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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Compassion fatigue in the church


What to do when trauma and crisis take their toll

August 25, 2021

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 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.”

 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. 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.

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.

 Darla Carter, Communications Associate, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus: Compassion fatigue

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Katie Snyder, Curriculum Specialist & POINT Coordinator, Curriculum Resources & Geneva Press, Presbyterian Publishing Corporation
Samuel Son, Manager, Diversity & Reconciliation Associate, Advocacy, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray

Redeeming and restoring God, we give thanks for the varied ministries of the church. Help us to make good use of the skills and talents as we share in the building and rebuilding of Christ’s church. Amen.