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Antidotes to compassion fatigue

Ministers often immerse themselves in the lives of their congregants. They share in the successes, the joys, the faith of those they tend to. But they also experience, secondhand, the sadness, anger and doubt. Lives are messy, and faith leaders are called upon again and again to walk with people during their darkest moments. This can be exhausting.

Psychologists refer to this as compassion fatigue — the personal impact of helping others who are experiencing stress or trauma. Research suggests that ministers score higher than most adults on compassion fatigue.

We were in a unique position over the past few years to see how COVID-19 shaped the experience of compassion fatigue in pastors. We are the assessment team — a psychology professor and two graduate students — for the Companions in Ministry (CiM) program at Marquette University, funded by the Thriving in Ministry national initiative of Lilly Endowment Inc.

CiM provides faith leaders an 18-to-24-month program of self-care, reflection and networking aimed at improving their resilience and well-being. By coincidence, our first round of data collection occurred prior to the onset of the pandemic, so we had a lot of information about pastors’ psychosocial well-being both before and after COVID-19 hit the country. Rather than looking at different groups of faith leaders, we were assessing the same ministers before and again during the pandemic.

The interviews conducted during 2021 clearly reveal the struggles of the ministers in the pandemic. When asked about the impact of COVID-19, they spoke of compassion fatigue in a variety of ways and as being caused by several dramatic changes in their work, such as less downtime leading to exhaustion, new technology needs causing anxiety, the potential spread of the infection contributing to fear, and political divisiveness in the congregation about mask use and social distancing causing consternation.

Here’s a select sample of interview excerpts capturing this:

“It just wore out my soul. And I’m still in that place where I’m just tired.”

“Impact, of course, was uncertainty. I was scared lots. I could be unwillingly guilty of spreading infection without acknowledging it.”

“It’s been really taxing. I don’t necessarily feel like I have a ton of either denominational support or congregational support. Lots of people are depending on me, you know, to give them encouragement, where I’m also hyperaware of the ways, you know, I need some encouragement as well.”

Given what we were hearing in these interviews when the congregational leaders were asked about the impact of the pandemic, we expected the scores on our compassion fatigue measure to show an increase, that the pastors would score significantly higher during the pandemic than they did prior to its onset. Yet the scores did not reflect such a rise. Why?

We found one possible explanation for this in both the quantitative analyses and the interviews themselves. The statistical procedures we applied to the surveys the pastors completed revealed that one of the strongest antidotes to compassion fatigue was the presence/power of God they felt in their ministry and in their life outside of their work.

The survey scores on these two phenomena — felt presence/power of God within ministry and outside of ministrywere both strongly associated with compassion fatigue such that the more God’s presence was felt, the less compassion fatigue was experienced.

The resilience and positive energy one’s faith provided was also evident in the interviews:

“The second week of April of 2020, I felt like I was going to have a nervous breakdown because I was preaching to a TV screen. Then God spoke to me, and that’s when I had to go in a different way. So we’re just walking by faith and learning God in a different way.”

“Every day I do believe I’m open to what the Spirit can say to me. I wouldn’t be experiencing the positive things happening for us and for me if I didn’t have an open spirit to hear.”

“I’m up for the challenge because of my faith in what I believe. I’m going to have to learn a lot of things and do a lot of things differently and help others to help others. But we will come through it.”

Results indicate that savoring the presence of God was one remedy for compassion fatigue. But other possible countermeasures emerged from the interview data. For instance, many ministers spoke of the unanticipated benefits to wellness caused by engaging in more outside exercise than usual.

As indoor activities became unhealthy or unavailable, outdoor pursuits like longer dog walks or taking up bicycling served as energy boosters. A third clear pattern was that compassion fatigue was reduced through maintaining connections to other people. This was spoken about in a variety of ways, but the common factor was human interaction.

What we all began to call “social distancing” should have more properly been referred to as “physical distancing,” for social interconnectedness became vital.

The pastors in the CiM group clearly experienced compassion fatigue and spoke of the several ways that the pandemic made their work exhausting. They also talked of the personal benefits during COVID-19 of physical activity and engagement with others. Both interview and quantitative statistical data demonstrate that compassion fatigue was lower for those who felt the presence/power of God in their ministries and in their everyday lives.

