There is a scene in the [stage] musical Jesus Christ Superstar where Jesus finds himself surrounded by the cries of the needy. The voices sing until Jesus is engulfed by the struggles of the people who cry out for his ministry. In a moment of helplessness and even rage, Jesus cries out, “There’s too many of you . . . there’s too little of me. Heal yourselves!” and he retreats to be ministered to by his followers.
Although the scenario is not biblically accurate, it captures a dynamic that Jesus must have known throughout his ministry. It captures a feeling all of us have known who have given our lives to a ministry of compassion and justice. There are times when the breadth of needs in the world inspires us to greater faith in God and energizes us to work even harder for the realization of God’s kingdom.
Yet there are other times when it seems we have nothing else to give, and, like Jesus in the musical, we want to cry out, “Heal yourselves” and withdraw to take care of our own needs. These are moments of compassion fatigue. The goal of this article is to offer some images and ideas that will define compassion fatigue, put you in touch with its reality in your own life, explore its sources, and offer some strategies to address it.
COMPASSION FATIGUE: A DEFINITION
What this article calls compassion fatigue is related to what many call “burnout.” Burnout is a particular kind of stress that involves overuse of our listening and caring capacities. It has been described as “a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, a way of life, a relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.”1 It involves a “progressive loss of idealism, energy, and purpose experienced by people in the helping professions.”2
Stress can happen to anyone; burnout happens to those people who see needs around them and give their energies to meeting those needs. When energy or sense of self suffers because of too many needy people or assuming too much responsibility for these needy people, the result is compassion fatigue.
COMPASSION FATIGUE: THE SOURCES
When we encounter persons experiencing compassion fatigue, our first impulse is to tell them to cut back their involvement, take a break, recharge their batteries, and return to their efforts renewed and refreshed. But it is not that easy. Remember the scene from Superstar. While it becomes obvious that the needs are overwhelming, Jesus still reaches out to these people.
The source of compassion fatigue is not merely overextending ourselves; it comes, instead, from the attitudes and perspectives that drive us to overextend ourselves. Addressing compassion fatigue involves changing our perspectives on the needs we try to meet and the need we have for nurturing and supporting ourselves. There are several beliefs that work against this change of perspective. One of them is the idea that if we “expend [our]selves completely in the Lord’s work, God will look after [us]—body, mind, and spirit.”3 We cite heroic examples, from Scripture and tradition, of people who held nothing back in their ministry to others, giving it their all to the point of exhaustion and death. The trump card in this litany of selfless giving is Jesus, who dies on the cross for the hurts of the world. How can we do less?
This deep-seated belief about expending ourselves completely is insidious because it is grounded in an understanding of what it means to be in ministry. Instead of viewing ministry as “a response to an experience of the Grace of God,”4 we understand it to be a call to meet the needs of others.
But notice what happens as we live out this understanding. If “our mission is to serve people, we view everyone in need as the voice of God calling us into service. Not to respond is to be guilty of rejecting God’s demands upon us.”5 Eventually, we realize that these needs are insatiable, and we develop a sense of helplessness, a loss of idealism, a cynical negativism—all signs of compassion fatigue.
To address the problem of compassion fatigue, we have to address this misconception of our call to discipleship and ministry. We are called to ministry “to serve God, not necessarily to serve people. [Our] first call is to be a liberated, whole human being. [Our] first responsibility is to be a joyful, redeemed human being” who lives out “liberation and wholeness.”6
The best example of this radical interpretation of the call to ministry is Jesus himself. Henri Nouwen states: “The more I read the Gospels, the more I am struck with Jesus’ single-minded concern with [God]. All through his life Jesus considers his relationship with [God] as the center of his ministry. Jesus does not maintain his relationship with [God] as a means of fulfilling his ministry. On the contrary, his relationship with [God] is the core of his ministry.7
We do not spend time with God so that we will have the energy to meet the needs of others. We spend time with God because it is the foundation of our identity as persons called by God. Meeting the needs of others is a task of that call, but it is not the basis of our self-definition as disciples.
OVERCOMING COMPASSION FATIGUE
Any practical suggestions for addressing compassion fatigue should consider an understanding of its source. My first inclination is to offer a list of specific practices that we can develop. These include classical spiritual disciplines like meditation, journaling, prayer, spiritual direction, fasting, and Sabbaths. I could also discuss physical exercise and nutrition, support groups, psychotherapy, and time management.
