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Dec2FriIs ministry leaving you tired, numb or overwhelmed? You're not alone December 2, 2011 by Julia Hosking
Monday: Meet client to go over immigration papers, have lunch with someone struggling with abuse, visit two hospital patients and plan the centre's monthly dinner.
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When Liz Garrison first started in frontline ministry, she found a day like this exciting. She loved being able to minister to others and work toward social change.
“Although my colleagues at the centre shared my passion for serving, they no longer had the energy or enthusiasm they once did for ministry,” reflects Garrison, territorial social services consultant. “It was an awakening experience for me to see the toll it had taken on them.”
What Garrison first witnessed in her colleagues, and later in herself, was “compassion fatigue”—unhealthy behaviours and emotions resulting from helping or wanting to help traumatized or suffering people. Compassion fatigue leads to a reduced capacity to express empathy and is often experienced by individuals offering care continually through social services or in one-off traumatic situations.
“My colleagues and I had to learn to be intentional about how we gave to others in order to sustain ourselves over the long-term,” Garrison says.
Understanding the Signs
As a result of her experience, Garrison decided to educate herself on compassion fatigue and now delivers workshops on the topic. “Compassion fatigue can be a natural response to care-giving,” she says. “It's not the abnormal caregiver that gets fatigued; it's the abnormal caregiver that doesn't.”
Captain Ginny Kristensen, corps officer, Ottawa's Gladstone Community Church, and chaplain, Ottawa's correctional and justice services, has also undertaken training. “People come to work in the caring profession because they want to help people,” she says. “But when you are repeatedly hearing stories of trauma, you start to carry other people's burdens that you can't do anything about.”
Signs of compassion fatigue include exhaustion, headaches or addictions; a loss of ability to listen, be creative or empathize; or feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, guilt or cynicism.
The Call to Serve
“Faith needs to be put into action,” Garrison says. “That's an important part of who we are as Christians—serving each other and the world as witnesses of God's love.”
Because of this Christian call, Garrison warns that compassion fatigue can affect people in caring roles outside of the social services realm.
That means people who are caregivers for other family members, individuals ministering in their community or congregation, corps officers and people who are regularly reading about poverty—“anyone operating out of a compassionate heart, giving of themselves emotionally and listening to people's stories,” says Garrison—could experience compassion fatigue.
Captain Kristensen has seen her corps volunteers become emotionally stressed and has also felt it personally in her corps work.
“Corps officers have lots of demands on our time,” she says. “We need to take at least one day off every week to keep our own prayer life active and vibrant, and our relationship with God fresh. If we don't do this, we get spiritually and physically fatigued.
“We tend to get so involved in helping others that we forget about ourselves,” Captain Kristensen continues. “And if we forget about ourselves, we cannot effectively help others. We have to realize that we can't do everything and we don't have to.”
“While we need to love our neighbour,” adds Garrison, “it's important to follow Jesus' example: he rested, spent time away from the crowds and took time to celebrate.
“In the end, I'm involved in ministry because I believe that God works in the world. And so, to reduce the impact of compassion fatigue in my life, I need to remember that God works in many ways, not just through me and what I do.”
Alleviate Compassion Fatigue
• Observe the Sabbath. Proper rest is crucial for caregivers dealing with high stress situations.
• Do a self-assessment. Are there things that can be delegated to others? Can you change anything about your schedule? Are you taking enough time to recharge?
• Be self-aware. Know what your “normal” is.
• Rebalance your caseload. Do certain clients deplete you? Spread them out across the day or week; share them with co-workers.
• Be careful what you watch. The media sensationalizes trauma and this can trigger emotional responses.
• Engage in professional development. Additional training can help you gain perspective.