Chaplains and Clergy: Burnout & Compassion Fatigue

Those who see to our spiritual needs are after all, human beings, also designed in the image of our creator. They too can become overloaded with the suffering and pain of those who seek comfort and spiritual guidance. Being human also means that they too are vulnerable to the cumulative effects of stress. For too many, their candle burns low. For some, the flickering flame of light goes out. A loss of belief in a higher power too frequently becomes part of the ensuing darkness that accompanies a loss of faith.

Burning Candle

In circumstances of this type, the reaction: “has been described as the ‘cost of caring’ for others in emotional and physical pain. It is characterized by deep physical and emotional exhaustion and a pronounced change in the helper’s ability to feel empathy for their patients (parishoners), their loved ones and their co-workers. It is marked by increased cynicism at work, a loss of enjoyment of our career, and eventually can transform into depression, secondary traumatic stress and stress-related illnesses. The most insidious aspect of compassion fatigue is that it attacks the very core of what brought us into this work: our empathy and compassion for others.” (“Microsoft Word - Solutions article.doc - RunningOnEmpty.pdf,”)

One could make a case that Burnout, Compassion Fatigue and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are all part of a continuum rather than distinct and separate conditions. While this may be so, for the purposes of this discussion, I will refer to the first two as separate and distinct. My intent is to clarify how neuroscientific advances can provide us with new and exciting remediative strategies for both conditions.

A description of burnout is found in a magazine article (“Burnout | Psychology Today,”) wherein the author suggests that: “Burnout is not a simple result of long hours. The cynicism, depression and lethargy of burnout can occur when you're not in control of how you carry out your job, when you're working toward goals that don't resonate with you, and when you lack social support.” The following article provided by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is an example of this point.

“Rabbis and clergy are particularly vulnerable to lack of gratitude from their communities for a number of reasons. First, their contribution to people’s lives is often spiritual and therefore less tangible than someone who, say, gave you your first job. Second, people usually seek out Rabbis only when their lives are in crisis and forget them once the situation improves. Third, there is an expectation in society that clergy are meant to be spiritual men who give but expect nothing in return, not even a thank you or simply staying in touch, let alone monetary compensation even though they too have families and bills to pay like everyone else. A Rabbi’s time, unlike, say, an attorney, is rarely valued.” (Boteach, 2011)

Let’s now shift to the topic of Compassion Fatigue. As first discussed by Charles Figley in 1995:

“We have not been directly exposed to the trauma scene, but we hear the story told with such intensity, or we hear similar stories so often, or we have the gift and curse of extreme empathy and we suffer. We feel the feelings of our clients. We experience their fears. We dream their dreams. Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves.” (Figley, 1995)

Figley referenced this condition as being often produced by the “emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.” It differs from burn-out, but can co-exist. Compassion Fatigue can occur due to exposure on one case or can be due to a ‘cumulative’ level of trauma.” The key differentiating factor is the trauma component.

At this point I’ll shift to our military chaplains who have served our combat Veterans overseas as captured by Lucky Severson, correspondent with Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. The full report can be obtained at the webpage site referenced below.

SEVERSON: According to the army, since the beginning of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, its chaplains have served a total of more than 20,000 months in combat zones, some have gone on as many as eight tours of duty. One survey revealed that 20 percent of these chaplains had suffered compassion fatigue or some sort of PTSD. . . Chaplain Greg Cheney served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He says there was a time when what he experienced in combat challenged his faith.

CHAPLAIN GREG CHENEY: Definitely, I mean when you go through that kind of extreme circumstances, there were times when I would, you know, question God and ask God what’s going on. Yeah, it’s one of those experiences where everything doesn’t make sense when it’s happening.