Imagine you have just boarded a plane with your family and you and your family are securely seated as the plane begins to pull away from the boarding door. The flight attendant begins to go through the routine safety procedures: “In the rare case of an emergency, air masks will fall down. If you are travelling with small children securely attach your air mask before securing theirs.” When you hear those words, you look at your family and make a very conscious decision that if there is an emergency, I am going to make sure my children and wife have their air masks on before I take care of myself. But in reality, if my oxygen mask is not in place, then I have less ability to make sure my children and wife are taken care of. Putting your oxygen mask on first is not selfish or self-centered, but the logical way of having the ability to care for others.
Empathy Fatigue for those in ministry could be seen as the depletion of life-giving spiritual, physical and emotional oxygen to the point of just not caring about oneself, family or ministry. Empathy Fatigue is like Kryptonite to those in ministry and long-term exposure or untreated Empathy Fatigue will result in death.
Since everyone in ministry is susceptible to Empathy Fatigue, there needs to be a plan for care and prevention. Unlike the flight attendant’s instructions in case of an emergency, you need a preventative care plan, which begins with self-care.
Self-care involves the spiritual element of caring for our soul, our God connectedness and caring for ourselves emotionally, physically and spiritually. When we are surrounded with so many needs of others and all the requirements of ministry and we are not available to meet those needs because we are taking time for ourselves, we seem selfish, and selfishness stands in direct contradiction to the call of ministry.
Jesus himself gives us a model of self-care and soul-care. The Gospels record times when Jesus rested, times when He left the masses and went to a secluded place to rest and pray. Were there not hungry people to feed, people who needed healing, people who were desperately searching for truth? Yes! But Jesus, being fully aware of all the needs, realized He had a limited amount of time on earth to meet those needs and saw His personal need and set an example of self-care and soul-care.
He rested in the bowel of a boat in the midst of a raging storm. Many of His miracles were performed in the relaxed casual setting of a meal with close friends.
We are far more human and far more vulnerable to Empathy Fatigue than Jesus. Yet many pastors brag and wear as a badge of honor that they rarely take a day off and never take all of their vacation time. In doing this, they are neglecting the pattern that Jesus set for us of self-care and soul-care.
For the pastor who wants to “finish well,” there must be a purposeful plan of care in place; there needs to be boundaries in place, where we learn where our limits are. We have to be willing to say “no” to good things so we can say “yes” to the best. There is never a shortage of good things in ministry, but if we say yes to every good thing we have no time or energy to say “yes” to the best. Good and best should be filtered through our priorities: God, marriage, family and then ministry.
There is hope for those whose soul, marriage and ministry have been compromised by Empathy Fatigue. In all probability if you are struggling with this at any level, you need to seek outside counsel to help put things in perspective and to come up with a realistic plan to refresh, replenish and restore yourself before Empathy Fatigue, every pastor’s Kryptonite, robs you of everything you hold dear.