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Compassion Fatigue or Satisfaction: Your Choice

Compassion Fatigue or Satisfaction: Your Choice.

Acts 15:36-41
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing." Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

When it comes to Bible texts that bring out the "Dr. Phil" in us, the conflict between Barnabas and Paul concerning John Mark's suitability for work could make the Top 10. The Acts 15 text is a pivotal one in the growth of the Church as Barnabas sails out of our frame of view with John Mark, while Paul sails off into fame and glory with Silas. To me, more than a drama about conflict or temperament, this story is about how we handle the severe stressors of career and the toll it takes on us as disciples of Jesus. It is difficult, if not impossible, to be effective in our work if we are not taking care of our health; mind, body, and spirit. The importance of good health also applies to congregations and their ministry.

Each person in the Acts account was doing the best they could with the resources they had. Barnabas was not wrong in challenging Paul. Nor was John Mark the bad guy in the story. Paul was not mistaken in his assessment of the work he had to do and that John Mark was ill-suited. What is clear to me is that the very reason Barnabas wanted John Mark to go with him, was the same reason Paul did not want him to go.

The issue: What is the most effective response to life stressors and the fatigue of ministry and other compassion occupations?

While many of the people we serve function very well, there are countless others who experience emotional, physical, spiritual, and economic stressors that take a sever toll on them, and the relationships and systems they participate in.

Some members of our community are fragile. We serve those with acute mental illness, addiction, loss, and trauma requiring not only highly developed professional skills to address, but hero strength, and an abundance of compassion. Wise counselors refer severe cases to outside providers who possess additional necessary resources and training. As we share empathy with others at this level, we can experience chronic stress called Compassion Fatigue.

Empathy is a necessary attribute in offering effective care, but unmanaged empathy can overwhelm us with another's distress and leave us fatigued, angry, and even unable to care anymore. In the religious community, caregivers know that to care for others is a high privilege and a compelling mandate modeled by Jesus himself: "That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served-and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage" Mark 10.45.

We tend to overlook our own needs. No one likes to talk about these feelings; they seem selfish, shameful, or defeated. If compassion fatigue is ignored, and appropriate, ongoing, self-care practices are absent, we will soon be the one requiring care.

Congregations can experience fatigue and stressors, too, either in overlooking or hyper-focusing on their own needs. Seeking appropriate and on-going care, such as that offered by colleagues or committees and staff of the presbytery, can help move us forward to a healthier place.

The mission in Acts 15 was to visit the brothers and sisters in all the towns where they had preached to see how were doing (Acts 15.36), which resulted in Paul and Silas strengthening the churches (Acts 15:41).

What factors weighed so heavily on John Mark that he did not have sufficient capacity to help strengthen others? John Mark experienced what we might call compassion fatigue. The word compassion literally means "to suffer with another" and John Mark, in that moment, was drained and perhaps in personal crisis from his previous work. Barnabas intuitively knew of John Mark's stress (being away from home) and was determined to get John Mark to a better place emotionally, if not physically. In that moment of time, Paul and Barnabas were optimized to strengthen others while John Mark was impaired and needed the strength of others. Paul set out to strengthen the churches and Barnabas set out to strengthen John Mark. Each one fulfilled their respective tasks.

If we sense that we are suffering from compassion fatigue, chances are excellent that we are. Our path to wellness begins with one small step: Awareness. Each of us, whatever our role, must develop an individualized approach and commitment to self-care for every aspect of our life. We cannot be effective with others if we ourselves are impaired from unattended stressors. A congregation can become impaired from compassion fatigue too, and become drained of energy it once had in abundance. When we take responsibility for our fatigue awareness, we alert those around us who will help resources to flow.

With the appropriate information and support, awareness will empower a journey of discovery, even healing issues that currently serve as obstacles to a healthy, and effective ministry. It is also important for us to practice ongoing self-compassion and self-forgiveness. Knowing that God loves and forgives us is wonderful news! While aiming for our best as disciples of Christ and as congregations, we must also realize our limitations personally and congregationally, then let go of what we cannot have an impact on. We rejuvenate our sense of mission and hope with simple practices including spiritual and physical disciplines, enjoyable social activities, exercise, healthy eating habits, journaling, and restful sleep which reduce compassion fatigue.

We all need a Barnabas or a Paul from time to time. Make use of your upstream of support. In the Presbyterian Church (USA), each presbytery delivers services through the Committee on Ministry and Executive or General Presbyter, or other staff. Seek out those in your professional loop that are committed to empowering your health and effectiveness. God offers abundant opportunities for health and wellness. With an increased of compassion satisfaction we can derive satisfaction from doing our work well.