I knew I had at times felt down, lacking motivation and even angry, but I was not sure how to articulate it or even identify it. It was then that I attended a class for police chaplains and the diagnosis was given: Compassion Fatigue.
It is simply the accumulation of damage, personal and real, or projected. It has to do with dealing with damaged people and either standing with them through their pain and allowing it to rub off, or becoming the object of their emotion in rejection and anger.
Whither the damage is focused on you or not, it is real, its effects are cumulative and the stress it produces damages the emotions, the body and the spirit of the one standing as the help agent.
Last Sunday a young man from our congregation came into my office before church. He had been at two events I had also been at through the day and had experienced something he did not understand. He had encountered several people who had previously attended our church but who had left angry with me.
He thought it would be so nice to see them and to once again touch them as friends, but when he did, there was a real and certain reaction toward him, as though he was the rejected partner of the enemy.
He did not understand.
We talked and he asked how it was that I was able to go into those situations and meet those people and not react or respond. I simply explained that, most often I was able to perceive that whatever were the problems that made them angry with me had very little to do with me. They were unhappy and angry and they needed to find a place to focus it.
Unfortunately, I had chosen to hold myself out as being a leader, so they chose me. In reality it had little to do with me. I could be me, or Jake, or John, or Mark, or anyone else and the same end result would be the same.
The Process of Ministry
Paul makes reference of the crucifixion when he states, “To which you are also called.” Ministry is not just standing in front of people who swarm to hear the glorious words flow from your talented mouth. It also has to do with damaged people who are in the process of “reconstruction” (“redemption,” if you will).
While we are always hoping that the process will be ever upward and positive, there are times that the leader gets to be the focal point of all the accumulated garbage that has damaged this person. If we buy into the emotions of the conflict, we will define issues, take stands and end up winning over the jerks that bring the conflict. Ah, another battle won for the Lord over wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Think Of The Dynamics
But if we will stop for a minute and rethink both our role and the dynamics going on, we may recognize that the issues and definitions and power plays going on are simply the external ramification of an internal struggle that really has little to do with us, the church, the issues used or the definitions provided. It is anger and damage…and it is looking for a place to happen!
To be in its proximity leave us with the scars of battle, if we choose to do battle, of the loss of energy in attempting to side step the onslaught and administer grace to those involved. Either way, compassion fatigue is our reward. It is mentally draining, emotionally depleting, time consuming and personally damaging.
And yes, I do know that those who have focused their damage on me and run away, have said cruel and hurtful things, taken unreasonable and illogical positions and have talked–you know talked–until no one else would listen to their endless justifications and complaints.
And I can feel from them when we meet the sense of anger, rejection and ongoing personal internal strife that they face. What I am unwilling to do is to allow them the privilege of rehearsing it, dumping it or regenerating it. I will go to the functions, face them with a smile, shake their hand, ask about their family and leave them to deal with the issues that I cannot deal with and which, in reality, have nothing to do with me.
Shielding Self From The Hurt
They may see me in a certain cast and project on me their own internal pain, but I do not have to respond or cooperate with their drama. I will not allow them to determine where I go or what I do with my life. I will also not allow them to insert into my spirit their issues and create a counter transference of emotion. I choose to remain free from it.
The question is: “How do you shield yourself from the hurt?” The answer is:
1. To some degree you do hurt – you are also human;
2. You try to recognize that it is not personalized –
a. It is there issue not yours;
b. It has to do with their own problems and distortions, not you;
c. It has to do with not yielding geography or emotional territory to the tyranny of rejection.
Deal With Others
The process of being victimized by compassion fatigue is very subtle. If you
are the pastor, then you are the leader. The congregation is looking to you
to keep thing going and keep things ordered and keep things safe. They are
looking to you to define the direction, motivate the participation and solve
In that process of leadership, stress accumulates. Problems do come, and when they do, your role is to deal with everyone else’s stress, relationships and issues. You talk, pray, cajole, argue and convince. You spend endless hours attempting to defuse things, settle emotions and bring peace. In the end, people have processed their pain or decided that they want to hold onto it. They are either healed or have decided not to be. In either case, your job has reached some, at least fuzzy definition of completion.