In a room full of Christian leaders, no one made eye contact when the convener asked, “Why does leadership so often feel joyless?”

A few folks chuckled nervously and shifted in their seats. “Is sustained joy possible for leaders?” he continued.

Conviction fell heavy in the space — reality juxtaposed with expectation. I could imagine the other attendees’ thoughts swirling through the air, because I shared a number of them.

Leadership is hard enough as it is; now I need to have joy while leading?

I’m lucky to feel sparks of joy every once in a while, but sustained joy is pushing it.

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11 NRSV). Ugh. Please don’t bring Jesus into this. It is so much more comfortable to sit in my personal pity party of busyness as a Christian leader. I don’t have time to cultivate joy while I lead. I can’t do one more thing.

As I was making a list of all the ways other people were stealing my joy, the convener asked another question: “What are you doing to block your own joy?”

Now it is my fault? I like joy! I want joy! As a leader, I teach people how to live into their joy all the time. I would never block my own jo… Oh.

I thought about the people and activities that help me experience joy in my work. With little effort, I made a list of 10 people who always prompt joy for me when I work with them, no matter what the topic or task. I made a list of tasks that bring joy — emails I like to send, calls I enjoy making, projects that are fun to plan or execute.

Then I looked at my calendar from the past year. The names and activities from those lists were glaringly sparse among meetings and tasks I recall avoiding, dreading and not wanting to repeat. I had been blocking my own joy.

The convener was asking what Ron Heifetz refers to as “balcony” questions. Heifetz espouses the need for leaders to spend time metaphorically on both the “dance floor” and the “balcony” of their work.

Out on the dance floor, our vision is confined to what is immediately in front of us. It is a challenge to get a sense of what else might be happening in the space and among the dancers. Reflecting on our work from the balcony allows us to see trends, patterns and collaborative possibilities, as well as larger and long-term challenges and opportunities.

Time on the balcony enables leaders to consider how our gifts and goals intersect with those of our organization. We may notice shifts in our vocation and where God might be leading. We can take stock of what work brings personal and professional joy, as well as what activities block our joy.

Getting on the balcony looks different for every leader. Depending on what I need from my balcony time, I might go to a beautiful, quiet, secluded space for a few days. Sometimes, my balcony companion is more important than the setting. Certain friends and colleagues are trusted conversation partners who will challenge as well as affirm my thoughts and questions, help me listen to God in new ways, and help me discern creative paths forward.

While a day or two on the balcony a few times a year is optimal for me, sometimes that isn’t possible. Yet even stealing away for a few hours or an afternoon to think big thoughts and ask long-term questions is worthwhile, because I know that my joy depends on it.

I’ve learned that joy is hard to find when I feel relentlessly overwhelmed, burned out or unable to articulate my priorities because everything seems urgent and important. That is when the balcony beckons me to climb above the fray to spend time in conversation with God, reflecting on my past, present and future.

Prioritizing time on the balcony can be a challenge. Unreasonable and unachievable societal expectations lure us into believing that our time is best spent producing something that can be monetized and scaled. Initially, balcony time might feel selfish, frivolous or indulgent, regardless of how necessary it is for clear and effective leadership. But in fact, ironically, few feelings are easier to scale in leadership than joy.

We can take stock of what work brings personal and professional joy, as well as what activities block our joy.

Clearly articulating sources of joy is a fundamental step toward experiencing more of it. Getting on the balcony to prioritize the people and activities that bring joy follows. An effective next step is a conversation with supervisors and colleagues, discerning how we can do more work that brings joy to us and delegate or share other work that might bring joy to others.

When our vision, values and vocation are rooted in joy, and specifically God’s joy made complete in us, our charisma as leaders is contagious. Creative, talented, resourceful and motivated people want to work with such leaders, because everyone wants to experience joy in their work. Knowing what it feels like to lead with joy makes it really challenging to lead without it.

It is easy to blame others for our lack of joy. Too often, though, we are the ones blocking it, through how we spend our time or with whom. Prioritizing balcony time to get clear about what work needs to be done, what work only we can do and what work sparks joy, enabling us to lead others into worthwhile work that is not only done joyfully in the short term but sustained with joy in the long term.

A colleague recently lamented that a potential donor had expressed skepticism about the need for pastors to get away.

“Peloton instructors don’t need to get away to better take care of themselves to do their job! Why do pastors?” the donor wondered.

This conversation is the first time my personal curiosity about Peloton instructors, users and culture became professionally useful.

“WRONG!” I blurted out. “Peloton instructors see physical therapists and acupuncturists on a weekly basis. They exercise with one another and other top fitness professionals in private gyms all the time! Getting away from the camera and focusing on their well-being is part of the job.”

Plus, those instructors are fit!

The workout videos that we can stream at home are not the whole story of Peloton instructors’ well-being. I can barely breathe during one of Alex Toussaint’s rides. Meanwhile, he is dancing, joking, singing and motivating me to keep doing a ridiculously hard thing — evidence he does even more ridiculously hard things on a regular basis. Other instructors share stories of running ultramarathons and post their personal exercise routines to social media.

I am generally disinclined to look for advice on how we care for pastors from a highly polished fitness and media company, but my time as a Peloton user has surfaced a few insights that resonate with themes we are observing in the Thriving in Ministry projects.

Spiritual self-care is not selfish — it’s sacred.

During her workouts, Robin Arzón regularly says, “Self-care is not selfish — it’s sacred.” The same is true of spiritual care. For a pastor to tend to her soul away from the pressures and distractions of congregational ministry is not selfish. It’s sacred.

We don’t have to rely on Arzón’s observation, though. Jesus’ proclivity for slipping away to a quiet place to pray is a strong biblical justification for this soul care.

My hunch is that pastors struggle to find or create spiritual self-care space because there is a strong cultural assumption that they already have the spiritual resources they need. They are already “the most spiritual person in the room.” Yet just as a Peloton instructor’s most important self-care happens off camera, the deepest spiritual care for a pastor often happens in the quiet places away from the needs of the congregation.

Many pastors do not feel that they have the agency to say yes or no in their lives and ministry, leaving them overwhelmed and spiritually exhausted. Pastors need support to get away for the sacred work of spiritual self-care.

Much like caring for pastors’ physical well-being, caring for pastors’ spiritual well-being looks like supporting them in the development of a concrete plan with accountability and resources.

There is real joy in having a community of people who understand your weird job.

Flourishing in Ministry research calls this a relationship with “similar others” — people with whom we can share jargon and knowing glances without explanation. Having similar others helps us feel known and supported when we work through challenges as well as when we celebrate accomplishments. Similar others can provide us with critical feedback about our work.

Pastors need support to get away for the sacred work of spiritual self-care.

It’s impossible to know whether the Peloton instructors are the kinds of friends they portray themselves to be on social media. But their presentation of their connection with one another reminds me that my life is better when I have people who yearn for the renewing of the world as I do, who understand the quirky ups and downs of my daily life, and who nerd out on the same very specific things that bring out my inner nerd.

Meanwhile, we continue to hear stories of lonely and isolated pastors — ministers who yearn for connection with similar others but have no space in their lives to nurture these critical wisdom-sharing friendships.

My strong singular recommendation on how to care for pastors in this season of a receding pandemic, based on my listening to many who are caring for pastoral leaders, is to help pastors befriend other pastors.

Congregational ministry is particularly idiosyncratic and unpredictable right now. Economic supports may solve one set of challenges but are not able to address a multitude of other, adaptive challenges facing ministerial leaders. Whether a congregation thrives, decides to close or attempts something in between, pastoral leaders need friends to help them navigate this difficult new terrain and determine their next most faithful steps.

Wisdom and friendship are renewing resources that can accompany pastoral leaders and all who care for them through what lies ahead, whatever it may be.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Call, chat or text 988, a national, 24-hour service.

When psychologist Karen Mason managed the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention in the early 2000s, she wanted to engage faith leaders to help educate the public and respond to warning signs of crisis.

But her research since then has revealed a paradox. Though pastors are uniquely positioned to help prevent suicides, they’re often hesitant to embrace the role.

“Clergy are very reluctant to talk about the topic because they don’t know what to say and they’re afraid to say the wrong thing,” said Mason, now a professor of psychology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and the author of “Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors.”

Faith leaders’ silence, no matter how well-intentioned, comes at a price. It can reinforce stigma associated with suicidal thinking, Mason said, including the assumption that contemplating suicide signals a weak faith. When people feel that their struggles can’t be disclosed, even at church, social isolation and risk of suicide can increase.

woman holds a man's hand
Honest and caring conversation is one aspect of effective suicide prevention.

Pastors have “a moral responsibility to help this person sort through, ‘What other options do [I] have besides death?’” Mason said.

Suicide is increasingly recognized as a prevalent and largely preventable problem. The U.S. suicide rate increased by 30% from 2000 to 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s now the nation’s 12th leading cause of death, responsible for the loss of almost 46,000 lives in 2020.

When clergy look out at the pews and see middle-aged faces, they’re looking at the group most likely to need help: 80% of suicide deaths occur among men and women ages 45 to 54. Rates across age groups are especially high for certain demographic groups, including men, Native Americans, LGBTQ folks, rural dwellers, farm workers, military service members and veterans.

Efforts are now proliferating to help pastors rethink assumptions, prepare for conversations about suicide, and recognize that they don’t have to be therapists in order to discuss people’s hopeless feelings and influence their life-and-death choices.

Many pastors express a feeling of powerlessness, said Michelle Snyder, the executive director of Soul Shop, a nonprofit that equips faith leaders to train congregations in ministering to those pondering suicide.

“To which I say ‘no’; I reject that. I think pastors have the power of persuasion,” she said. “So leverage your position for suicide prevention.”

Resources and training

Resources have been expanding to help pastors do that leveraging. For example, in October 2020, the LivingWorks company launched LivingWorks Faith, a self-paced online program that guides faith leaders in how to intervene, minister to the bereaved post-suicide and promote purposeful living.

Those seeking to go deeper can attend the company’s two-day in-person program in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), which has been used by the U.S. military for more than 20 years.

Soul Shop offers a one-day in-person workshop for faith leaders that covers how to help congregants have conversations about suicide and how to solicit testimonies from those who’ve been suicidal in the past.

In August, it announced a new one-day workshop specifically for pastors, church staffers and lay leaders in the Black church. The Soul Shop for Black Churches training works to address the recent rise in suicides among Black people. The suicide rate for non-Hispanic Black Americans jumped 3.5% from 2019 to 2020, even as the general population saw a 3% decline in the same period.

And in July, the national suicide prevention hotline got a new, easy-to-remember number: 988. This gives pastors another tool to use in crisis situations, Mason said. If someone calls expressing thoughts about suicide, a pastor can keep the person on the phone and they can call 988 together.

On what topics are you silent? What is the price of that silence?

hands holding a brochure
Procter shows materials used in the training.

In trainings, pastors learn to spot warning signs. Some are actions, such as giving away all of one’s personal possessions, not showing up for work or nonstop sobbing. Others might be comments such as, “I think the world would be better off without me.” Major setbacks in a person’s life, such as a divorce, bankruptcy or public humiliation, can also be associated with heightened suicidal risk.

Then what? When a pastor learns that someone is contemplating suicide, next steps could involve removing the intended means, connecting the person to mental health services and promising to follow up with a check-in call soon. All are doable by pastors with no specialized suicide prevention training, experts say.

When clergy hear someone say they’re considering suicide, they are not legally obligated to report the suicidal person or to take other preventative actions unless they live in a state that requires such steps, according to Mason. She added that she does not know of any states that require clergy such reporting.

How can you foster a sense of belonging in your congregation?

group demo
Procter, with Terresio Pope, Cynthia Beale and Dominic Romero, shows ways clergy can respond effectively in a crisis.

Guns and suicide

Removing the means that a suicidal person plans to use can be crucial, especially if the plan involves a gun. That’s because guns are so lethal.

They’re used in fewer than 5% of suicide attempts, yet they’re responsible for more than half of all suicide deaths, according to CDC data. And 54% of gun deaths are suicides, according to 2020 data from the National Safety Council, a nonprofit focused on eliminating causes of preventable death.

