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Empathy
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By Melissa Nelms & Chantelle Foster

 

a2 fosters and nelms 2017

 

Part One: Melissa's Perspective 

“Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” – Brené Brown

 

I grew up as the “fix-it” friend. My parents were problem solvers and taught me to be both a problem solver and a listening ear, so I found myself in the role of caregiver in many of my friendships growing up.

 

In my marriage, I had to unlearn some of these “fix-it” skills and practice more of the listening skills. I had to learn empathy – true empathy. Because I think what I’d been doing before had been something more like sympathetic problem solving. I heard the hurt of my friends, felt pity for them and proposed a solution. That’s not how empathy works. That’s why Brené Brown’s words resonated with me so deeply as I began this conversation with Chantelle about the unique relationship between our families.

 

You would think a 20-year gap in age and life experience would make it difficult for us to connect. Instead, that 20-year gap has helped us empathize even more with one another’s seasons in life as clergy families. Our lives connect and intersect in so many ways. Our husbands pastor together. Chantelle and I get to work alongside both our husbands and one another. We’ve developed a friendship that is fun and weird to many looking from the outside in. And now we’ve added neighbor to the long list of intersections and shared life experiences. Now Chantelle can walk down the street as the kids are getting ready for bed with a plate of warm cookies straight out of the oven as a special bedtime snack. My kids can drive their bright yellow, battery-powered VW bug with the music blaring just two doors down to pick peaches in the Foster’s backyard, say hi to Peanut (the Foster’s schnoodle) or swing in the hammock for a minute before making the short trek back home.

 

No matter how weird and crazy it may seem to those looking from the outside in, I’m beyond grateful for this amazing relationship that has grown between our two families. It’s important to have people in your life who are your people. People who know and see what you’re going through. Maybe they’ve even gone through the same thing … such as the experience of starting a brand-new worshipping community from scratch. No matter what, even if there are no words to respond with and they’re not able to “fix it,” your people are willing to listen, to celebrate, to question, to pray or to grieve alongside you. Just knowing we’re not alone in this crazy thing God has called us to has changed the way we live life and do ministry. It has made us better pastors, better parents, better spouses – just all around better people.

 

We are blessed to do this crazy clergy life with the Fosters and blessed for the opportunity and the friendship that has grown from that opportunity.

 

Part 2: Chantelle's Perspective 

“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” Ecclesiastes 4:9-10

 

As Melissa pointed out, we are 20 years apart in age (ouch!). You might think this difference in seasons of life would make it challenging to be friends. It doesn’t feel that way to us. I want to point out some of the things Melissa and I have in common: we are clergy spouses, we are church-planter spouses (even weirder), we are moms, we have a call to ministry ourselves that we are living into, we are oldest children married to the baby of the family, we are strong and competent, we are learning to seek help when we need it, we long to grow into Christ-likeness more and more each day.

 

These commonalities make it easy for Melissa and I to provide empathy for one another daily. I used to think you had to live through the same stuff to feel empathy for someone. I came across the teachings of Brené Brown several years ago and she really shaped my understanding of empathy. You don’t have to go through the same stuff to feel empathy; you just have to be vulnerable enough to deal with your own stuff to really be there for someone in their time of need. This is difficult for many people. We’d like to separate what we are going through so we can live in the fantasy of  “this would never happen to me because I would do this so differently.” That mentality is unhelpful.

 

Here are some basic guidelines on providing empathy found in a Psychology Today article written by Kate Thieda:

 

In “I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't)” (2008), Brown references nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman's four attributes of empathy:

 

 

  • To be able to see the world as others see it—this requires putting your own "stuff" aside to see the situation through your loved one's eyes.
  • To be nonjudgmental—judgment of another person's situation discounts the experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation.
  • To understand another person’s feelings—we have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else's. Again, this requires putting your own "stuff" aside to focus on your loved one.

 

 

To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings—rather than saying, "At least you..." or "It could be worse..." try, "I've been there, and that really hurts," or (to quote an example from Brown) "It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

 

I am ever thankful for Melissa’s friendship and our family’s friendship. It is a beautiful part of my life.  I experience wise counsel, deep love and forgiveness on a regular basis. I am thankful for this community we are a part of. Two is indeed better than one.

 

 


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