Nehemiah faced one of the of the most complicated and most documented leadership challenges ever when God called him to oversee rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. At the time, Nehemiah lived a thousand miles from Jerusalem and served as the cupbearer to the most powerful king of the day. Warlords in the area around Jerusalem certainly didn’t want anyone rebuilding the wall because it would diminish their control over the people. So why would Nehemiah leave a legacy position, travel a far distance to take on a dangerous task no person had asked him to do, and incur personal sacrifice for a group of people he didn’t know?
The answer is compassionate leadership. Compassionate leaders are those who take on the responsibility of serving their cities and communities in a selfless way that leaves things better when they’re gone. For these leaders, the principles embedded in Nehemiah’s actions remain timeless and will make or break their organization today.
Here are five attributes of compassionate leaders.
Compassionate leaders listen and are concerned for the condition of others.
Nehemiah heard the report of conditions in Jerusalem and then asked for details (Nehemiah 1:1–4). We all hear reports about the conditions of our communities, but compassionate leaders go further and spend time asking great questions and gathering information.
The first step is to let people know you care. It’s asking, “How are you doing?” not just “How are we doing?” In many businesses, most of a leader’s conversations with employees is spent trying to find information about the company or organization, not about the person. Even in churches, leaders too often sidestep compassion for individuals in favor of organizational assessments.
Secondly, when conversation turns to the shared mission of the organization, too many church and nonprofit leaders simply don’t want to hear bad news. “Why is our enrollment in kids’ ministry down? How are we doing in teaching people the gospel? Is our foster-care ministry making an impact?” I’m convinced that many leaders don’t ask those questions because they know the answers and don’t want other people to confirm them!
In Nehemiah’s day, people were considered a commodity— their lives and deaths didn’t matter to leaders. Yet the COO of the most powerful king on earth at that time asked great questions rooted in compassion for people. We all need to become better at asking, “How are you doing?” and “How are we really doing?”
Compassionate leaders act on feelings of compassion.
If a leader has concern for others and can learn to really listen, this leads to demonstrated compassion. Nehemiah didn’t just experience feelings of compassion and then walk away from the challenge. He acted on his felt compassion, as all great leaders do.
Jesus is our ultimate model. He often acted because He was moved with compassion. Compassionate action only comes from people whose hearts are broken by the conditions of those around them.
Compassionate leaders wear other people’s shoes.
Nehemiah didn’t distance himself from the problem. Rather, he put his heart and his feet right in the middle of it.
We’ve all seen groups of white, middle-class people swoop into a neighborhood, do a day of service, and then leave. This is a type of intrusion into the area of need rather than an infusion. We fail to see beneficial long-term effects because we’re not willing to take off our shoes and put on their shoes.
Compassionate leadership means making a significant effort to understand other people’s reality instead of affirming your own perceptions.
Compassionate leaders don’t rush to conclusions.
One of the great enemies of good leadership is how much we think we know. We process what we hear through our knowledge bank and draw a quick conclusion. We act too quickly: “I don’t have time. Here’s my decision. Next.”
Nehemiah was the opposite. He spent three days in Jerusalem walking around the wall at night, accompanied by a few good men and his horse (Nehemiah 2:11–17). He’d already collected the building materials and the blessing of the king. Why waste three days walking around the wall at night? Chuck Swindoll wrote in the book Hand Me Another Brick that this is where God put the steel into Nehemiah’s bones. It didn’t happen quickly or with fanfare, but in quietness with God and in gathering information about the situation.
Do we take time when nobody is around, and it’s just us and God, to ask Him to put His wisdom, His steel into us? If not, we spend all our lives making quick decisions that for the most part are ours, not God’s. The only way to avoid making rushed (and often wrong) decisions is to understand and appreciate the silence and the waiting when it’s just you and God.
Compassionate leaders rely upon God and recognize His power.
During the approval process for the Museum, we relied on a simple fact: It was God’s idea and His project. We were privileged to help carry it out, but the museum wasn’t ours. So, we didn’t worry about it. We let God give us inspiration when we encountered obstacles. Sure enough, at every turn He kept showing us what to do and what questions to ask.
Even in the most daunting meetings, we never came in with fear. Rather, we had an excitement about what God would do next. At the end of all those meetings and working with all those agencies, the result absolutely stunned our law firm: Not only did we receive approval from every agency, but there was never a dissenting vote. We had 100 percent approval across the board!
In the process I watched as God used all my experience before then—in the sporting goods world, retail, theme parks, and more—to help me walk through the challenges. People who know me say everything in my life was in preparation for this. In that small way, I felt like Nehemiah whose skill building and experiences in the king’s palace proved invaluable when he accepted the challenge to rebuild Jerusalem’s wall.
Whatever task you’re in, God will draw on your experiences and use your life for His glory—especially as you seek to become a compassionate leader.
Adapted from CityServe: Your Guide to Church-Based Compassion. Copyright © 2019 by Dave Donaldson. Published by Salubris Resources, Springfield, Missouri.