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Posts Tagged ‘compassion fatigue’


I found it in a “clearance bin” online. It was discounted, but I was intrigued.

The title was On the Brink: Grace for the Burned-Out Pastor. I wasn’t sure if I was burned-out but I was certainly discouraged, folded, spindled and mutilated (or so I felt). The last few years of ministry had been very difficult and were taking their toll on me. I was a ripe candidate for this book by Clay Werner.

“It is much needed because pastors experience loneliness and discouragements, even depression and despair, more often than most church members (and even other pastors) realize.” Dennis Johnson in the Forward

In the midst of ministry we can often lose sight of God. Our God awareness suffers. This is where he begins. He spends time looking at Moses and Israel in the wilderness journey to help us understand the pressures at work. We work with people who are prone to forget God’s grace & goodness, grumble & complain (we are in that mix too). We see Moses at times strong and wise and at other times foolish and worn out. At times we are up for the challenges, and sometimes they eat our lunch. Moses never gave up and ran away. But Werner reminds us that Moses was simul justus et peccator, and so are we.

Image result for pressureHe looks at both external and internal pressures upon pastors. We face the challenges of balancing ministry and family, leadership, administration and management. We face the isolation of leadership (people may know some of what troubles us, but rarely the whole picture and we can’t necessarily share all of it). Compassion fatigue can hit us as wave after wave of difficulty hits us. That has been the last few years with a steady stream of high involvement crises, deaths, conflicts and other losses sent me tumbling like a toy boat caught in high tide at a set of breakers.

Into this he addresses the futility of our work. Ministry has been complicated by Adam’s disobedience and the curse that came as a result. There are lots of thorns and thistles, and not as much fruit as we’d like.

This shifts us into the internal pressures to perform and produce. We struggle with idolatry and establishing our kingdom and not His.

“… there are times when walking away from the community to which God has called you to minister seems to be safer than staying.”

God gives us the gift of disillusionment. He quotes Eugene Peterson who’s simplifying Bonhoeffer: “The church we want becomes the enemy of the church we have.” We have a longing for Eden though we live east of Eden. All pastors will wrestle with this if they have any ambition: godly or selfish. God works to expose the “utopian concept” most Christians experience. Growth is intended to take place (for the pastor and the congregation) in the midst of this very imperfect community. The community is “at the same time just and sinner” too. We live in a tension between loving the community as it is and yet longing for it to change (and working for it).

Werner moves to the great crisis of his faith. If the resurrection wasn’t true, he was done with ministry. And so he took a retreat to the woods to read and pray. In this chapter he also discusses the reasons were are “on the brink” or the injured list: prolonged exhaustion, delight turned to duty, discouragement ==> depression, older-brother mentality, anger, self-indulgence and the list goes on. If the resurrection is true, why do we experience these and why is the church so slow to change? This is where it hits, and hurts.

In the midst of this (and so many other areas) he turns us to John Newton. He warned of listening to yourself. He warned of comparing your place with that of others, particularly those that seem to be flourishing. Newton points us to God and his sovereign faithfulness.

He has a short transitional section on the cross as the remedy. God addresses our needs in Christ and Him crucified. We see His love and commitment as well as our stubborn sinfulness.

This brings him back to the resurrection: the resurrection of Christ, our hearts, our hope, our joy and endurance. Here he also applies the already-not yet to the reality of ministry.

He then reminds us of the love of God for us, the transforming love of God. This love enables us to forgive others and love them in their weakness and sinfulness.

This also allows us to dive into the difficulty of ministry. Jesus didn’t pull back from ministry with such flawed disciples. He calls us to join Him in working with such people.

He then deals with our desire to run away, the selfish desire to have our own life. We are curved inward, which is precisely why Jesus had to come and rescue us. He reminds us of the Suffering Servant again, who didn’t run away from the demands of ministry to difficult people like you and me.

He also calls us to fight for the unity of the church. The Prince of Peace came to bring unity to the church. The gospel is necessary for us to pursue peace. We also need character formed by the gospel to pursue peace. Additionally we need gospel competency.

God is our God for the long haul. He calls ministers to work with their congregations for the long haul. He ends on this note.

This is a brief book (about 130 pages) which is good for pastors who are “on the brink”. They need succinct help, and Clay Werner provides it. He draws on Scripture, John Newton, John Calvin and Francis Schaeffer throughout this book. They provided him with wise advice that he wants to pass on to others.

