(Originally posted 3/27/14)
Compassion fatigue is common among professional counselors and pastors and may precipitate significant depression and anxiety. For a quick self-test and some useful information, click here. Both pastors and counselors are at risk for vicarious pain and trauma, but pastors are more likely to get the midnight text when a child is gravely ill or the “emergency” call when a marriage is blowing up. Pastors are the first to know about hidden addiction and carry the secret pain of many people. While most professional counselors go home after the last client, clergy men and women are often on call 24/7.
A counselor needs a pastor and a pastor needs a counselor. Not much argument about the first half of that statement, but what about the second half? As I work with more and more leaders who influence church planters, large church movements and pastoral education, I am seeing agreement in ecclesiastic networks.
I was called upon to provide training and support to pastors after the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11/01. Denominational and network leaders realized that pastors were rapidly developing compassion fatigue, as many worked 20 hour days with no breaks. Concurrently, the American Association of Christian Counselors was in New York City providing training in Critical Incident Stress Management for pastors and counselors. I made twenty trips in two years and developed close relationships with amazing people doing God’s work in the world’s most influential city. To many pastors who never before would have considered consulting with a professional counselor, I became their personal and professional consultant. My life is enhanced by working with pastors and vice versa. We need each other.
Symptoms of compassion fatigue include hopelessness, disillusionment, anxiety, disturbed sleep patterns, and pervasive negativity, but confessing this feels like utter failure to a person who should “have the peace that passes understanding.” A recent research review by Duke Divinity School identified an increase in burnout and dissatisfaction with ministry among clergy families in the past two decades.
Clergy are often stuck in unhealthy physical, mental, and emotional patterns that change only with specific interventions that increase awareness, provide resources to establish new patterns, and provide support to follow through to greater health.
What is being done to help pastors? There are important current movements promoting awareness and self-care. There is a massive 12 million dollar longitudinal project at Duke Divinity School to study stress and its effects on the physical and emotional health of United Methodist pastors. Eden Counseling and Consultation has developed a holistic, multidisciplinary prevention and intervention program called Rest and Restoration and there are a number of retreat centers out there, but the need for education and support greatly exceeds current resources.
Christian counselors enjoy much more acceptance and cooperation than when I began my professional development 37 years ago. More and more churches rely on our services as their primary option for serving a congregation’s mental health needs. As this influence grows, more professional counselors have the opportunity to have ongoing exposure to pastors, gain insight into their true working conditions, and be trusted as advisors.
What can you do to build relationships with and support clergy? Use the skills you use every day to engage in meaningful discussions with pastors. MEANINGFUL. Not, “Please refer to me.” Or, “Your church should consider letting me do a workshop on…” It usually takes several contacts building rapport and asking for nothing before you can get a real reply to, “How are you? What are you excited about these days? How is the family? What do you find to be the primary needs of your congregation right now? How are you doing with stress?”
I find contact with pastors the most satisfying part of my week. Many of my referrals come from pastors. After seeing the referred client, a quick call (with the client’s signed consent) to ask advice as to how we can work together to provide integrated care is very encouraging to pastors and a “How are you doing?” often refreshes them. If you want to get referrals from pastors or even be a counselor to pastors, you first have to be a friend. Then you have to know a few things about the training, life experiences, lifestyle, ecclesiastic culture, and hopes and dreams of pastors.
You learn this by listening. Then you inject your own professional and personal experience dealing with stress, burnout, fatigue, and leadership and you may find yourself being the preferred consultant to a pastor or two, or twenty. We are not all called to be a counselor to pastors, but everyone can be a friend.
Paul H. VanValin, Ph.D., founded Eden Counseling and Consultation in 1995. Paul has mentored dozens of Christian Counselors and pastors. Paul and Ron lead the Rest and Restoration team providing consultation and holistic care to Christian leaders. For more information on personal or practice development consultations visit www.edencounseling.com.
Pastor Ron K. Jones has 15 years of experience that included a church plant and extensive marriage counseling. All this prepared Pastor Ron to be the Director of Eden’s Rest and Restoration program in January 2014. Ron coaches and mentors pastors and is the marriage consultant for a large church planting organization. Ron’s straight-shooting book The Elephant in the Bar: Defeating the Power of Sexual Deception provides Biblical guidance to young adults. You can follow Ron’s blog at www.ronkjones.com.