Every job has its hazards. Some are pretty obvious; the danger of being a fire fighter or working the high steel but for vocations in the helping industries the hazards can often be less obvious. There is a real danger of Compassion Fatigue for those who spend time caring for people. These include physicians, nurses, counselors, therapist, teachers and most certainly pastors.
Working with people in a multitude of forms of distress can have a significant impact on our personal lives. Hearing about the challenges, pain and struggle of others is akin to experiencing that trauma ourselves. While many of us are empathetic by nature and gifting, our greatest gift can also be the place of our greatest pain when we continually “pick-up” the pain of others. This is called transference.
You may have seen a colleague or experienced yourself; a constant sense of walking in a fog disconnected with what is going on around you. A person may feel disconnected from other people, and they may experience feelings of anxiety before meeting with a Church member. It is not uncommon for pastors to experience feelings of anger, a sense of being overwhelmed, sleeplessness, nightmares, feelings of despair and powerlessness. In extreme cases, ministers experiencing Compassion Fatigue may experience physical symptoms.
Many find themselves find themselves shutting off emotionally, they become hard-hearted and seemingly uncaring, calloused and flippant but often these are protection mechanisms because they are so often overwhelmed they cannot deal with this stress anymore.
Here are a few suggestions to help you take care of yourself to reduce the chances of experiencing Compassion Fatigue.
- Address your feeling in healthy ways by being more self-aware we can begin to distinguish what are our issues and those of others. In addition, we can learn to process our own feeling about issues of others in healthy deliberate ways.
- Don’t Spiritualize it - Deal with cause and symptoms together. There are some very effective ways to manage stress, and it is a good idea to deal with the cause of this stress.
- Responsibility. There is only one Saviour, and you are not Him! We must learn not to take on the responsibility for things we don’t have the power to change. Working with people, we must not take that responsibility from them. Yes, we can equip and encourage them to do so for themselves.
- Seek meaningful reminders of life outside of ministry like pictures of family, art, music, nature, an unrelated hobby. This can be a challenge in church because it is so integrated with so many aspects of our life and makes this all the more important.
- A faithful, forgiving friend. Find a friend who you can be honest with. Who is equipped to support you in your ministry with prayer, encouragement, healthy, relational accountability and who you can share your inner-life with. I know for many pastors this may be a pretty tall order. Many, many pastors do not have close, personal friends that they feel they can be safe with. If this is the case, it is wise to seek qualified, experienced coach or spiritual director and meet with them regularly.
- Care for your whole self. We are whole people; body, mind and spirit. As such we need to be deliberate to tend to our own self-care. A few practical suggestions:
Get adequate rest
Take regular vacations (Church retreats or conferences don’t count!)
Establish and maintain healthy boundaries
Practice being thankful
Sing (loud) in the car
Pray, meditate regularly
Read the Scriptures for enjoyment and comfort
Practice silence for 20 minutes per day
Enjoy something beautiful - music, art, poetry, nature
Laugh often and laugh hard