pity when we complain about the tedious tasks of ministry—the ecclesiastical rectal exams we must administer day after day. If we’re honest, however, having people seek our help is an arrangement that can serve their needs and feed our sense of importance simultaneously.
Over time this can become unhealthy, causing us to believe the key to successful leadership is always dispensing our knowledge and skills to everyone who seeks our help.
This need to maintain our position as the expert can, ironically, prevent us from acquiring the quality that the very best Christian leaders possess—empathy. We are happy to play the role of savior, but we don’t want to be identified as a sinner.
We may sense there’s something amiss in our souls, or we may suspect our descent into sin is becoming chronic, but the thought of opening ourselves to examination is too terrifying. We know the risks better than most. We’ve seen the carnage of broken lives in our offices and in tear-filled family rooms. We’d rather avoid the humiliation and let the cancer silently grow.
Still, there is a gift awaiting leaders who humble themselves. When we face our fears and experience the healing pain of sanctification, we gain empathy for the sinners we are called to shepherd. We will exhibit greater compassion for the next unhealthy person who wants to talk to meet us for coffee, or the disruptive women in the worship gathering, or the addicted man who fails at recovery yet again.
My empathy grows most when I step away from the “expert” spotlight. That means regularly not preaching, allowing someone else’s teaching to examine my soul. It also means having regular check-ups with godly men who care deeply for me and my health.
I have also found the Ignatian prayers of examen to be an indispensable tool. They make Psalm 139:23 a practiced reality: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!”Leaders make the worst sinners, but sinners make the best leaders.
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