Ruinous Empathy

“Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” – Ephesians 4:15

In her new book Radical Candor the management guru Kim Scott (a veteran of Google, Apple and Twitter) gives us a new framework for how to be the best boss: care personally, and challenge directly.

When we challenge people directly without caring personally, we risk what she calls “obnoxious aggression.” And when we care personally without challenging people directly to reach their potential, or fail to acknowledge their failures, their mistakes, or their own obnoxious aggression, we are “ruinously empathetic.”

Ruinous empathy characterizes a lot of how we relate to each other in church. We are taught from the cradle that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all,” and schooled that Christians must above all be nice to each other (at least to each others’ faces).

We fail to rein in toxic behaviors, don’t hold people accountable for mediocre leadership (which demoralizes high-functioning staff and volunteers), and ignore the elephant in the room, which then tramples everybody. Both clergy and lay people are guilty of ruinous empathy. 

The Golden Rule, absent truthfulness and accountability, is actually a lead balloon. It has sunk many a religious community. One example: a church I know failed, for years, to talk to an employee about his poor performance. Instead, they cut down his responsibilities by half and paid him the same amount. This was hard on the church, which had to hire a second person to finish the work

It turns out his son was an addict, and was stealing money for drugs–which is why the employee, ashamedly, was still doing half the job for all the pay. If the church had been able to challenge him directly, while caring personally, they might have been able to get at the truth and help the whole family. Their ‘kindness’ actually aggravated the harm.

One of my seminary professors once said, “Criticism is a gift. Offered with real love and gentleness, it gives the recipient an opportunity to change.” A well-time (private!) conversation about expectations, gifts, roles and fit can change–or save–a life.


God, who always cares personally and challenges directly, show us how to do the same. Amen.

About the Author
Molly Baskette is Senior Minister of the First Church of Berkeley, California, and the author of the best-selling Real Good Church and Standing Naked Before God.