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The Compassionate Leader

April 21, 2022 • De Pree Journal

Were they really talking about compassion?

That was my question when I got to the end of an article titled, “Leaders Don’t Have to Choose between Compassion and Performance.” It caught my attention because of the “and” in the title.

I promise I’m not that weird. My colleague Michaela and I had been talking about the word “and” quite a bit because it was our first attempt at labeling something we had been hearing in our healthy marketplace leaders research.

In early 2022, Michaela and I facilitated 18 focus groups that allowed us to speak with nearly 100 Christian leaders from a variety of industries. They told us about the tensions they have to navigate in the marketplace. How to focus on both people and profits was one of them.

When we asked these leaders to tell us what words or phrases came to mind when they thought of a healthy marketplace leader, they consistently said that healthy leaders are relational; they’re others-focused, and demonstrate that they care deeply about the people they lead. The word “compassionate” even came up a few times.

The leaders we spoke with also talked about productivity and performance. They have to meet their goals. They need to make a profit. But they sometimes struggle to know when and how to be relational when the results matter so much.

Compassion and Performance

That people-and-profits tension seems to be what Mortensen and Gardner address in their article. They argue that our current cultural moment requires that leaders attend to both compassion and performance in the workplace. They want to assure leaders that they don’t have to choose between the two; they can pursue both.

As I read through Mortensen and Gardner’s recommended strategies for attempting to be compassionate and results-oriented at the same time, I wondered if the strategies would be enough. Because compassion doesn’t begin within an organization’s systems and structures, it begins within the human heart. We can talk about compassion and performance, as long as we’re willing to talk about compassionate systems and compassionate hearts.

Because compassion doesn’t begin within an organization’s systems and structures, it begins within the human heart. We can talk about compassion and performance, as long as we’re willing to talk about compassionate systems and compassionate hearts.

A Christian Understanding of Compassion

My youth pastor was strategic in selecting which Greek words to teach us high schoolers. It’s like he knew that we would remember for eternity that splanchnon – the Greek word for “compassion” – is related to the Greek word for “guts” or “entrails.” That’s because compassion is a feeling for someone, or a group of people, that we feel deep in our beings.

Matthew used that word to describe what Jesus felt when he saw that the crowds “were like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36 and Matt 14:14). Luke used it to describe what the good Samaritan felt for the wounded traveler (Luke 10:33), and what a father felt for his returned prodigal son (Luke 15:20).

In their book Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison define compassion this way:

“The word compassion is derived from the Latin words pati and cum, which together mean ‘to suffer with.’ Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”[1]

Compassion does not seem very glamorous, and yet the Bible tells us that we are to be compassionate people. It’s not part of our default disposition, and so we have to actively put it on, just as we do kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience (Col 3:12). We have to cooperate with the work of God’s Spirit in our lives in order to be compassionate. So how do we do that? How do we become more compassionate?

Begin with Prayer

It’s more in my nature to want to run from suffering than toward it. So, I know I need God to transform my heart so that I’m someone who’s not afraid of suffering, pain, and weakness.

It’s more in my nature to want to run from suffering than toward it. So, I know I need God to transform my heart so that I’m someone who’s not afraid of suffering, pain, and weakness. I’ve long loved a prayer embedded in a favorite worship song, “Break my heart for what breaks yours.”[2] It’s a simple prayer, but it’s also a terrifying one. It’s hard to ask God to lead us to places where we’ll see and experience pain, but I’ve learned that the pain can be purposeful.

I recall a time when God answered that prayer for me. I was in the middle of my first big consulting project for which I had to interview about thirty people. I heard beautiful stories that inspired me. I heard stories of frustration and confusion. And I heard one story that nearly broke me. One man’s story was excruciating. For 75 minutes, I listened to him recount painful circumstances surrounding his call to ministry, attending seminary, and pursuing ordination.

At the end of our call, my heart hurt. The pain I felt, and the questions I had were so immense that I could barely speak. I kept to myself for days trying to process all that I had heard, trying to make sense of the suffering this man had endured.

I called my mentor and told him what I had heard. I told him about my questions. I told him about my doubts. I asked for his advice. And he said, “Meryl, maybe God is using this to help you develop empathy for people like this man.” And God has.

God has made my heart more responsive to this sort of pain and he’s given me the courage to walk alongside people who experience it. God has given me the capacity to cry with them, pray for them, and seek out ways to extend them mercy.

It takes courage to pray for compassion.

It takes courage to pray for compassion. Entering into pain and brokenness is risky, but Christ has shown us that it is also infinitely rewarding.


[1] Nouwen, H. J. M., McNeill, D. P., & Morrison, D. A. (2005). Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (Revised). Doubleday.

[2] Fraser, Brooke. (2009). “Hosanna!” Hillsong UNITED.

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