When you have given of yourself until there is nothing left to give, there is a way to recover.
I sat in my office at the church and cried, "God, I don't want to do this anymore." It wasn't the first time God and I had this conversation, but this time was different. Times before I was frustrated, or I just didn't like some of the current issues the church was going through. This time I was depressed, my heart was aching and I literally felt like every part of my insides had been poured out. There was nothing left but the physical part of me trapped being a pastor.
For 10 years, I had been involved in itinerant ministry. My wife and I were Mission Service Corp volunteers for two years, as well. Becoming a church planter was the next logical step. I had taken some Seminary Extension classes and felt like I was prepared for leading a small church. Starting a church plant didn't seem too overwhelming.
Like many pastors, I was so focused on being a pastor and leading a church that I didn't realize what was happening to me. It would be easy to say "just have faith in God and everything will turn out okay."
This phrase said to me on more than one occasion. I grew weary of people telling me that "God will never give you more than you can handle." This didn't change the fact that on the inside I was getting weaker and growing more depressed. In fact, God frequently gives you more than you can handle so you are dependent on Him.
We can all picture in our minds Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego walking in a fiery furnace. Now picture yourself there. What an amazing thing to experience. But what if someone had taken you aside and explained to you what to expect in advance. Without taking away from your faith in God … What if there was a class on walking in the fire that you could take. I was walking in the fire of ministry and nobody had ever told me how to cope with its effects on me and my family.
Through my experience I learned there are ways to deal with the draining effect that providing compassionate care can cause. If you don't recognize the symptoms you could begin to suffer from Compassion Fatigue, which is remarkably similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There are ways to regulate the effects of stress. What is most important is that if left unchecked stress leads to burnout. Burnout is when your stress has affected you to a point where you no longer perform normal tasks effectively.
Here is a brief self evaluation for you. Do any of these symptoms sound familiar?
The effects of stress do not quickly go away, but they will never go away until you learn how to take care of yourself. Why should you give yourself any less compassion than you offer to others?
Until you come up with a plan, hold fast to Philippians 4:8 "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."
If you find yourself struggling with Compassion Fatigue, burnout, or you'd like to be proactive in your ministry to others, please contact Texas Baptists Counseling Services ministry at (800) 388-2005.
Frank Locke is a certified Compassion Fatigue Educator and former Cowboy Church pastor.