Understanding compassion fatigue

By Sam Doerksen

Are there risks and pitfalls that we need to be aware of when it comes to providing care and compassion? Can a person who naturally has a heart of compassion come to a place of no longer being able to be compassionate? Is it sinful for me to step back and allow others to help provide care? As a pastor, am I shirking my responsibilities by doing so?

If you’re feeling emotionally and physically overwhelmed in your position as a caregiver because you’re unable to refuel and regenerate, you may be struggling with compassion fatigue.

The realities of providing care and compassion

Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m not sure why I am telling you this but . . .”? There is a feeling of safety for them. The time is right. They have an empathetic ear – your ear. They tell you the story, usually a story where something negative and/or tragic has happened. You listen, thinking, Why would God allow such a story to unfold? You seek to give hope, encouragement, support or direction. More often than not, you feel ill-equipped and under-qualified to tackle the many layers of pain and dysfunction. It may not be very clear as to what they really need, but you still want this person to begin to heal because you have a deep desire to help them. After all, isn’t that your job? Your conversation ends and they leave your office. You may have several more conversations over the next while where you continue to provide support, direction and accountability to different people with different burdens.

These kinds of encounters happen quite frequently in the life of a pastor. They are built on trust and confidentiality. We need to be very mindful not to disclose what has been shared and rightfully so. However, how far does that confidentiality extend? We know about our legal obligations when the laws have been broken. But are we breaching that confidentiality when we admit that we are feeling tired from having a difficult conversation? Or that we are having a difficult time processing what has been disclosed to us? What if we admit that we do not know how best to help and refer those individuals to someone who is better trained to provide the care needed? Does such an admission cause a feeling of not being qualified to do your job?

What does your job require of you?

It is a real struggle to wrestle through what our job as a pastor requires of us. We may have our written job descriptions that have things neatly outlined and, on paper, it seems so clear. Yet, when you add faces and stories of pain to those areas of responsibilities, turning things on and off becomes much more complicated.

As a shepherd, we care for our flock. We pour love into the lives of those in our church and surrounding community. We desire for them to be passionate in their relationship with Jesus. We want to be present in the day-to-day grind of living out our faith. But it’s okay to admit our own vulnerability. C.S. Lewis explains it perfectly in his book The Four Loves:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, and irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is hell.”

In light of that, it’s clear that being a pastor does not mean we will not be affected by what we hear. When we extend love to those that are hurting, we risk feeling their pain and feel the weight of the desire to help. Pastors are human like everyone else. Our jobs are not asking us to ignore that. In fact, if anything, our jobs require that we model humanity. It is as we do that, that we draw the attention off of ourselves as the helper and healer, and direct it solely to Jesus who is the real source of healing.

Modelling our humanity

What does humanity look like? It is being honest with ourselves when we are tired, overwhelmed and frustrated. Being human means that we take regular times of rest because our bodies are created that way. It means that we ask for help without feeling guilty and accept our limitations without feeling weak.

It doesn’t matter if others don’t understand. They don’t have our job, character or personality. But don’t be afraid to let others know what they know already: we are human! To know that someone is praying for us and will keep us accountable is important. To know that they know we need some help is good.

What about our physical health? Are we eating, resting and sleeping well? Are we getting the exercise we need? This is all part of accepting our humanity.

Why is it so important to do this? Because the alternative can be devastating.

It seems that we are often the last to know when we are too stressed and too fatigued. Those around us will have noticed, but we may deny it. Denial is usually the first order of protection. “I can handle this” is what we may believe, but our actions are screaming that we need help.

4 safeguards to put in place

It is in the best interest of everyone for us to be intentional in setting up safeguards that will help us assess how we are processing the load of care that we are carrying. Here are just a few very practical things to put in place to help you minister from a place of physical and emotional health:

1. Accountability. Who can you ask to hold you accountable for taking care of yourself? This needs to be someone who is able to be very honest with you, someone who has your best in mind. Even if they need to let you know that you need some rest or spiritual refreshment, maybe even just one Sunday away from the pulpit to catch your breath. Remember, being held accountable is not fault-finding, it is care being poured out on you! That old saying that it is easier to give than receive is very true.

2. Ask for help. Let your team know when your schedule is getting heavy. They may see areas in your schedule that will provide opportunities for down time.

3. Take holidays and days off. This is easier said than done, especially if you serve in a church where there are very few workers. Your accountability partner can be a great help in reminding you to schedule these times away.

4. Give yourself permission to refer. Part of caring may be directing someone in your church or community to a respected professional who will know better how to address their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs.

When someone we know is fatigued

But how do we help someone who is presenting signs of fatigue? We see family members caring for a loved one over extended periods of time and we recognize the weariness that develops. What kind of questions should be asked? What should we do? What if that person is my pastor? Does that change things? How does a pastor need to be cared for when he or she is dealing with care issues with their family?

It is interesting that when a person shows signs of compassion fatigue, what they often need most is compassion poured on them. They need to feel heard, cared for, validated and understood.

When someone has been putting all their time and energy into providing care, they are often overlooked. After all, they are not the one who is sick! Questions are usually asked about the person they are caring for. Simply asking the caregiver how they are doing may open up an opportunity for them to process the effect that caring has had on them. The caregiver is the one who can get ill by taking care of the others. It can drain their strength physically, spiritually and emotionally even when they are doing the right thing in providing care. Remember, caring is not the problem. Refusing to accept our limitations and humanness while caring is the problem. How can we care for ourselves so that we can continue to care well? Sometimes, we need others to step alongside us to help.

What if the caregiver is watching over more than one person? Where will they feel they can rest? Or be given the permission to rest? There are no easy answers to these questions, but having someone close who can act as that accountability partner and have open discussions is invaluable.

As a church family, we are responsible for caring for each other: pastor to congregants, congregants to congregants and congregants to pastors. We “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Caring is messy, unpredictable and we are never certain of how long it will be required, so let us be pastors who model our humanity well. Let us be teachers who show that needing help is okay, that needing rest is human and that there is a Saviour – and it’s not ourselves.


Sam Doerksen and his wife, Pauline, are the program directors at our Manitoba Kerith Retreats location. For more information about our retreats, visit KerithRetreats.ca.

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