Thursday, April 20, 2017

Caring When You Just Don’t Care: Pastoral Ministry and Compassion Fatigue

* Note to my parishioners: I really do care about all of you, and feel well cared for by all of you. The column below is more an indication of my natural human limitations, and those of all pastors, and does not really have much about our particular church in view. It describes a particular experience in pastoral ministry, which, although it thankfully constitutes the vast minority of my professional experience, is a very real state of mind that is common, at one time or another, to most pastors. The piece below is written to an intended audience of fellow ministers and Christian caregivers, as a theological encouragement to hold on to the perseverance of hope in each one of our ministries.

"The First and Last Communion," by Cristobal Rojas

I’m a pastor, and pastors have a very odd job in a lot of respects. It tends to be a strange mixture of the very public and very private—most people see the out-in-public part, when I’m preaching, leading services, teaching Bible studies, and doing hospital visitations. But there’s a lot of pastoral ministry that most people never see: hours of study and sermon preparation, ministries of intercessory prayer, and the one-on-one interactions that usually remain confidential, such as pastoral counseling and pastoral care in crisis situations. In most weeks, a pastor’s time will be largely taken up by the more private ministries, and there are many seasons in ministry when a pastor will be juggling several pastoral care situations at the same time. A church’s elders/deacons are there to assist in many of these situations, but even in those cases, simply because of the nature of the office, the pastor usually ends up doing the lion’s share of the pastoral work. There is often no one except the pastor’s spouse who knows just how many different situations a pastor is actually having to manage at any given time, ranging from basic pastoral counseling to crisis care to putting out the fires of small conflicts in the church. In most of these situations, the pastor is simply a caregiver, whose work, although largely unknown to the wider church, is still appreciated by those to whom he’s ministering; but there are a few situations in which a pastor will be trying to help someone who, whether consciously or unconsciously, happens to be one of those needy people who takes ready advantage of others’ goodwill; and there are even a few times when the pastor will find that his acts of caregiving are misinterpreted, judged, and censured, sometimes by the very people he is trying to help. Thankfully, the latter cases are rare, but I’ve taken the time to run through this list of pastoral care commitments in order to make the point that there are seasons in every pastor’s life where they will feel worn out—and often for good reason. It can sometimes feel like one’s public ministry is encouraged, applauded, and valued, while one’s private ministry—the larger share of their work—can be a very thankless job.

"The Greek Priest," by Francois-Andre Vincent
I’ve had a few seasons like that in pastoral ministry—not a lot, but a few. And when I’m in a season like that, it often feels hard to care about other people’s lives anymore. This may be a bit shocking to anyone who holds a sacralized view of their ministers, but it’s not uncommon in pastoral families, when talking about pastoral care situations, for someone to grunt in frustration: “Just figure your own problems out, people!” Now, it’s entirely possible that I may be on the far end of the spectrum of pastoral personalities in this regard: I’m very much an introvert, and so, while the internal world of spiritual reflection comes naturally for me, the external world of caring about the various mixed-up situations that people get themselves into is rather more of a stretch. And while I do care quite deeply about my people, particularly when they are in the midst of tragedies and dangers, I’ve found that the majority of pastoral care situations (excluding medical issues) have to do with crises provoked by people’s own bad habits, foolish choices, and poor communication skills. I still faithfully offer my help to them, but I don’t always feel like I can sympathize with them, particularly if I’m in a place of pastoral care exhaustion or (as psychologists call the full-blown form) “compassion fatigue.”

But it’s not like I can actually start turning people away, saying, “Sorry, I don’t care; figure out your own problems!” It’s not an avenue that’s open to me, nor one that I would really want to take if it were. So what do I do, when I’m called to care for situations that I just don’t care much about? Compassion fatigue can easily turn into burnout if a pastor can’t find the motivation to keep going about his appointed labors, so the need for finding a motivation beyond simply “caring” is an important quest.

"St Francis Xavier Preaching and Healing," by Peter Paul Rubens
I was thinking about this the other day, and was suddenly reminded of a research project I did back in seminary, about the motivations behind the missionary impulse in early church history. (Weird, I know, but that’s actually how my mind works.) The surprising thing I found in that research was that the motivations that are attributed to early missionary efforts are not the primary ones that are assumed in our own missionary work nowadays. Today, missionaries are often recruited and inspired with a deep sense of concern for the spiritual well-being of people who have never heard the Gospel before. And that’s a good and powerful motivator: we should be concerned about those people! But the interesting thing about missions in the early church is that, with only a few exceptions, that kind of concern simply wasn’t the number one reason that people assumed as a motivator for spreading the faith. Rather, the primary motivation for missions was the fact that Jesus Christ had conquered all the powers of sin, death, and hell, and Christians were the ambassadors of his new reign that was breaking into the world. We had to go and tell the nations about Christ because it was our job, our duty, and our privilege, to make manifest in the world the actual reality of Christ’s triumph. Pagan nations had to be won to the faith, not because of some emotionally-based, individualized urge in my own soul, but because it would be for the greater glory of Christ. People had to come to know Christ as Lord, not because I “loved” them (if it even means anything at all to talk about loving people that one has never met), but because Christ loved them and had already broken the powers of darkness that kept them enslaved.

Seeing this different perspective from the early church reminded me that, far too often, we turn our ministries and our Christian lives into individualized and emotionalized spheres. We tend to assume that we should feel some sort of deep, inward sense of concern for everybody else’s personal messes, and if we don’t, well then we’re terrible at being a pastor. But I’ve looked long and hard at the parts of the Bible that speak about pastoral ministry, and they say very little about the levels of emotional sympathy that we’re supposed to be feeling. Quite the opposite: they put their stress on the faithful execution of our duties, not because we feel like doing them, but because the church is the Bride of Christ, the flock of the Great Shepherd himself. It is for his glory, and at his pleasure, that we serve. It doesn’t matter so much how much I care about a particular pastoral care situation; what matters is that Jesus cares about it, and he cares about it far more deeply and fully and beautifully than I ever could. I am not called to be Jesus (and for good reason; I make a pretty poor substitute), but I am called to minister the reality of his presence and his care to the situations in which I’m asked to serve. The real question for pastors is not how much emotional sympathy we’re feeling for the worn and beleaguered sheep of the church’s flock; rather, it’s how well we are loving and serving Christ in our ministry. Like those early-church missionaries, we serve these people not primarily because we love them (although we probably do, and should), but primarily because Jesus loves them, and we love Jesus. We serve, first and foremost, unto Christ; and we serve our flocks because they are his flock.

When Jesus reinstated and commissioned Peter, the proto-typical New Testament pastor, he did not ask, “Peter, do you love my sheep?” Rather, he asked, “Peter, do you love me?” And the command, “Feed my sheep,” came after that pledge, not before it. So when we pastors feel worn out and tired of serving people in the thankless corners of our job that nobody sees but us, let’s remember that we’re not really here to serve them in the first place. We are here to serve Christ in the first place, to love and honor him, and it is because of our love for Christ that we feed his sheep. Our strength to carry on can come from no other source than that, or else it is a well that will surely run dry.