Deal With Self
Now, delayed by the time and energy of dealing with other, it is time to deal with you. You also are human. You also are injured. You have delayed the process and born the stress and waited. You have not had time to grieve losses or regurgitate the poison. Now, it is your turn. But something is wrong!
What is wrong is, that grieving has an appropriate time and when delayed, it turns to a sense of hardness and resentment. You have waited too long and now you seem to be stuck with the residual effects of something that everyone else is over. Plus, the next one is brewing and your attention now must turn to do the process over again with no time to deal personally with the last one: compassion fatigue!
1. Accumulated stress;
2. Dealing with everyone else’s stress and leaving your own until it is all over;
1. By the time it is over, the next one is there and you do not have time to deal with their stress.
2. By the time it is over, you do not have the ability (and have lost the opportunity) to grieve.
3. By the time it is over, the energy has evaporated with the issues. It no longer matters.
4. By the time it is over you have to rebuild the loss and fill in the gaps in relationships, programs, structures and all the energy goes there.
When compassion fatigue takes over, any combination of the following results may occur:
1. Lack of proper rest or over-sleeping;
2. Preoccupation with stress producing people and situations;
3. Over indulgence in escape mechanisms;
a. Drugs, alcohol, lust, leisure;
4. Avoidance of intimate relationships;
5. Seek intimacy in fantasy rather than through real people;
6. Learn to elevate the value of programs and structures and devalue people, using them as a means rather than as the end result;
7. Learning the art of short-term relationships (the 2 year term);
8. Learning to blame others (justification at all cost);
9. Learn to hide from the stress and suppress the grief; and/or
In order for us to legitimate be involved in the process of crucifixion, we
must also be involved in the resurrection. If the people we deal with are
going to be the means of our death, then we also must find a means for
restoration and coming out of the tomb. It is with this in mind that we have
to cultivate these “resurrection” principles:
1. Learn to depersonalize the process. Don’t get diverted by the stress producing people and incidents in your ministry. Keep moving toward the goal and keep believing that God can and will bring change to these people either through you or in spite of you. Keep acknowledging: It is not about you, it is simply something in them that they have to work out. You just happen to be available for them to focus on.
2. Develop renewal structures outside of the office. Taking regular time off, enjoying a sport or hobby, having family time, taking personal time to read or walk, is all part of a balanced life and is not a waste of time. It is essential.
3. Develop your relationship with God. Too often our time in study and prayer has to do with sermon preparation, task detail or problems. If that is our only contact with God it is easy to see why we would learn to avoid it. Learn to be with the Master when there are no issues and no tasks, just in the fellowship of personal renewal.
4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. There are some problems that are unsolvable – except for the intervention of God. Release them and let Him deal with it. Do only what you can do that makes progress and gets a response. There are other problems that may be solvable if given enough time and energy, but to do so would be a diversion from your life, calling and ministry. Let them go also. In that you are not God, it is well to limit the scope of your responsibility.
5. Learn to laugh, chew gum and eat ice cream. I walked into a public park
in Carmel, California some years ago to be confronted by a sign longer than
the Pentateuch, or so it seemed. Included in the list of “No ____” signs were “No Roller Skating,” “No Throwing Balls,” “No Throwing Frisbees,” “No Dogs,” No Eating Ice Cream,” etc. I wanted to take a marker and summarize across the face of the sign: “No laughing, chewing gum or having fun!”
My deeper question was, “What was the point in having a park?”
Why is it that we pastor churches? Why are we alive? What makes life worth living? If the answer is simply to accumulate compassion fatigue and be noble, then there is probably something very sick about us.
The problem is, if we do not learn to deal with it, we will ultimately be crushed by it. If so, we loose and everyone around us looses also, even our enemies. I mean, what good is it to develop a perfectly good enemy, if they end up dying on you. Then you have to go in search of another and start the crucifixion all over again.
Relax, refresh and outlive your enemies. They need you!
Pastor Dave Fritsche
Slightly revised by Ministry Health. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved.