The Battle Against Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue, according to Wikipedia, was first recognized as a medical condition in the 1950’s. It is essentially the gradual lessening of compassion a person has towards those in need. It happens most often in people who are professional caregivers in some sense: doctors, nurses, first responders, counsellors, and even ministry leaders.

The way compassion fatigue works is that a well-intentioned person sets out to make a difference in the world. They see the needs of others and desire to meet them. However, over time, working with people in difficult circumstances begins to take a heavy emotional toll. What once was satisfying and fulfilling work becomes discouraging and less pleasurable. The desire to help others turns into a duty. Joy begins to fade and a genuine sense of compassion for the plight of others starts to be replaced with passivity.

My focus in this post is on those of us in ministry work for the Lord. We too can become susceptible to this subtle but deadly condition. The desire to serve Christ and make a difference in the lives of others can, over time, slowly wane into a forced effort to joylessly obey God and fulfill one’s duty. While certainly ministry is hard and takes its emotional toll, this is not how God intended it to be!

Signs of Compassion Fatigue

Because compassion fatigue happens gradually, it can be hard to determine when someone is suffering from it. Still, there are usually some tell-tale signs that either someone is at that point or is moving significantly in that direction. Here are some of the common trademarks:

  • A significant decrease in genuine concern for others’ well-being
  • Constant stress or anxiety
  • A feeling of dread being in certain places or around certain people (typically the source of anxiety)
  • A sense of hopelessness for those you are trying to help
  • Strong feelings of doubt or incompetency in your own ability to help others
  • A constant negative attitude
  • In extreme cases, anxiety attacks or nightmares centred around the challenging situations that you or others are facing

It is important to note that compassion fatigue is a medical condition. In general, the average church worker will not hit the level of diagnosis. But, to a degree, dealing with lesser forms of compassion fatigue and discouragement from serving others is a battle that every church worker will face.

Discouragement is Unavoidable

So, since we all must face this obstacle, how can we overcome it? A good place to start is to recognize that weariness and discouragement is part of a normal ministry rhythm. There are even some biblical examples of it. For example, Paul stated he had “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in [his] heart” because of his burden for the Jewish people to put their faith in Christ (Romans 9:1-3).

It makes sense that having a sincere love for others will cause us grief. After all, those we care for are going to suffer tragedy, make poor decisions, ignore our counsel, and sometimes even stab us in the back. People who we pray for regularly and try our hardest to help will sometimes never show any signs that our efforts were worth it. In that sense, ministry can be a breeding ground for a growing lack of compassion for others.

However, the fight against compassion fatigue looks different in the Christian world than it does in the secular. Medication is not the answer. Instead, the battle needs to be fought with the Word of God. Circumstances are often unchangeable and difficulty is often unavoidable, yet our calling to love our neighbour as ourself remains intact. The fight to love others with Christ’s love is a spiritual battle – make no mistake about it!

The Battle to Stay Compassionate

In light of that, here are a few tips on staying positive and compassionate in ministry.

  • Meditate on the gospel. Don’t forget why you are in ministry in the first place. Jesus is alive! He loves us and has saved us! He has given us new life! He has secured our everlasting inheritance with God! Far too often we get so entrenched in ministry that we lose the joy of our salvation (Psalm 51:12). Take time to reflect on the goodness of God’s grace in your own life and worship him for it.
  • Celebrate every win. Even the most discouraging ministry situation has victories. Keep your eyes open for evidences of God’s grace in the lives of others. The old adage to “count your blessings” still rings true and helps us keep a positive mindset.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

  • Trust God for the results. A lot of the discouragement we feel in ministry comes from pressure we put on ourselves. We often begin to adopt a “saviour” mentality, where we put ourselves in the shoes of Jesus. Rather than trusting God to change people, we feel that it is up to us. This mindset it destined for frustration and discouragement. You are not God. You don’t need to be. Your job is to be faithful and let the Holy Spirit do his work.
  • Pray away your anxiety. The Bible isn’t kidding when it says you should be “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). Jesus is big enough to handle all the trials that serving others can bring. Why try to carry them yourself? Sometimes it helps to actually visualize this in prayer. I imagine it like coming before Jesus and literally laying down my issues at his feet and leaving them there, trusting that he has it all under control. None of us can do ministry in our own strength. We must trust in the strength and grace that God provides.
  • Keep your perspective. We have to remember that sometimes we cannot see what God is up to. There will be times when our ministry to others feels in vain, yet it is like planting a seed that later down the road will begin to grow and flourish (see 1 Corinthians 3:5-7). Keep in mind that you will not always see the fruit of your prayers and labours on this side of heaven. Nothing that is done for Christ is in vain.

My friendly advice would be this – don’t give up! Keep pressing on and working to make your life count. Hopefully these tips will help those of us in ministry stay fresh and excited about what God is doing and will do in the lives of the people we care for!

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