Image result for in case of emergencyThe chapters are similar to sermons. There is an opening illustration to frame the chapter. He returns to illustration to wrap up the chapter. It is a well put together book. It is a book that pastors are well advised to keep on their shelf. At some point they will need it “in case of emergency” because one day that emergency will come. The pastor who reads it can receive help and survive the inevitable emergencies. Maybe you’ll even find a copy in a clearance bin. Don’t confuse that with its worth.

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While the world generally sees extroverts as making the best leaders, truth is that introverts also have leadership skills. They can be leaders too, and often are. How they lead will differ from how extroverts lead. This is the question Adam McHugh addresses in the next chapter of Introverts in the Church.

He begins with Moses arguing with God, as many prophets did, about being called by Him. McHugh may be guilty of some eisegesis here since I don’t think he’s essentially saying, “Look, don’t you know I’m an introvert.” He does rightly point out the theme of hiding found in the early chapters of Exodus. He was hidden as an infant so the Egyptians wouldn’t kill him. Hidden in the reeds of the Nile until Pharaoh’s daughter came to bathe. Moses hid the body of the Egyptian he killed. Moses hid from Pharaoh in the mountains of Midian. Now Moses is trying to hide from God’s call.

Most sane people do, initially. Shepherding people is harder than shepherding sheep. Not many people choose this for themselves. I didn’t. I love it now, but resisted my sense of calling initially.

This is particularly true of introverts. The social demands of ministry are draining. So are the expectations others place on us, particularly in a smaller church where there are no additional staff to help. Being in ministry is about people and involves people.

“Just because we lose energy doing something does not necessarily indicate we are not a good fit for it. I am convinced that calling, not personality type, is the determinative factor in the formation and longevity of a leader.”

As a Christian, we should recognize that God doesn’t promise that leadership will be easy, or feel natural. It takes place within the context of a world of sinners, including yourself. There is also the reality that His strength is made perfect in weakness. God promises to be with us, and strengthen us. It is not intended to be pursued by the powerful and highly competent. Christian leadership is not about you so much as about Him.

Thriving in ministry requires a few things. The first he mentions is self-care. In caring for others we cannot forget our own needs. Because introverts tend to internalize everything, dealing with failure (real or perceived) and disappointment can be constantly draining. We can carry the burden for everything and end up crashing and burning.

Moses, McHugh notes, was frequently on the brink; exasperated with the Israelites complaining and rebellion. They were often complaining about him. He tried to judge Israel all on his own, a long line of issues to be resolved piling up outside the Tent of Meeting. It all culminated when he struck the rock he was supposed to speak to in a fit of anger. This was why he never entered the Promised Land (an earthly, not eternal, consequence).

People in caring professions, like pastoral ministry, can experience compassion fatigue. They can become either depressed with the unending needs of others, or become callous to those needs. Self-care has internal and external dimensions. Internally, we tend to our own spiritual and emotional health. We pursue Christ, resting in His promises. We make use of the spiritual disciplines to enjoy healthy and health-giving communion with Christ. Feeding on the promises fights our typical internal pull toward despair and catastrophic thinking. We need to regularly hear His voice (in the Word) to combat the pessimism of our own (as well as the world’s & the devil’s). Additionally, some pastors take periodic personal retreats.

There must also be an outward dimension. He must have a support system, other people who encourage and listen. They help us to normalize our experiences so we aren’t catastrophizing. McHugh goes so far as to think therapy or spiritual direction should be mandatory for introverted leaders (I suppose it should also be mandatory for extroverts who lack self-understanding). I’d say it can be helpful for many. A good wife and a few good friends fulfill that need for many people.

In addition to self-care, introverted leaders learn how to monitor their energy levels through scheduling. Make sure to schedule time in the office, alone. This helps to reduce the compassion fatigue. After particularly busy seasons, I may take comp days, which is really taking an afternoon for a movie or a hike. I also work out after work most days. It deals with the stress, keeps me healthy, and prepares me to be home with the pressing needs there.

He then moves to ways in which we direct people toward God. He begins with preaching. Many introverted pastors feel quite comfortable preaching. It is a controlled environment (in most churches) and you prepare for it all week. You know what you will say, approximately how long you’ll say it, and there will be no questions requiring you to think on your feet. He then notes a number of ways to let your introversion shine in your preaching. Use pauses to “add gravity and contemplativeness”. You don’t have to fill every second. Modulate your voice (wisely) to maintain interest and indicate the important material. Use stories to make the abstract accessible. Use sermons as an opportunity to share something of yourself with them, so they can know you better. It is a way of building your relationship with the people that often doesn’t happen in small talk opportunities for introverts.