MEETING THE NEEDS OF OTHERS IS A TASK OF THAT CALL, BUT IT IS NOT THE BASIS OF OUR SELF-DEFINITION AS DISCIPLES.
We are familiar with all of these practices, and they have been discussed in detail in other places. But even with our familiarity of them, we are unsuccessful in implementing them because we use them as nothing more than tools to recharge our spiritual batteries so we can get on with the real work of ministry—meeting the needs of others. I want to end this article by offering some ideas for battling compassion fatigue that address our misconceptions of ministry.
For example, we can spend less time meeting the needs of others and spend more time mutually sharing our lives with those to whom we minister. Matthew Fox makes a distinction between compassion and sentimentality or pity. He states that the “surest way of discerning whether one has pity towards or compassion with another is to answer this question: Do you celebrate with this same person or these same people?”8 When we sentimentalize those in need, “the emotions they arouse in us are more important than the emotions they feel.”9
The people in need around us are more than situations that God has put in our lives so we can fulfill our understanding of ministry. Jesus did not spend time with the outcast of society as a ploy to win their favor and invite them into the kingdom. He spent time with them because he saw the kingdom expressed in their struggle to find meaning and purpose in their lives.
It would also be helpful to broaden our understanding and experience of compassion. Compassion does not consist of acts of service we perform; it is a force or energy in which we live and breathe. “Compassion is not the eleventh commandment. Why not? Because it is a spirituality and a way of living and walking through life.”10 We have reduced compassion to an emotion that moves us to act in service, but it is better understood as “an energy or radiation that pervades the whole cosmos.”11
One practical way to experience this connection with others and the pervasive force of compassion is to throw a party. Gather your friends from all walks of life, including those whom you serve, and have a lavish celebration that borders on extravagant. After all, the dominant image for the kingdom of God and the end of the age in the gospels is a banquet. And this is not a banquet that involves bland food and boring speakers. It is a festive celebration where food and drink and laughter and music flow freely. It is a full-fledged party.
Ted Gill points out that with his first miracle at the wedding in Cana, Jesus did not save a man from blindness or a woman from her oppressors. He saved a party.12 Many of us are so caught up in the serious business of saving the world that we have lost our sense of celebration.
Even if a party were to break out spontaneously, with our definition of ministry, we would volunteer to serve others by waiting on tables instead of joining the revelry. Fox points out “the Biblical sign of salvation is not control (whether self-control, control of others, or being controlled)—it is celebration.”13
We feel for the character of Jesus as portrayed in the Superstar drama. He is a victim of compassion fatigue. For him, compassion has become “one more compulsion, one more moral norm, one more test for orthodoxy.” With an understanding of ministry as serving others as the only way to serve God, he reaches a point where he is so overwhelmed by the needs around him that all he can do is push these people away and cry out, “Heal yourselves!” We feel for him because he is like us in so many ways.
The solution to compassion fatigue is more than taking a vacation to revitalize ourselves for more service. We need to understand our call to ministry and discipleship as a call to serve God by living a life of wholeness. We need to join with those whom we serve in living in the power of compassion and celebration that pervades the world. Only then will we know the energy to meet the needs of those who have become companions on the same journey.
Gary L. Hardwick is associate pastor at First Christian Church in Norman, Oklahoma. Dr. Hardwick also served as a pastoral pyschotherapist with Samaritan Counseling Center in Waco, Texas, and has been in the business of helping caregivers with compassion fatigue for a number of years.
Used with permission from the author and from Seeds of Hope Publishers (www.seedspublishers.org).
1. Herbert Freudenberger, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement (Garden City: Anchor, 1980).
2. Jerry Edelwich and Archie Brodsky, Burnout-Stages of Disillusionment in the Helping Professions (New York: Human Sciences Press, 1980).
3. Roy M. Oswald, Clergy Self-Care: Finding A Balance For Effective Ministry (The Alban Institute, 1991).
4. Ibid, 14.
5. Ibid, 14.
6. Ibid, 15.
7. Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1984), 50-51.
8. Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion and the Healing of the Global Village, Humpty Dumpty and Us (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1979), 3.
9. Ibid, 15.
10. Ibid, 30.
11. Ibid, 30.
12. Ted Gill, Lecture, La Jolla, California, July 1984.
13. Fox, 89.