Compassion Fatigue

Jesus at GethsemaneI just returned from a weeklong gathering with a group of armed forces chaplains. They represented all the branches—Army, Navy & Air Force. (The Navy provides the chaplains for the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard in the United States.)

I retired four years ago, after nearly a quarter century as a chaplain in the Air Force. I miss the people, the esprit de corps, and the awareness of doing something truly important.

On the other hand, I miss neither the innumerable meetings nor the rank consciousness of some chaplains. (Sadly, to some chaplains their rank insignia is more important than the religious symbol they bear.)

I’ve been privileged, in my semi-retirement, to serve my denomination on our national Ministry to the Armed Forces committee. We determine which of our pastors should be allowed to serve as military chaplains. It was in that capacity I attended our annual conference for “our” chaplains.

As always, we offered a first-class program. This one was conducted by Doxology and our speakers were a veteran pastor and a gifted psychologist. They covered a lot of ground during the week, but one of the subjects they began with was helping us assess our own degrees of “compassion fatigue.”

Compassion fatigue is experienced by many people in the so-called helping professions. Medical personnel, first responders and (especially) those in the ministry give so much of themselves without adequate replenishment, that they often end up spiritually exhausted.

It’s easy for critics to judge someone who is genuinely fatigued, because they can become impatient and irritable. People may accuse them of trying to do everything “in their own strength,” rather than relying on God’s grace and anointing.

In his famous prayer, Francis of Assisi asked, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace . . .” This is precisely how most clergy view themselves. But, to more precisely focus the petition, we might pray, “Lord, make me a conduit of your grace.”

If you understand the distinction . . . you can see how even regarding ourselves as God’s instruments or hands or voice in the world, can compel those in the ministry to serve until they drop. So much for the Puritan work ethic. Few of us pause adequately for the rest and renewal we require.

C.S. Lewis described just how costly this love for others can be.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one. . . . It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. (The Four Loves.)

You may well be on the verge of compassion fatigue yourself, assuming you care deeply about the suffering of others. If you are, I encourage you to join me in identifying times and places to pause and rest in the presence of God. Scheduling opportunities to meditate on his word and listen for his still small voice as we communicate with him in prayer, will refresh and strengthen each of us.

These precious moments won’t occur accidentally. We need to be intentional in carving them out of our too-busy schedules. But, when we do so, we are spared the pain and numbness of compassion fatigue. We can continue to love others, despite the vulnerability, and still remain healthy and whole.

7 thoughts on “Compassion Fatigue

  1. How true it is that we all need space, and quiet, to further our relationship with God and keep ourselves filled so that we have that we can give!

    One small point: You talk about the “puritan work ethic”. As a student of the puritans, I must disagree a bit. Most of what we think of as “puritan” is really a Victorian invention. In fact, they recognised the need you talk about and, in a society where everyone worked a six-day week, were the ones who introduced at least the half-day off for recreation. Interestingly, their attitude to sex was also much more modern than that of their day. They were much more than we often think and it is a shame they have become such a negative stereotype in modern society.

    “If you love truth, be a lover of silence. Silence, like the sunlight, will illuminate you in God and will deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance. Silence will unite you to God himself.”
    —Isaac of Nineveh

    1. Thanks for the clarification. Actually, I intended the aside as a reference to the contemporary concept/interpretation rather than the historical fact. It was a sort of “shorthand,” the limitations of which I was conscious of, even as I used it. Glad to have you point this distinction out for readers, though. The Puritans receive far too critical an evaluation today. I believe that has something to do with John 15:18f.

  2. Quo Vadis (Where are we going?) applies specifically to our (U.S.) Chaplaincy and
    its historical freedom of convictions-expressions. Fatigue is contrasted with our
    strength renewed like that of soaring eagles! Soli Deo Gloria!~ Rits.

  3. Sometimes it is too easy to lose sight of things and give too much of your heart away. Learned the hard way need to stop and care for ourselves as well. I’m learning and finding my way back.

  4. Pingback: C.S. Lewis on Stupidity « Mere Inkling Press

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