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Chaplaincy and Compassion Fatigue

Superman has his kryptonite, and I know my weakness…sleep deprivation. If I don’t get enough sleep a lot of things start to spiral out of control. When I don’t treat my body well I have less patience for things and people and I can’t concentrate. My empathy and compassion for others goes out the window. My compassion fatigue goes through the roof.

Like a lot of people in the fire service, I hold a second job. I feel privileged that my second job is also a chaplain job. I work for a hospital. As their night chaplain on the weekends, I am usually only called in for major things like a cardiac arrest. I may respond to three or four cardiac arrests a weekend. Working two jobs that involve crisis chaplaincy, one of them at night, can push my limits on sleep and bring on the compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is a secondary traumatic stress disorder. It affects those of us, like chaplains, who care for the traumatized, walking with them in their suffering beyond the point of empathy to compassion. But as anyone knows, compassion work, especially with those grieving or going through acute traumatic stress, can be physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting.

Compassion fatigue is insidious. It’s not triggered by one event. It’s cumulative. That means we don’t usually know it is affecting us till it’s too late. And it seems the better we are as chaplains at taking care of others, the more susceptible we are to compassion fatigue in ourselves.

In his book A Bamboo Grove for the Soul, experienced chaplain Tom Becraft talks about what it’s like to pour yourself out.

“If one day is so brutal, how can I return day after day, year after year without burning out? Repetitive experiences with despair and human brokenness inform me that I need repetitive doses of hope. I need reliable, quickly accessible resources to replenish my inner-self when daily pressures are sucking the air out of me. What sustains me when waves of pain and grief come so quickly at me that I feel that I am drowning?”

As a Christian I am heartened by the thought that Jesus himself had compassion for people (See Matt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32). But I also notice Jesus got away to recharge (see Luke 5:16). This gives me an excellent example of how to live in the midst of an emotionally taxing ministry.

Consider these six ways I’ve found to take care of myself and get replenished. Maybe some of them will work for you.

1. Learn how to say “no” to things in life. I know when that emergency call comes in, we must go. Instead build in intentional margin in life, saying no to activity when you have the chance to choose. A good spiritual example would be that of practicing Sabbath.

2. Find that centering point in life. Is it a time and place to worship? Is it a special meditation or reflection? Seek out what you need to stay centered.

3. Take time to prioritize your life. What is it that God is calling you to? Defining your calling or contribution and going back to the basics can help as you survey all that is demanding your attention.

4. Guard your time with God. Since I can be called out all night on a Saturday and/or Sunday night, going to church on Sunday isn’t always possible. When I can’t make it to church, I seek out extra time in worship and the Word, being with fellow believers and going to Wednesday services.

5. Have an accountability partner. Who can call you on the carpet to make sure you are getting the rest you need? Do you have someone in your life who knows you well and is willing to say something?

6. Take care of yourself. For me that means to get enough good sleep and eating well. It also means limiting my use of caffeine, especially on days that I can be called to work at night.

Fatigue is part of life. It’s a good thing to give ourselves to others. We were made to work. We were made to care. But we were also made to rest and recover.

Since I work Monday through Friday as a fire chaplain and then the weekends as a hospital chaplain, I need to be very deliberate about recovery. What about you?

Chaplain Chris Wade

Vice President

South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

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