Are You Experiencing Compassion Fatigue?

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9). Compassion fatigue is “weariness in doing good.” In his 1995 book on compassion fatigue, Charles Figley defines compassion fatigue as a “state of exhaustion and dysfunction (biologically, psychologically and socially) as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.” Compassion stress comes from frequent interactions with emotionally draining people who look to church leaders for help. Signs of compassion fatigue include a sudden sense of helplessness, shock, confusion and isolation in ministry for no apparent reason. You are a prime candidate for compassion fatigue if you love your ministry, don’t make self-care a priority, and feel guilty when you delegate or say no when someone repeatedly asks for your time and energy and afterward you feel “sucked dry” of life. Unfortunately, church culture can create a sense of “over-responsibility” for a pastor, which contributes to compassion fatigue. Here are five suggestions to help if you are experiencing compassion fatigue:

  1. Find support. You can’t undo compassion fatigue in isolation. You need a small community (even one or two) of trust and confidentiality in which to debrief, share your struggles, and grow in self-awareness. Who are your trusted friends or colleagues with whom you can talk about your ministry experiences? 
  2. Find life outside of ministry. Make time to feed your soul with life-enriching activities and hobbies. You must make time to feed your own soul (apart from sermon preparation!); if you wait for time to appear in your schedule, you will be waiting a long time because somebody else will fill the time slot for you with another “good” demand. What is at least one outside interest that can so absorb your attention that you are not even thinking about ministry work?
  3. Find the best time. If you are in a multi-staff church where the senior leadership believes in clergy self-care, chances are that you have already been encouraged to take a day off. Do it!  If you are in a context where senior leaders are workaholics and expect you to follow their example, or you are a solo pastor, start by “making an appointment” with yourself. Mark off time in your schedule and stick to it. Start small! Identify a time period for yourself (without false guilt) and plan what you are going to do for yourself during that time. What is the best day or time period to take time for your own personal interests?
  4. Find a team. Even if you are the solo pastor, you need a team to help carry the burdens of ministry. We see this team principle modeled by Moses upon the advice of his father-in-law (see Exodus 18). And we see it at work in Jesus’ ministry too with the 12 disciples. Even Paul operated within a ministry team. Who are the people who can help you in the work of ministry? What people have gifts that you lack that can help you do ministry even better?
  5. Find time to recover. Many clergy do not take advantage of their allotted vacation time. To not take time off is not only poor stewardship of your body, mind, spirit and family relationships; you can actually serve people better by taking time off. You will return to ministry with greater clarity and energy. When was your last day off (yes, a full 24 hours)? When was your last vacation (COVID-19 restrictions aside)?

To learn more about compassion fatigue, see the following resources:

  1. Sikorski, Pam (2017). “Compassion Fatigue Symptoms and Strategies”. Crisis Prevention Institute.
  2. Dance, Mark (2019). “3 Ways to Avoid Compassion Fatigue”. Lifeway research.
  3. Doerksen, Sam (2017) “Understanding Compassion Fatigue”.  Focus on the Family Canada Clergy Care.

Emotional domain contributor: Virginia T. Holeman, PhD., LMFT, LPCC, Retired Chair of the Department of Counseling and Pastoral Care, Asbury Theological Seminary
Executive editor: Russ Gunsalus
Curator of content: Dave Higle