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Compassion fatigue in the church

What to do when trauma and crisis take their toll

By Darla Carter | Presbyterians Today

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for more ministries that feed the hungry. But increasing needs can lead to compassion fatigue. Courtesy of the Holy Way Presbyterian Church

A year of shepherding God’s people through a pandemic has put a strain on pastors as they have had to rethink how to do everything from pastoral care to worship. And with more adaptive shepherding to come, especially with medical experts predicting any return to pre-COVID-19 activities won’t be happening till late fall — hopefully — the strain of constantly thinking differently and creatively while tending flocks that are eager for some sense of normalcy can result in developing compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue, as defined in a resource kit offered by the Office for Victims of Crime, is “a combination of physical, emotional and spiritual depletion associated with caring for others who are in significant emotional pain and physical distress.” That trauma, as well as other stressors, can build up over time in pastors, as well as other caregivers and first responders, making it difficult to cope, whether it’s during a pandemic or a natural disaster.

Ministering to trauma survivors can also lead pastors and other caregivers to “feeling their own level of secondary trauma,” explained the Rev. Dr. Kathy Riley, associate for emotional and spiritual care for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). “They can feel all sorts of things — anxious, depressed, just kind of depleted and just not able to figure out how they can keep going with the caring work that they’re doing.”

Compassion fatigue, however, should not be confused with burnout. According to the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, director of PDA, “burnout is basically more about your perception of the environment in which you’re working.” Kraus, a compassion fatigue author and expert, points out that compassion fatigue is “a combination of the internal effect of secondary traumatization and the whole effect of feeling like you’re in a context where your resources are constantly being outweighed by the demands that are being placed on you.”

Isolation breeds fatigue

The Rev. John Cheek of The Holy Way Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz., has found sewing bow ties, which he loves to wear, a therapeutic outlet for dealing with a pandemic-stressed world. Courtesy of John Cheek

The Rev. John Cheek, interim pastor of The Holy Way Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, has firsthand experience with the challenges pastors are facing, from preaching to an empty sanctuary during recorded services to working solo for hours while relying heavily on phone and virtual communication to reach members. “It’s not uncommon for me to sit in this office alone for eight hours or 10 hours a day, for five days straight; that is not good for most of us,” Cheek said. “And even for people who are introverts — and I’m fairly strong in the introvert side of the scale — that kind of isolation is not healthy for a lot of us. In addition, we sort of live to lead worship and preach, and if we are not having regular interactive worship, then part of what feeds us is not available to us.”

Ministers like Cheek also are missing the congenial fellowship that churches are known for. “I love this congregation that I’m serving and haven’t had the chance to be with them, to shake hands and to hug and to follow up — all of those things,” said Cheek. “I think the isolation, however that looks for pastors, can set up an environment in which the thing that gives them stamina is missing or at least is diminished.”

Meanwhile, the demands on pastors around the country continue as COVID-19 deaths climb, even as vaccinations move forward. Church members are hurting as they struggle with losses during a time when 500,000 and counting Americans have died from COVID-19, and the comforting traditional funeral rites to honor the dead and for the living to process their grief are no longer available to them due to safety protocols that keep gatherings limited. Hearing people’s trauma, even during regular pastoral counseling, “is a big contributor to compassion fatigue, and it’s really important to have a set of strategies and a set of interventions that can prevent that emotional trauma from impacting negatively either on our health or on our capacity to do the work that we’re called to do,” said Cheek, who is also a member of PDA’s National Response Team.

An accumulation of trauma

Prior to the pandemic, a touch would go a long way in healing and restoring hope. But social distancing has made a ministry of presence challenging. This challenge adds pressure to those in leadership. Courtesy of the Holy Way Presbyterian Church

The trauma leading to compassion fatigue is being exacerbated as it is a trauma not just coming from one event, but a multitude of events. Trauma could be related to the pandemic or to racial violence — or a combination of the two. Trauma can also be from a mass shooting or even the myriad of natural disasters that have occurred in the past several months, including in late 2020, a series of hurricanes in Louisiana.

PDA offers webinars and other programs to help faith leaders understand the emotional impact of trauma and develop skills, such as breathing and relaxation techniques, to mitigate stress and remain resilient. Reaching for these resources is important as “people without good coping mechanisms may turn to substance abuse, engage in inappropriate relationships or even commit suicide,” Cheek says. People can also become irritable or just withdraw and not engage. Cheek said that if he’s dealing with compassion fatigue, he finds that he will experience symptoms of depression, which he treats with medication and seeing a therapist. “My depression doesn’t tend to express itself as anger. It tends to express itself as sadness,” he said, adding that if it is not managed, he finds it is harder for him to retain information.

