To be fully human is to embrace our need to receive his compassion, and to show compassion to others in return. So why do we experience “compassion burnout”? Because we are finite and fallen. Our compassion is a diminishing resource. But when we turn to the Scriptures, we discover that God’s is a never-ending supply.
The thing we want to give—deep, sincere compassion for others in their time of need—runs dry. We want to help, but we can only take so much suffering. We become victims of our own giving.
We don’t have to imagine the burnout progression for a Christ-following pastor, counselor, or ministry leader. We’ve either witnessed it or experienced it ourselves.
A young leader enters ministry with high hopes, extensive training, and a heart full of compassion. But after several years of long hours, little to no appreciation, and insufficient compensation, the leader grows weary. Working with less motivation and seeing fewer positive results, frustration sets in, and then frustration breaks into indifference.
Researchers have identified four universal stages of burnout among the helping professions:
To be honest, I’ve experienced all four in a single day of pastoral ministry. I can be full of compassion in an appointment at 7 a.m., weary and on autopilot by lunch, frustrated in afternoon meetings, and, by the time I get home, utterly numb.
Disillusionment is the clinical term for burnout. We had a vision of generous ministry but went broke before it was realized. The vision turned out to be illusion.
Where do we go from here?
I’ve found a deep and refreshing resource for ministry renewal in an ancient but underrated aspect of Christianity: The way to restore compassion for others is by receiving and savoring the compassion of God.
Compassion is at the heart of the Christian gospel, an attribute of God that spans the history of redemption, and an essential virtue of healthy, sustainable ministry in the pattern of Christ.
Search for Compassion
So, what exactly is compassion?
Our word compassion comes from the Latin words pati and cum, which together mean “to suffer with.” As Henri Nouwen and his co-authors write in Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life:
Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human. (3–4)