Mason points out that guns are different from other methods because they don’t allow a person to reconsider.

“If you were to swallow pills, you could say, ‘Gosh, this is not what I wanted to do,’ and you could call 911. But with guns, you don’t get a second chance, and your reasons to live don’t get a chance to emerge.”

This is an area where pastors can make a difference.

Do the questions you ask invite honest responses?

person standing in doorway
Procter at the entrance of her church, Ambassadors For Christ Worship Center.

Being effective starts with asking directly, “Are you considering suicide?” That’s a common question for the Rev. Kenya Procter to ask in her ministry as executive pastor at Ambassadors for Christ Worship Center in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Raising the topic doesn’t make suicidal thinking more likely, experts say, but rather creates a safe environment for people to express their desire for help. Procter also trains pastors in suicide prevention through the LivingWorks ASIST program, which emphasizes the need to be clear and direct.

The reason? If she were to ask something indirect, such as, “You’re not thinking about doing something crazy, right?” she’d be prejudging the response, she said. Because a person who answered “yes” would be admitting to lunacy, he or she is apt to say “no” instead, even if the answer isn’t sincere. Asking the question directly makes a clear and honest response more likely.

If a person answers “yes” and is a gun owner, Procter said, she might suggest storing the guns temporarily with the police department, which will return them when the person is ready. And for anyone possessing guns, whether presently in a crisis of suicidal thinking or not, she suggests keeping guns locked.

“The three seconds that it takes to unlock might be the three seconds that deter that person from using that firearm,” Procter said. “Because then you have to get the key. You have to put the key in the lock. And people with thoughts of suicide are not always thinking rationally. … So those three seconds could make the difference.”

Procter speaks as someone who’s felt the pain of suicide’s ripple effects. She and her husband, Fallon, had a mutual friend, Jay, whom they’d known when Fallon and Jay were soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg. Jay always seemed to have something about him that “never sat right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it,” she said. They later learned that Jay had been involved in another person’s death and eventually killed himself.

When she got an opportunity to work in suicide prevention, she embraced it as a chance to help others do what she had not been equipped to do for Jay, such as know which warning signs to look for.

In talking with congregants, it’s important to convey that God is near, according to Glen Bloomstrom, the director of faith community engagement for LivingWorks. Isolation can intensify thoughts of “My life is worthless; I don’t belong” and needs to be met with messages of love.

“The healthy way to talk about this is …, ‘We are here for you,’” Bloomstrom said. “‘Don’t isolate. Speak with us. We can get you help. You are very valuable to us. You are loved as part of our congregation.’”

group photo
Procter with her husband, Fallon Procter Sr., Dominic Romero and her son, Fallon Procter II demonstrate a suicide prevention training at her church .

In these situations, pastors don’t have to guess at what to say. The hotline can guide them in the moment as they speak with a suicidal person and conference in 988.

“Let 988 help the clergyperson or whoever is calling figure out the right thing to do next,” Mason said. “The situations differ so much. It is hard to give advice [for faith leaders] that’s going to blanket every situation.”

Pastors can be most effective when they aren’t acting as salvation agents but rather as equippers of a team effort to encourage life-affirming choices. For instance, a pastor who knows a responsible gun owner might ask, “If the situation arises, would you hold a gun for someone temporarily?”

Then if a crisis arises, the pastor can suggest to the suicidal gun owner, “How about if so-and-so, whom you know and trust, holds on to your guns for a while until you’re ready to have them back?”

Cultivating community and hope

In crisis situations, disabling a suicide plan sometimes happens by moving the person to a new environment, such as a hospital emergency department, where mental health resources are available and firearms are not.

How can you form and equip a team to encourage life-affirming choices in a crisis?

support group
Hope and community, as well as effective communication, can help people struggling with suicidal impulses.

That’s the approach used by the Rev. Leon Sampson, an Indigenous Episcopal priest at Good Shepherd Mission on the Navajo reservation in Fort Defiance, Arizona.

When they say they want to hurt themselves, “they want help,” Sampson said.

“The first step we’ll do is take them to the emergency room. We tell them, ‘This person has said they want to hurt themselves.’ Through the Indian health system, they will receive counseling and be able to get the resources they need.”

