A letter to the clergy of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh from Bishop Martyn Minns
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)
I served as Rector of All Angels Church in New York City from 1988 to 1991. It was a wonderful experience, and we saw God work in amazing ways in the lives of the people we served. Every day we faced new challenges, and the days were long. It is a truism that that the city never sleeps, and we found ourselves running long and hard. Sometimes our days were so full that we would sit down for our family evening meal at 10:00 p.m. I have always enjoyed the high energy and high demands of city life, and the Upper West Side of Manhattan remains one of my favorite places.
Towards the end of our third year, I noticed a curious physical phenomenon. I found myself unable to bend over to put on my socks and shoes when I dressed in the morning. I simply couldn’t bend. It didn’t happen suddenly, and as time progressed, I made the necessary adjustments – including asking for Angela’s help. We assumed that it was simply part of the package of growing older. (After all, I was almost 50!)
However, once we had moved out of the city to our next assignment at Truro Church in Northern Virginia, I discovered that I could bend again! I then realized what had been happening – in response the constant stress and demands of ministry at All Angels I had unconsciously held myself, and especially my back, tighter and tighter. It had not been a conscious choice but simply my body’s way of coping.
There is actually a term for this – compassion fatigue – the physical, emotional, and psychological effect of helping others. Clergy and caregivers, in general, are susceptible, and it affects each of us in different ways, but it can lead to physical ailments, burnout, stress, heart problems, etc.
Once you become aware of the problem, the solutions are not too complicated but sometimes difficult to implement:
1. Make time for yourself … and don’t feel guilty about it. Remember how Jesus took blocks of time away from the crowds, to reflect, to pray and to recharge. We should do no less.
2. Make healthy living a priority – we all operate differently but we all need exercise, sleep, and a healthy diet … and we must remember the Sabbath Day and keep it! 3. Make sure that you have someone that you can share with – a spouse, a long-time friend, somebody else who understands the problem. Check in with them when you find yourself losing ground.
4. Avoid slipping into unhealthy coping strategies like stress-eating, excessive drinking, or even too much television or screen time.
5. If your compassion fatigue levels continue to increase, you might consider talking with a trusted counselor, therapist, or spiritual director to find relief.
6. Recognize that you are not the Messiah! Remember that you have not been called to care for everyone, everywhere, at all times.
I recall standing at the door of All Angels Church after one Sunday night service. We welcomed, worshipped, and ate together with almost 200 men and women each week – many of them homeless and needy. We were, however, limited on space for overnight sleeping … permitted to accommodate only 19 men. If we exceeded that number, we would lose our ability to have anyone stay. On wintry nights, as I said “God bless you” to each of them, I knew that many would be sleeping rough, and some might well freeze to death. It weighed heavily on me that my words of blessing might be the last words that they heard. And then I remembered that Jesus loved them far more than I could ever imagine. The old Gospel chorus reminded me they were “Safe in the arms of Jesus.”
Compassion fatigue is encouraged by our 24-hour media, giving us relentless awareness of every crisis and every pressing need all around the world. We must all regularly disconnect from our internet news sources if we are to avoid overload. But that does not mean we must renounce caring or heartfelt compassion.
I find it helpful to separate out the global matters – things we should genuinely care about but realistically can only pray about – and the specific projects in which we need to engage. Let me give an example … the plight of unwanted children. Not just the unborn but children everywhere who are abused, neglected, or forgotten. It is an enormous problem that can overwhelm us and paralyze us into inaction, but it doesn’t need to do so.
In 1952, evangelical pastor Everett Swanson flew to South Korea to minister to American troops fighting in the Korean War. During his time there, he grew increasingly troubled by the sight of hundreds of war orphans living on the streets, abandoned by society. He was especially grieved one morning when he saw city workers scoop up what looked like piles of rags and toss them into the back of a truck. He walked up to the truck for a closer look – and was horrified to see that the “piles” were not rags, but the frozen bodies of orphans who had died overnight in the streets.
Appalled, Swanson began to include this experience in the messages of his revival meetings, and thus the ministry Compassion International was born. Since that time, they have ministered worldwide with child sponsorship that has brought hope to millions of children. https://www.compassion.com/about/what-is-compassion.htm Sponsorship is a proven way of making a difference in the life of child without being overcome by the enormity of the problem.
My wife, Angela, our daughter, Rachel, and I have had a long association with this ministry. Rachel has sponsored her own Compassion children for more than 25 years and considers them to be her own children. During one of our short-term missions’ journeys, we were able to visit her Uganda child and will never forget the joy of their first meeting.
As we enter into this new year, I encourage you to beware the dangers of compassion fatigue, but don’t forget to care for the least, the last, and the lost.
Your brother in Christ,