Compassion Fatigue By Dr. Charles A. Wickman

(The following is an excerpt from “Measuring the Level of Pastors’ Risk of Termination/Exit from the Church,” by Dr. Charles A. Wickman)

The literature describes compassion fatigue more clearly than vision conflict since the term is already referenced numerous times using similar attributes as have been uncovered in this present research (Joinson, 1992; Marchand, 2007; Musick, 1997; Pfifferling & Gilley, 2000; Wells, 2004). Compassion fatigue has also been an occasional topic for the popular press (Focus on the Family, 2008; Johne, 2006). The physical and emotional stresses that are outlined by items 12, 22, and 23—the items with the highest loadings (Table 2)—are similar to the dimensions associated with the Maslach Burnout Inventory (Chandler, 2006; Foss, 2002; Maslach & Jackson, 1981a, 1981b, 1986; Maslach, Jackson & Leiter, 1996; Maslach & Leiter, 2008). Understanding exhaustion, both physical and emotional, is a critical topic in the study of classical burnout (Maslach, Schaufeli & Leiter, 2001; Schaufeli, Taris & van Rhenen, 2008).  Pfifferling and Gilley (2000) add spiritual fatigue to the list of attributes describing compassion fatigue. Some researchers have used comparable terms such as emotional labor or compassion stress when referring to compassion fatigue (Boy le & Healy, 2003; de Jonge, Le Blanc, Peeters & Noordam, 2008; Figley, 1992; Pienaar & Willemse, 2008). However, tracing compassion fatigue among literature directed specifically to the clergy uncovers a unique extension of emphases that carries the definition of the term beyond the specifications of classical burnout due to the typical breadth of circumstances associated with normal ministry functions (Flannelly, Roberts & Weaver, 2005; Marchand, 2007; Pfifferling & Gilley, 2000).

One of the first to employ the term compassion fatigue in association with ministry settings was Hart (1984). He used the term compassion fatigue when counseling members of the clergy who were dealing with depression that resulted from the effects of ministry upon personal life.  Numerous researchers and practitioners since have described the antidotes for ministry stress that parallel Wickman’s (2004) items associated with compassion fatigue (Grosch & Olsen, 2000; Heinen, 2007; Husted, 1996; London & Wiseman, 1993; Sanford, 1992). Helping a parishioner deal with a spectrum of issues can deplete a minister of his or her own emotional reserves and contribute to their vulnerability toward a range of maladies (Hart, 1984). Compounding a sense of depression among clergy is the realization that effective ministry to a congregant does not mean that the congregant’s circumstances will always improve. Hauerwas and Willimon (1990) describe compassion fatigue in the following way: “It strikes people who take on too heavy a load of other people’s burdens, leaving little time or energy for themselves. Victims become disillusioned and depressed, and often start to show cracks in their professional veneer” (p. 247).

Flannelly, Roberts, and Weaver (2005) give special emphasis to compassion fatigue while differentiating the use of the term from burnout in research associated with chaplains and clergy who ministered in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in New York City. They noted the value of clinical pastoral education as a way to decrease compassion fatigue and burnout while increasing compassion satisfaction in responders and non-responders alike. Pector (2005) distinguishes compassion fatigue from burnout by positing that ministry caregivers who suffer from compassion fatigue continue to fully give of themselves to their work in spite of physical, mental and spiritual depletion.

The occurrence of compassion fatigue among the clergy is inevitable, especially since many of the duties performed by ministers are either similar to various secular jobs where high stress is common, or place the clergy member in a circumstance where extreme trauma is being experienced (Holaday, Lackey, Boucher & Glidewell, 2001; Taylor, Weaver, Flannelly & Zucker, 2006). Boyle and Healy (2003) contend that balancing responses between the sacred and the profane in a heavily emotion-laden organization can be difficult, citing the rush of excitement experienced by emergency personnel when a life is saved. Members of the clergy experience a similar set of extremes. Emotional highs and lows are exacerbated by stress, demand, and exhaustion that characterize compassion fatigue among clergy according to the physical and social proximity of the minister to the congregants where he or she serves. Although Marcuson (2004) does not employ the term compassion fatigue, a theme of balance undergirds her exhortation for clergy to find a functional equilibrium when trying to realize when enough help is truly enough. As White (2007) posits, “people who work in ministry are often working in the very communities they rely upon for social and spiritual support, and the dual relationships that result can pose complications for their work and personal lives” (p. 7).  Brown (2007) illustrates the high-low liability associated with the minister’s dedication to serve among people who may accuse or slander their minister if their needs are not addressed to their satisfaction. Indeed, compassion fatigue introduces an important dimension of understanding how people and relationships affect the physical, emotional and spiritual health of the clergy.

Read full article at https://www.regent.edu/acad/global/publications/working/Spencer-Winston-Bocarnea-Wickman%20Pastors%20At%20Risk%20working%20paper.pdf

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