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The Cost of Caring Too Much

by Jim Caruso

The loss of a loved one, a broken relationship, moving away from friends, downsizing, or losing your career creates distress. Negative stress can affect your body and mind, cause fatigue, impaired judgment, and physical, emotional and psychological disorder.
Houston, we have a problem.1
Twenty-first-century church leadership is bleeding, and clergy in North America are leaving their pulpits at an alarming rate. In a newsletter James Dobson puts a number on this exodus: “We estimate that approximately 1,500 pastors leave their assignments each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout or contention within their local congregations.”2 These statistics cross denominational lines.

Compassion fatigue is a factor behind this leadership loss. Pastors, counsellors and other church leaders can learn to understand its signs and symptoms and avoid personal destruction. Compassion fatigue identifies a serious condition brought on by stress and lack of Sabbath rest. This condition causes many to leave the ministry; others continue to function, but at ineffective levels. They run on empty. Compassion fatigue affects pastors, their families, and their congregations.

Stress is a natural reaction to any “pleasant or unpleasant [demand] placed upon it.”3 It is not always a negative condition, and we perceive an event based on our attitudes. We experience something as pleasant or positive stress, unpleasant or negative stress, or as neutral stress. Hans Selye describes negative stress as distress, defined as suffering or a state of danger. It is what most people commonly mean when they say someone is stressed. He labelled positive stress as eustress from the Greek prefix for good.4

Everyone experiences stress throughout life. Winning the lottery, graduating from school, being chosen for the team or being hired for a coveted position creates eustress. The loss of a loved one, a broken relationship, moving away from friends, downsizing, or losing your career creates distress. Negative stress can affect your body and mind, cause fatigue, impaired judgment, and physical, emotional and psychological disorder.

Negative stress has many sources in caregivers’ lives. Burnout is a condition in which the body becomes physically and emotionally exhausted from work conditions and the pressures of serving emotionally needy individuals. Stress can become overwhelming, and caregivers may shift their focus from the needy individuals to negative environmental stressors. Critical Incident Stress (CIS) is “any incident that we experience which is sudden, unexpected or disturbing and which can interfere with the ability to function. It is a common reaction, in normal persons, to abnormal situations.” This stress can affect caregivers’ lives and careers.5

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) identifies another type of stress. PTSD is described as “a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents or violent personal assaults like rape.”16 It may occur if individuals do not receive help after a traumatic event. Compassion fatigue develops in response to CIS, PTSD, and many other stressors.

Charles Figley describes compassion fatigue as “the cost of caring for others in emotional pain.”7 In Compassion Fatigue, he explains that “Professionals who listen to clients’ stories of fear, pain, and suffering may feel similar fear, pain, and suffering because they care.”8 The threat of compassion fatigue among church leaders is enhanced through exposure to numerous images and stories of trauma, disaster and death. Compassion fatigue recognition and symptom awareness are crucial for stressed church leaders. Equally important is knowing that compassion fatigue is treatable.

Life requires balance, and God gave His followers a prescription for avoiding compassion fatigue’s effects. This prescription is found in the fourth commandment of the Decalogue. Longevity and peak performance happen when church leaders follow a balanced lifestyle that includes Sabbath rest and preventive maintenance. Lack of Sabbath rest is a key component of compassion fatigue among Christian leaders. Ironically, these leaders use the fourth commandment and counsel others but neglect it in their own lives.

Leadership is crucial. Many seminars and seminary courses emphasize leadership and leadership skills, and strong leadership is essential. The church and the corporate world need Holy Spirit-empowered and directed leaders. Jesus’ leadership style differs from many twenty-first-century leadership models used in contemporary churches, but many church models are only modified corporate hierarchal structures reworked to fit the church. The gospel accounts do not describe Jesus as a New Testament CEO. He was a Shepherd/facilitator who equipped His team and acted as a servant leader.

Twenty-first-century corporation executives control and direct all organizational functions. The church is different. Jesus is the head of the church (1 Corinthians 11:3, Ephesians 1:22), and the church is Christ’s body. Jesus does not lead His team from the highest organizational office. He leads from the bottom as a servant.

I believe the model of a hierarchal leadership structure adds stress and promotes compassion fatigue among church leaders. I believe church leaders are uniquely susceptible to compassion fatigue because they are keen to fulfil “the call to minister.” They believe they must give “all they have and all they are” to those they serve, much like martyrs for a cause.

The idea of “being poured out like a drink offering” (Philippians 2:17) has power over church leaders and their ministries. Church leaders may neglect self-care and fall into the messiah trap. This may provoke addictive behaviors, result in church leaders’ self-destruction, and harm their families and those they serve. I have known pastors and caregivers who abandoned ministry because they were spent emotionally. Many felt guilt and shame because they left their calling and believe they failed God.


Leaders must answer a difficult question: “Why don’t we care for ourselves as we care for others?” Self-care is essential for church leaders who seek longevity in ministry and healthy personal lives with family and friends. Regular physical exercise is critical to stress management, and the body needs fuel like other machines. Unhealthy food, like poor grades of gasoline or contaminated fuels, interferes with the human machine’s performance. The body functions at its best, maintains strength and power, and heals and restores through proper exercise and diet combined with emotional and spiritual balance.

The declaration, “Houston, we have a problem,” resulted from a ruptured oxygen tank while the astronauts orbited the moon. The mission shifted immediately from a moon landing to a repair problem and safe journey home. The ground crew and astronauts shared information and tasks, worked together, and brought the flight crew home safely. Their process serves as an object lesson for church leaders.

God wants you to flourish in your ministry and prevent the debilitating effects of compassion fatigue. He has provided church leaders with a biblical “Preventive Maintenance Plan.” It involves a rhythm of Sabbath rest, ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit as you fulfil your call, sharing information and tasks, and maintaining health and balance in your physical and emotional being.

1 John Swigert Jr., James Lovell, and Fred Haise Jr. made up the Apollo 13 crew. They used a similar phrase to report a major technical problem to the Houston base. (accessed August 29, 2008).2 James Dobson. “The Titanic. The Church. What They Have in Common.” (accessed January 25, 2010).3 Jeffrey T. Mitchell. “Basic Critical Incident Stress Management” (course notes, Courtenay Fire Department, Courtenay, BC, December 4-5, 2003).4 Hans Selye, The Stress of Life (New York: McGraw Hill, 1976).5 Mitchell, “Basic Critical Incident Stress Management.”6 Ibid.7 Charles R. Figley, “Traumatization and Comfort: Close Relationships May Be Hazardous to Your Health” (keynote presentation at the Conference on Families and Close Relationships: Individuals in Social Interaction, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, 1982).8 Charles R. Figley, Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized (Bristol, PA: Brunner/Mazel, 1995), 1.

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Jim Caruso—is a counsellor-pastor. He divides his time and expertise between staff duties with Colwood Pentecostal Church in Victoria, BC, and for the BC/Yukon District. He has a master’s degree in chaplaincy. Jim is married to Elaine. They have a son, a daughter and five grandchildren.
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