Compassion Fatigue in Ministry

How do you tell them you’re tired? That your smiles aren’t as real as they use to be? That, many days, you have to make yourself show up.

This isn’t suppose to happen. Not to us. Not to people who are the ones who hug you when you’ve come back after your last relapse. Not to people who are grace-givers and hope-peddlers. 

This isn’t suppose to happen.

But it does. It has and I don’t know what to do with my tired heart and pretend smile.

In the early days I held a little distance between these men with their addictions and lives I knew nothing about. I watched and listened and let God soften my words and make wise my heart. I walked carefully into this new ministry, a foreign world on home soil. 

I let their stories pierce my heart and I let the tears fall when one didn’t return home because we want this place that houses 100 men to be a home for them. We want this to be the home that loves and cares about their comings and goings, a home where they can know love and grace and mercy and that love and mercy don’t exclude rules for communal living.

God was using this community of residents and staff to show me that grace was more than a prayer said before a meal. Yes, I’d grown up in the church and sang Amazing Grace but this, this acceptance of the guy who was holding a sign on the side of the road yesterday, this was grace.

This was compassion and mercy and love and they will steal your heart and leave you empty and tired with no more tears to cry for the next one. 

We pull away, we take vacation, we have creative endeavors, we do all of the things that should keep us healthy and our souls fit for caring one more day. But now, my tears are from feeling numb to it all.

I want to feel like I did a dozen years ago, when it was fresh and I was learning about the disease of addiction and finding my place in this story of recovery and relapse and grace. Now, it seems like the same song on repeat. 

Caring too much can hurt. When caregivers focus on others without practicing self-care, destructive behaviors can surface. Apathy, isolation, bottled up emotions and substance abuse head a long list of symptoms associated with the secondary traumatic stress disorder now labeled: Compassion Fatigue

Where is the renewal of my soul? 

One of the perks about our ministry is the competent counselors on staff.  What could be better than a licensed mental health counselor, who I also consider a friend, just down the hall from my office? So I told her. I told her I’d lost it. I’d lost the passion and energy and that I had to make myself show up.

She looks me in the eye, listening to my words as well as my heart. Her voice softens and she asks me, again, ‘What about you? You’re a nurturer but are you taking care of you? What are you doing that’s for you?‘ 

You know I am, Marian. You know I’m taking a photography class and that I write. You know I do those things for me.

She pressed on, ‘But who are your friends? Your girlfriends? The ones you do things with, not your husband, yourfriends?

Ah, yes. The ones who live in other states. Those friends? The story gets complicated and our talk grows quiet as she knows I’ll walk out her door and nothing will change.

We are wired to tend to the needs of others while ignoring the weakening pulse in our heart. The bible is full of verses about putting others first and serving the least and how the last will be first in the Kingdom. These verses of works walk hand in hand with the faith on which they are built. One without the other is dead so we carry on until we slowly die on the inside.

There is that one verse. The one I like reading in the Message, the one that makes me think of music and the ocean and the graceful rhythms of both.

It’s as if Eugene Peterson was reading my mind when he wrote this paraphrase:

“Are you tired? Worn out ? Burned out on religion?” 

Well, yes. Yes, I am.

“Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – Matthew 11:28-30

Sometimes keeping company with Jesus looks like a phone call with a girlfriend, a heart to heart with my sister or laughing at an eleven-year old’s joke. These are life breaths to suck in deeply, slowly and remember that I’m refreshed and walking in the rhythms of grace-land. 

4 thoughts on “Compassion Fatigue in Ministry

  1. Ashley P. says:

    I work as an outreach coordinator at a church and, on the surface, working at a church may seem straightforward, but it is the business of working with beautiful and complex people, while trying to live out Jesus’ mission every single moment. Compassion Fatigue is all too real.

    As I was reading your post, I found myself reflecting on Jesus. There were moments when he too was weary. How did he cope? How did he persevere? He was also always surrounded by a community of friends. This aspect is something that I think challenges so many of us, despite it being essential to our well-being. Many friends have moved away, or are not as close, or have changed, so we are then stuck, late in life, trying to rebuild our community.

    I don’t have all of the answers, but I am in solidarity with you.

    • Debby says:

      Thanks, Ashley. As being part of the Church all of my life, the messages I heard was do more. There was little focus on the times Jesus intentionally got a way from the crowds. I think for some in ministry, there can be a kind of shame for feeling like you want a break. As with many things, if they’re brought in the open we can have honest discussions and learn from each other while healing together. I understand church work (on both sides) quite well. May you continue to show His grace.

We'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.