Therefore, God’s chosen ones, holy and loved, put on heartfelt compassion, kindness,
humility, gentleness, and patience. — Colossians 3:12 (HCSB)
Everywhere Jesus went, He compassionately met the needs of the people He encountered. He healed the sick, raised the dead, cast out demons, forgave sins, and performed miracle after miracle. Why? Because He loved them. He had a deep sympathy for their illnesses and sorrow for their hurts and pain. For every misfortune He encountered, He had a strong desire to help those who were suffering. This is exactly what it means to have compassion on another person. You encounter them at their time of need and because you are able to both empathize and sympathize with their situation, you want to help them and ease the suffering they are experiencing. Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s state of mind. It’s the ability to put yourself in their shoes and walk where they are walking. An anonymous quote says, “It’s not the load that breaks us down, it’s the way we carry it.”
Because we have been called to minister to others, we often encounter those who are sick, hurting, and lost, just as Jesus did. We hear their stories of brokenness, their fears, and their hurts. Sometimes their stories include trauma such as domestic violence, serving our country in a war, or being a victim to a crime. They come to us, expecting us to help them, encourage them, and even fix what is broken in their lives. At times, we begin to take on their burdens as our own and their stress becomes our stress. We vicariously relive their trauma through their stories and internalize it into our own lives. This stress that comes from caring for others is known as compassion fatigue. It is caused by the empathy that we have for others and is a natural consequence of helping those who are hurting, traumatized or suffering. Therapist, psychologists, doctors, nurses, family members who care for another family member who has a medical crisis, and those of us in ministry are all susceptible.
Like other people in a helping profession, people in ministry often tend to take on the weight of everyone they minister to so that the world can be a better place. We know that doing so will have a cost, but not really expecting the high price it brings. After I while, you begin to notice that things are starting to get to you and your passion for ministry and compassion towards others is changing. You feel so drained that even the smallest need someone brings to you feels like the weight of the world piled on top of all the other weights you are already carrying. You feel numb, yet also feel as if you can’t do enough. You feel like you’ve needed a nap since before last year’s Christmas program. Some of the decisions you’ve been making are beginning to raise the eyebrows of your ministry partners, deacons, church council members, and even your congregation. Still, more needs are piled on and when the phone rings, you choose not to answer it. Your mind feels blown and your spirit feels broken. Your body also is responding to the stress of it all and you notice more physical ailments of your own. You have forgotten why you wanted to help in the first place. Your well is completely dry, and you have nothing left to give anyone.
If this description sounds like you, then you could very well be experiencing compassion fatigue.
Take a moment to watch this brief video on YouTube about Claudia.
Poor Claudia! She is so compassionately fatigued that she robs a bank just so she can have a nice quiet cell to herself and let someone else care for her husband. While the cartoon provides a few laughs, there is nothing funny about compassion fatigue. Maybe you can relate to Claudia.
Symptoms related to compassion fatigue can be very similar to burnout. The main difference is that compassion fatigue occurs as we deal with the trauma others face, which creates secondary traumatic stress for us. While burnout is more of feeling of being “worn out” and can affect anyone from any walk of life, the prolonged exposure from listening to their stories builds up and as a helping professional, we become susceptible to compassion fatigue as we carry around the emotional residue of their traumas and sufferings.
The impact of burnout is more easily identified since it is generally directly linked to the stresses in our lives. What we used to be passionate about and gave us motivation for serving God becomes tedious and an opportunity to serve God becomes more of a drudgery. Compassion fatigue, on the other had has an indirect correlation to the stress we feel because we are not living the actual stress itself, rather we live it through the person who is actually experiencing it. People who are “burned out” lose the ability to empathize but those with compassion fatigue still have a desire to help and they empathize with those who are hurting, but they become overwhelmed by their own thoughts and feelings to do so.
For further clarification let’s examine the signs, symptoms, and triggers of burnout, compassion fatigue and the vicarious trauma associated with compassion fatigue.
Take a moment and identify any of the signs, symptoms, and triggers above that indicate how you are feeling right now.
Having a few of the symptoms, doesn’t mean you have compassion fatigue, but the more symptoms you have, the more likely that compassion fatigue has struck you and both you and your ministry is suffering. The good news is people can recover from compassion fatigue quicker than burnout and there are steps you can take to protect yourself from compassion fatigue.
If we are to continue walking the path of our calling and come to the end our life to hear Jesus says, “Well done” when we give an accounting for our calling, then practicing self-care is a must. For the remainder of this blog series, we will look at what self-care is and the five critical areas of our lives that we need to carefully tend to so that we can avoid burnout and/or compassion fatigue.
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Julia is CEO of Wellspring Christian Ministries, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people and couples develop a passionate relationship with God. A public speaker, conference trainer, event planner, and blog writer, Julia is a two-time graduate from Grand Canyon University with a bachelor in Psychology and a masters in Professional Counseling. Saved as a child and raised in church and in a Christian home and private Christian School as a Pastor’s kid, Julia has taught Sunday school, led music, played the piano, served as Children’s Director, and engaged her gifts in many other areas of church life. Previously employed with the Florida Baptist Convention, Julia organized events and led conferences for church ministry assistants.
Julia enjoys sharing her journey as a growing Christian with others looking for a deeper connection with God. Through Bible study and her own life experiences, God has given Julia a passion to help couples understand God’s design for marriage while they learn to place God first in their marriage, cultivate meaningful relationships, build intimacy, and address the tougher issues that come in every marriage so that they can experience a marriage that honors and glorifies God. Julia also loves mentoring, teaching, and working with women to help them learn to live as Godly women.
With her history and experience growing up in both small and large churches, Julia enjoys bringing top level quality events to churches of all sizes. Her father largely pastored small churches and therefore she understands that these vital parts of the believing community need to be good stewards of the resources God provides them with. This knowledge inspires her passion for being available with a fresh perspective for those who want to provide their congregations with meaningful spiritual growth opportunities.