But Sampson also knows that contributors to despair on the reservation are unfortunately common, including abuse, cyclical poverty and lingering effects from past traumas.

As an antidote, Good Shepherd hosts programs in which teens and young adults learn Navajo traditions, from agriculture and cooking to spiritual practices and the Navajo language. Sampson helps them proudly share their heritage and identity by inviting them to address church groups visiting on pilgrimage or mission trips.

As part of cultural pride building, Sampson lifts up appreciation for responsible gun ownership as a component of Navajo culture. He traces it to the tribe’s long history of sending men and women into military service and having guns for protection and hunting.

With this honorable gun-owning tradition comes a duty, Sampson tells young Navajos, to store firearms and ammunition responsibly.

“Gun education and gun safety have been part of the community,” Sampson said. “Very rarely do you hear of a teenager [here] self-inflicting harm with a gun. I think that’s because of the history of families. … They have a deep understanding of how to handle and keep guns.”

Theology, taboos and false assumptions

Shaping culture to support choosing life might look different on the reservation, on a Midwestern farm or in a coastal city. But in each setting, the pastor is drawing on a frequently used skill.

Pastors shape worlds by weaving narratives and elevating particular values in community life. In suicide prevention, that means grappling with how suicide has traditionally been viewed through a theological lens as well as parishioners’ deeply ingrained taboos and assumptions.

Suicide is complicated for pastors, because it’s loaded with theological baggage. It’s been understood as sin, self-murder, cause for exclusion from Christian cemeteries, even an automatic ticket to hell. Such concepts presume that the final act was a grave misdeed and left no margin for repentance or forgiveness.

Such ideas trace back in part to Augustine of Hippo, the fourth-century African bishop who taught that life is a divine gift to be cherished and put to use, not something to extinguish in hopes of entering a better world in the hereafter.

New thinking about suicide and morality is needed to foster more compassion toward those struggling without hope, according to the Rev. Rhonda Mawhood Lee, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of North Carolina. With support from a Louisville Institute grant, Lee is writing a book that develops a new theology of suicide.

Lee has been touched by suicide directly. Going back generations, several members of her family have taken their own lives. Her mother made multiple attempts at suicide while Lee was growing up before dying by suicide in 1995, when Lee was in her 20s.

She’s careful with her terminology, using “died by” rather than “committed” suicide, because the latter connotes sin and crime.

“Saying that suicide and other complicated ills like substance use disorder reveal the fallen nature of our world does not have to mean assigning culpability to people who kill themselves, or sitting in judgment of them,” Lee said in an email.

“It does mean we can lament suicides, have a range of feelings about them, and do what we can to prevent them.”

In working through the repercussions of her mother’s suicide, Lee has spent years researching her family history and noticing patterns that help her understand it.

A number of theological ideas about suicide need reexamining, she said. The one who dies by suicide shouldn’t be seen as unsavable, she said, because that would “tie God’s hands” and leave no room for grace. Instead, suicide, while always lamentable, should be seen in light of conditions that might have driven the person to desperation.

Taboos around suicide are tenacious, and today’s work involves probing which ones, if any, still serve a useful purpose. The taboo describing suicide as self-murder is too harsh and diminishes compassion toward those struggling with suicidal ideation, Lee said. But the general cultural taboo against dying by suicide might help prevent suicide in some cases by marshaling social pressure to choose life instead, she said.

As pastors gain appreciation for how much they can do to prevent suicides, they’re discovering how much needs to be done on fronts ranging from pastoral care and preaching to theology. Wherever they begin, it’s with growing conviction that this is the church’s work to do.

“We’re trying to demystify the idea that [suicidal thinking] is somehow this untouchable thing that is so medical that it requires the professionals,” Soul Shop’s Snyder said. “In fact, what it requires is communities that can respond with community and with hope.”

What do your congregation’s theological ideas about suicide say about God?

Questions to consider

  • On what topics are you silent? What is the price of that silence?
  • How can you foster a sense of belonging in your congregation?
  • Do the questions you ask invite honest responses?
  • How can you form and equip a team to encourage life-affirming choices in a crisis?
  • What do your congregation’s theological ideas about suicide say about God?