We also share our lives, investing in others. Let people into your home instead of treating it like the fortress of solitude. As a young Christian, the most important relationships with older men were forged by hanging out at their homes helping them with projects. Sadly, for them, I wasn’t much help. But we talked while working on roofs, replacing toilets and that kind of thing.

Lead by writing. Think out loud, so to speak, by blogging. Let people see or hear what you are thinking. I blog on a number of things particularly for the people I lead. The rest of you are welcome to eves drop.

We lead by spiritual direction, helping people to grasp what God may be up to in the patterns and rhythms of life. Much of that is listening and assessing. I wish more people came to me for this. But since many of them are introverts, they are already thinking about their lives. They are probably more self-reflective and don’t need me to help them reflect. At least this is what I tell myself as I ponder it.

He then shifts to what introverted leadership looks like. We will tend to impact fewer people, but often more deeply. This is like Jesus with the three. Introverts tend to invest in a few. I do this, in part because I can’t invest in everyone. Trouble is matching up those I want to invest in with those who want me to invest in them. Some people want more attention. Attention, not really investment.

Introverted leaders are more likely to equip others to do the work of ministry instead of trying to do the work of ministry themselves. Yeah, we can struggle with control too. I found in my previous pastorate that I was reluctant to let the worship team plan the music. Part of it was the friendship- I enjoyed those meetings as we often laughed together. But I had to trust them to do well to free myself up to do other things. In this pastorate I quickly realized they knew what they were doing and after a year let them doing on their own. Perhaps I need to pop in periodically to invest in those relationships, but they do a good job.

Introverted leaders are more likely to build leadership teams, not simply a group of ‘yes’ men. I want to collaborate even as I want to be in control. That joyful battle between the Spirit and the flesh. Perhaps it is hiding behind them, but I want us to do things together. We share responsibility for better or worse. Things move slower than I’d like at times (okay, most of the time) but that probably saves the church from my impulsiveness. I’ve seen too many pastors with dictator powers continually shifting the direction of the church instead of slowly moving in the same direction. One of the important lessons is that you need to make decisions as if you’ll have to living with them the rest of your life (instead of leaving them for the next guy because you’ve moved on to ‘greener’ pastures).

Finding y0ur place can be tough. I’m 7 years into this pastorate and still trying to find my place in Presbytery. I was thrust into my place when I was in FL. People saw gifts in me and put me in places of responsibility. Here? Not so much. Then there is the internal battle between being a faithful steward of the grace I’ve received and selfish ambition. In FL I didn’t seek those positions. I don’t want to seek them now. Maybe I should, but I am leery of my prideful heart. McHugh notes that many introverts actually thrive in larger churches. This is because people don’t expect pastors to be accessible. I want our church to be larger for a number of reasons. One is the gospel impact; I want more people to hear (and then share) the gospel in our area. One is being able to limit my responsibilities because there are other staff to do other things. I recently preached at a much larger church. It was great not having to lead liturgy and play guitar. All I had to do was preach and offer the benediction. It was refreshing. It would be great to invest in young men in ministry. In the past I’ve mentored younger men working at other churches in the same town. I miss that. I wish we were big enough to have interns, associate pastors etc. People who are there all day so we can talk and learn together.

McHugh then talks about leading different types of people. Leading extroverts is difficult because “they can view this internalizing tendency with suspicion.” I’ve seen that! Since we are processing things internally, instead of acting, they can perceive us as apathetic or indecisive. We will need to communicate more with the extroverts. There are certain people I clue in on what I’m thinking so they know their concerns and dreams aren’t being ignored even though nothing dramatic is happening. They can learn that progress is happening behind the scenes. You also make time to listen to their input.

This means I “over-communicate” for our introverts. Too many emails they think. But we need to repeat things, use body language, for our extroverted friends.

In leading introverts we need to give them space to speak. You have to wait them out in small groups, Session meetings etc. The extroverts will speak quickly, but the introverts will wait. If you move too quickly, you won’t hear from them. When I’m in a class, not teaching, I’ll often wait to see if someone else says something. But might wait too long for that teacher who moves on. Give people time to process their thoughts and gather the courage to express them.

Many of the things in this chapter were things I learned the hard way. Perhaps this chapter will help others to learn them the easy way.

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