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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.

SEVERSON: There’s a phrase that’s become quite common among veterans, and among chaplains, of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It’s called “the new normal.” It means that their lives are never going to be quite the same as before.

CHAPLAIN READ: Sunday school teachers I had had as a kid growing up who kind of always celebrated my journey, said you’re not the same. And I would say, reflectively, how am I different? Well, you’ve seen things that none of us will ever see. We can see that in your eyes. (“Chaplain Burnout | November 11, 2011 | Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly | PBS,”)

A sparsity of formal research is available particularly on the topic of Compassion Fatigue. Some who have experienced this problem propose a self-directed mission dedicated to the restoration of the soul’s spiritual waters. Others propose resiliency training to better prevent the onset of the condition in the first place. A few suggest using the abilities of the thoughtful mind to get beyond the sensation of physical numbness and loss of purpose emanating from the emotional part of the brain.

Let’s start with the premise that when unsettling emotional experiences move into the long-term memory system, the brain may consequently shift into a self-defensive position. For many, the circuitry switches from compassion, empathy and giving to self-absorption, withdrawal and sensory numbness. I hold the perspective that ‘talk’ (see my past blogs at cannot alone resolve or remediate the consequences of this primitive survival mechanism.

My personal view is that: although Compassion Fatigue is primarily triggered by secondary exposure to trauma, it is really a disease of memory. The problem isn’t the nature of the trauma; it’s that the trauma can’t be forgotten! This new information provides us with a positive transformative opportunity. The good news is that the fear, anger, etc., turn-off switch in the brain has finally been found and identified!

I call the procedure RESET Therapy and suggest that through this intervention, hope, joy and a sense of inner-well-being is possible to attain once again. Mind you, this is not the only way to attain renewal but, it sure is an effective way to go. As the waters of compassion and empathy again flow, others may come to benefit from the wisdom, spiritual support and guidance that is freshly released. Our trusted pastors, priests, rabbis, mullahs and chaplains may be replenished in their ability to again reach out to others and engage in their special calling and life’s purpose.


Boteach, R. S. (2011, December 26). Absence of Gratitude is the Source of Clerical Burnout.

Burnout | Psychology Today.

Chaplain Burnout | November 11, 2011 | Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly | PBS. http://www

Figley, C. R. (1995). Compassion fatigue: Toward a new understanding of the costs of caring. In Secondary traumatic stress: Self-care issues for clinicians, researchers, and educators (pp. 3–28). Baltimore, MD, US: The Sidran Press.

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