Friday, May 20, 2011

Overcoming Compassion Exhaustion

"When I was a torn jacket hanging on the barbed wire
You cut me free and sewed me up and here I am

Isn't it hard to be the one whose phone rings all day everyday?
Isn't it hard to be the strong one?"
- Bruce Cockburn, The Strong One, Inner City Front, 1981

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * 
Compassion -
The word comes from Latin roots which mean "to suffer with" or "to bear with".

Compassion is an honorable trait and a true virtue.  The Scriptures urge us to
"bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6: 2).  
Indeed, God is portrayed in Scripture as having compassion (see Psalm 111:4;
86: 15 for example).  The compassion of Jesus is also a matter of record (See
Matthew 9: 36 for example).  As His followers, compassion should regularly
characterize our interactions with others: "Finally, all of you, live in harmony
with one another; love as brothers, be compassionate and humble" (I Peter
3: 8). 

The word also comes from a Latin root meaning to "draw (out)" as in to empty. 

Exhaustion for many people is a fact of life.  When in a state of exhaustion, a
person feels empty inside - spent, depleted and used up - with nothing left to
give.  This would appear to be the condition of the great Elijah who 
followed up a dramatic and victorious showdown with reprobate royalty and 
pagan prophets by running and hiding in the wilderness (see I Kings 19: 1-9).
Like Elijah, a person who is experiencing exhaustion wants to run away and
hide from anything and anyone who might want something from them. 

Compassion Exhaustion -
When paired together, these two words describe a state of being whereby a
person who is compassionate and, therefore, personally engaged with the 
suffering and needs of others, comes to a point of depletion, exhaustion and
interior emptiness.  It is a condition well known to those whose lives and/or 
careers are people-intensive and people-oriented.  Healthcare workers, 
therapists, spiritual care givers/church leaders/church workers, hospice care
providers, social workers and volunteers of many kinds are just some of those
who are at high risk for compassion exhaustion.

According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project: 
(; people who are attracted to care giving enter
the field already compassion fatigued. 
"Simply put, these are people who were taught at an early age to care for the needs of others before caring for their own needs. Authentic, ongoing self-care practices are absent from their lives". Although they may well be motivated by a spiritual mission or a strong personal identification with others in need (as in: "I want to make a difference!"), a lack of insight into the reality of compassion exhaustion can be a set up for burnout, moral failure, physical problems, depression and other symptoms of compassion fatigue.  


After a lifetime in the ministry and as a counseling professional, I have experienced my own bouts with compassion exhaustion and witnessed the impact of this condition on others.  People in the throes of compassion exhaustion are almost always "good people" who mean well, serve diligently and care deeply but who arrive at a point where they feel utterly depleted.  By the time they have acknowledged their inability to keep on keeping on, they may display symptoms of secondary traumatic stress such as substance abuse, isolation, spiritual confusion, apathy and emotional disconnection. 

One of the more exciting new aspects of my own ministry has been to learn and to teach others specific methods and habits that nourish care providers - especially those who serve the Lord - and people - in ministry.  I have had the privilege of offering my services in settings such as my counseling office, in soaking prayer sessions, on Skype appointments, on extended "Pastoral Sabbath Retreats".  This fall, I am looking forward to joining a small team in providing Leader Care to church leaders in a South American nation.   

It has been said that it is better to build a guard rail at the top of the cliff than to merely run an ambulance service at the bottom!  And, indeed, my own experience with people in need of replenishing is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Nevertheless, there are those who need help to find their way out of an already exhausted state of being.  Thankfully, God has given us resources (ways and means) which can revive the exhausted body, soul and spirit: "He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul...." (Psalm 23: 2, 3)

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