Pastors and other faith leaders are vulnerable to compassion fatigue because they tend to be so committed to their missions, Kraus said. “Compassion fatigue only happens because people care passionately about the work they’re doing and care passionately for the people with whom they’re doing that work,” she said.

Anticipating that the pandemic would have a huge impact on faith leaders, PDA took steps in 2020 to begin providing more training and assistance for churches and presbyteries.

“We beefed up our spiritual-emotional care staffing and added several more offerings that we can do with presbyteries and congregations,” Kraus said. “We are ready to provide that support.” This support, especially the available PDA webinars, can be transformative for people.

“As soon as you name it as compassion fatigue and explain what that is and you talk about the physiology of what goes on in one’s brain when one is constantly perceiving threat and having a heightened anxiety because of that … that’s pretty freeing for people,” Kraus said. “People begin to understand, ‘Oh, it’s my body doing this, and my brain, and I have the tools to address it.’ ”

Cheek, who has worked with the Presbytery de Cristo to teach faith leaders in his area about compassion fatigue, does a lot of self-monitoring to detect when he needs to take steps to manage his own stressors. Having hobbies also helps, said Cheek, who took a Singer sewing machine on the road with him while he was juggling two pastoral posts.

From June to December 2019, he was pastoring The Holy Way on a part-time basis while also pastoring 200 miles away at First Presbyterian Church in Silver City, New Mexico. During his downtime, he would take fabric and sew one or more new bow ties. “It requires enough focus that I can’t really be worried or anxious,” said Cheek, who also dabbles in leather work.

Darla Carter is a communications associate with the Presbyterian Mission Agency.


Learn More

Read more about compassion fatigue at the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project at compassionfatigue.org

Access a variety of emotional and spiritual care offerings from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance at pda.pcusa.org/page/esc-webinar

View “Compassion Fatigue: Helping the Helpers,” a webinar by Amplify Media, at youtu.be/YBuGWarmwOU

“Mental and Spiritual Health in a Time of COVID-19,” a webinar by the Presbyterian Mental Health Network, is available at vimeo.com/464195726

Or pick up the book “Recovering from Un-Natural Disasters: A Guide for Pastors and Congregations After Violence & Trauma,” by Laurie Kraus, David Holyan and Bruce Wismer (2017).


Overcoming Compassion Fatigue

How to cope when coping gets hard

As the pandemic and politics continue to test the endurance of the country, it’s important to find ways to refresh and renew our bodies, minds and spirits.

“Find whatever brings you joy, whether it’s playing in the dirt or riding your bicycle or writing poetry (or) singing songs,” said the Rev. Dr. Bruce Wismer, co-pastor of Pine Shores Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, Florida.

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Riley, associate for emotional and spiritual care for PDA, agrees. “People know what lifts their spirits, what makes them feel good and healthy, and just thinking about what that is, realizing what it is, and then committing to do something small every day is huge,” she said, adding that being in communion with God through prayer and expressing gratitude can be helpful. “Taking some time every day just to reflect on what we’re grateful for increases our well-being.” She also recommends exercising, being mindful of your sleep habits and eating good food.

Taking advantage of helpful resources, such as PDA’s programs on compassion fatigue and resilience, is another good strategy. “If you’re not functioning the way you’d like to, in your work, in your personal life — in any area of life — and you’re feeling you don’t have the resources to just keep doing what you’re doing, then it’s time to check in with yourself and maybe look for some outside resources,” Riley said.

PDA’s offerings include a three-hour virtual retreat, group sessions tailored to specific audiences by request and downloadable “Building Resilience” webinars. “People can go online and use that one-hour resilience program any time they want to,” Riley said.

Some of PDA’s resources teach participants how to make use of five basic practices to avoid or mitigate compassion fatigue. The practices, adapted from work by J. Eric Gentry and Anna Baranowsky, are:

  • Self-regulation of your body. Recognizing the things that put you on edge and counteracting those triggers.
  • Intentionality. Staying focused on your mission.
  • Perceptual maturation. Listening to the indwelling of God’s spirit instead of your critics.
  • Connection. Talking with someone you trust and not accumulating traumatic stories.
  • Self-care. Doing aerobic exercise, being creative and engaging in whatever brings solace.

One of the easiest things to learn is how to breathe properly, Wismer said. “If we breathe correctly, it changes the chemistry in our brains and allows us to go from the reptilian or the alligator brain back to the full function,” he said. There also are exercises that teach you how to relax your body. “When going into a potentially stressful or anxiety-provoking situation, I’m able to function with a relaxed body,” said Wismer. “That doesn’t take the problem or issue away, but it helps you respond more faithfully.”

Being able to acquire resilience practices and use them successfully is an “amazing gift,” said Kraus. “It’s been transformative to put these practices into my life,” she said, adding that if she gets toward the edge, “I can self-correct with the practices I know to do.”

—Darla Carter

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