Compassion fatigue in pastors is a serious problem.
As a pastor, I love to help people find joy and freedom in Christ because I love people. I find that love draws me to people who are willing to admit their pain or their sin – people who want to be healed. Through this gift of mercy, God has used me to free people from guilt, addiction, shame, and fear. It brings me so much joy to show people how much God loves them, but there is a dark side to this gift.
The Dark Side of Mercy
When I focus on helping others, if I’m not careful I can forget to care for myself. I rationalize that Jesus sacrificed himself for others so I should too. When this happens I violate my God-given limitations. Who is providing pastoral care for the pastor? This is the job of the elders, but in some churches there are no elders to help. And in churches that have elders, they rarely have the insight or training to know what to do. Many pastors have no one to ask them the deep questions about the state of their souls.
When pastors give more care than their spiritual life can sustain, mercy slowly turns to bitterness as they abuse their body, mind, and spirit. They no longer find joy in helping people, and they themselves need help. This is called compassion fatigue.
According to Merriam-Webster, compassion fatigue is:
- the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time.
- apathy or indifference toward the suffering of others as the result of overexposure to tragic news stories and images and the subsequent appeals for assistance.
Compassion fatigue is
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Mentally and physically tired.
- Bottled-up emotions.
- Apathy or sadness.
- No longer finds activities pleasurable.
- Reoccurrence of nightmares or flashbacks to traumatic event.
- Chronic physical ailments (e.g., gastrointestinal problems, low immunity, back/neck pain, headaches).
- Withdrawal or isolation from others
- Excessive or irrational blaming
- Defensiveness or shame
- Complains a lot about administrative duties
- Receives unusual number of complaints from others
- Poor self-care (e.g., hygiene, appearance, lack of sleep, overwork)
- Compulsive behaviors (e.g., overspending, overeating, gambling, sexual addictions)
- Legal problems, indebtedness
- Substance abuse used to mask feelings
Recovering from Compassion Fatigue
Here are elements of a compassion fatigue recovery plan for pastors:
- Take an extended time away for rest (i.e., a sabbatical or vacation of at least 3 to 12 weeks).
- Establish healthy rhythms of work and rest (i.e., weekly Sabbath, quarterly retreats, yearly vacation).
- Talk with a professional Christian counselor and develop a plan for recovery.
- Find a spiritual director to help you explore your relationship with God.
- Talk with pastors who have experienced compassion fatigue.
- Learn spiritual practices that help you become aware of God’s presence (especially silence and solitude).
- Use prayer as relationship with God (rather than as a way to get things from him).
- Read the Bible slowly and deeply for spiritual refreshment, and keep what you learn to yourself for a while so you aren’t tempted to use it for preaching, teaching, or counseling.
- Listen deeply to your environment, your body, and your soul with the Holy Spirit’s help.
- Establish healthy boundaries and patterns of self-care.
- Meditate on God’s love for you – experience his pleasure over you.
Avoiding Compassion Fatigue
In his book The Deeper Journey, Robert Mulholland teaches that we will burn out if we are “so busy being in the world for God that they failed to be in God for the world” (Kindle location 447). Jesus engaged in self-care through relationship with God so he could care for others well:
- He would often withdraw to desolate places to pray (Luke 5:16).
- Sometimes Jesus avoided the crowds to be with friends (Mark 6:31).
- He focused on knowing and doing God’s will (John 4:34).
- Jesus didn’t let other people determine his calling (Matthew 16:23).
- He didn’t engage in people-pleasing (John 6:15).
We are limited by our bodies, our energy, and our level of dependence on God. God doesn’t ask us to heal everyone or to fix all the problems we see (not even Jesus did that). Instead, we are to let Jesus lead.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.– Matthew 11:28-30
Does your church provide your pastor and elders the time and support they need to watch over themselves first (Acts 20:28-30)?
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© Sean Nemecek, 2018. All rights reserved. Request permission.
Sean Nemecek, (M.Div. Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is the director of The Pastor’s Soul, and pastor at First Baptist Church in Tustin, Michigan since 2001. A third-generation pastor, he grew up listening to pastors and their families talk about the realities of ministry. Now he wants to use this knowledge to bless the church. Sean is married to Amy, a poet and freelance book editor. Together, they have a 17-year-old son.