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When You Just Can’t Care Anymore

Preventing and healing compassion fatigue

It’s late evening and you’ve finally settled in bed. You are pastor-on-call, and the last thing you want is for the phone to ring.

Your cell rings.

Your adrenaline pumps. Immediately you swing into “pastor mode.”

The woman on the other end of the phone is crying. The ambulance just left her house and is headed to the ER. She thinks her husband had a heart attack but she’s not sure. She’s scared and she wants you to meet her at the hospital. Off you go.

You get to the hospital, where you find out her husband has passed away. You walk into the side room where you find a woman on her knees, wailing, as her two little boys sit in the chairs next to her and cry too.

After being up all night at the hospital, you still have to go into the office the next day…and you are still pastor-on-call. You get another phone call: someone’s mother-in-law has passed away and the family wants you to come and pray with them and help arrange the funeral. Off you go…again.

Month after month of dealing with crisis begins to take a toll on you emotionally and physically. You find yourself with a negative attitude and an underlying sense of hopelessness. You don’t find pleasure in everyday life anymore. You want to quit and give up ministry. It’s not what you thought it was going to be. It’s become drudgery. What you are experiencing is compassion fatigue.

Whether you are a pastor of a small church or one of many pastors employed at a church of thousands, a major aspect of being a pastor is shepherding people through crisis. Other ministry leaders shepherd people through crisis as well: pastoral counselors, small group leaders, worship leaders, elders, deacons. Anyone who is on the front lines, caring for those who are hurting emotionally or physically, can experience compassion fatigue.

The symptoms of compassion fatigue are an overwhelming feeling of negativity, both emotional and physical fatigue, and an underlying sense of hopelessness. I remember the first time I realized I had compassion fatigue. For 10 years I worked as a therapist with at-risk-adolescent girls at an all girls’ school. Daily, I encountered girls who had been traumatized by physical and sexual abuse. After years of hearing their stories, I became cynical and burdened and I began to hate my job. Because of the population of kids I worked with, I rarely experienced favorable outcomes. I began to forget that there were healthy, loving families with well-adjusted teenagers. As a Christ-follower, I began to forget the faithfulness and goodness of God.

Here are a few important strategies you can utilize if you find yourself dealing with compassion fatigue.

1. It’s important for your emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being to take regular breaks. At the local church where I serve as the pastor of small groups, each pastor is given a three-day spiritual retreat twice a year. The purpose for the retreat is to rest and focus on God.

To prevent compassion fatigue, it’s important to get away from ministry to get refreshed and renew your vision. Even if you work a secular job you can take a three-day weekend and get away specifically to rest and focus on your relationship with Christ.

2. It’s important to find hobbies that you find pleasurable and fun. If you find golf relaxing, then golf. If it’s refurbishing furniture, redo furniture. Hobbies can provide a release from the stress and tension that come from caring for others dealing with trauma. This is imperative for your well-being.

3. When your life is about others, you have to compartmentalize your emotions so you can be present in the moment. It's difficult to change hats from being in the midst of pastoring someone through trauma, to problem-solving technical difficulties at the church, to bringing a message on the weekends when your own heart is broken over a situation. That’s why it’s imperative that you have a “go to” person on whom you can unload your thoughts and emotions, someone who is accessible to you and who expects nothing from you. Someone who is willing to listen to you and pray for you.

Finally, it’s healthy to remember that you are not God. You are not created to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. You can’t take someone’s pain away and make their world the way it was prior to the trauma. However, you can pray, support, encourage, listen, and be available. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. Let him carry you as you’re helping others, and as you are helping others, point them to the one who carries everything, heals anything, and restores. He’s our everything.

Julia Mateer is a writer, speaker, therapist, and director of women’s small groups at Bayside Community Church. You can connect with Julia on her website.

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