3 Ways to Prevent Compassion Fatigue

Paul Ward
June 15th, 2021

I was sitting in my training, trying to pay close attention. My instructor talked about the scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan where the medic gets shot and eventually dies. It’s a very graphic scene. His fellow soldiers are asking the wounded medic what they can do to save him. Eventually, he realizes there’s nothing they can do.

It’s tragic to think of that kind of death. The fact that he died wasn’t the only tragedy. This group of soldiers was now traveling through a war zone with no medic to help them if they were wounded.

Back in the training room, sitting with other future military medics, our instructor gave us an important lesson. If we got wounded or worse, we couldn’t save anyone else. We had to keep ourselves safe to be able to save the lives of others. This idea seemed counterintuitive to people who just signed up to put their lives on the line.

Our job was different. We weren’t infantry, artillery, or pilots. We were going to be taking care of everyone else who got injured.

I’m no longer a military medic. I serve in a chaplain role at a youth residential treatment facility. I still work with trauma, just in a different way. When anyone ministers to youth, they will experience difficulties, challenges, and even trauma. We may not be in a war zone, but that doesn’t mean we’re always safe. One of the dangers we have to look out for is called compassion fatigue.

Compassion Fatigue may be a new term to you. You’re more than likely familiar with it, you’ve probably called it burnout. The symptoms of burnout and compassion fatigue look very similar.

Burnout is a matter of energy. We experience this because we’ve extended ourselves beyond our physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual abilities. That overextension makes us tired and irritable. We find it difficult to focus or accomplish tasks. We’re forgetful and absent-minded.

Compassion Fatigue has similar signs and symptoms, but it’s not because we overextended ourselves. Compassion fatigue is secondary trauma. When we help people who are wounded, we can absorb some of the hurt and pain and it can begin to affect us.

How do we avoid or minimize the effects of compassion fatigue when we’re ministering to hurting people? Here are three things that can help.

Set Boundaries

Usually, people get into ministry because they have a natural disposition to help and serve. We want to go where people are and do what Jesus would do. That’s an extremely good thing. It’s what we’re called to do.

We need to realize our abilities are limited. That’s a fact. You can’t change certain parameters. I’ve been remodeling a house and each room has specific limitations. That’s not a bad thing, it’s reality. It doesn’t mean I can’t do great things with the space. It means I can’t do everything with the space.

You have limits based on time, money, level of responsibility, and other things. Setting healthy boundaries will help you minister best within the limits God gave you. Sometimes we have to let go of things outside of our limits and trust God is sovereign and will handle the rest.

Write Down Wins

When I started my current job I had a request from the director of our foundation. She asked me to keep a running document on my computer where I tracked “good moments.” When a good moment happened with a student I would record it in that document. Initially, it seemed like an extra thing on an already long to-do list, but it was important for the organization. She wanted to use this while talking to financial donors.

This had an unexpected impact on me. At the end of the quarter, I would review that document to send the updates. Several times I cried as I read through all the things God had been doing. When I would have particularly difficult days or weeks, I could reference that document to see the big picture.

Seek Professional Help

There are many strategies to help prevent or minimize suffering from Compassion Fatigue. Any list must absolutely contain seeking professional help. Often those in ministry roles are resistant to seek out therapy or counseling. However, it’s extremely beneficial. I personally believe most people could benefit from some type of professional counseling.

It’s possible you have great pastors on staff, wonderful family members, and amazing friends. Confiding in these people can help a lot. However, there will always be limitations. It’s better to reach out for professional help too early and too often, rather than too little or too late.

Paul Ward

Paul has been in ministry for almost 20 years. He currently works with youth at a residential treatment facility. Paul was previously a medic in the Air Force. He loves to write, play music, and is a huge baseball fan. Paul is a husband, father, and friend.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.