Compassion Fatigue among Ministers

3 August 2009. Monday of the 18th Week in Ordinary Time
Numbers 11, 4-15; Psalm 81; Matthew 14, 13-21

The readings today focuses on Moses and Jesus who have been called to care for God’s children. Both of them experience frustrations and heartaches as they minister to people. Imagine Moses, the great leader of Israel. He goes through a lot of “going out of himself” throughout his ministerial job. Imagine having to do something that is outside of your personality. He has to shepherd a great number of people, and yet his background is questionable. Think of being given an enormous responsibility and we find ourselves unworthy. Moses is a murderer (remember the Egyptian?). He is old (around 80), not an ideal age for a leader. In our time, his retirement is long overdue. He doesn’t have a secretariat and an entourage to do the little details. And he has a speech impediment; he stutters. That is why he needs Aaron, his brother, to speak for him in front of the great Pharaoh. Now, the very people whom he serves are complaining again and again. God rains manna and meat for them, but they are not satisfied. They miss Egypt and the food they ate. They remember the fish, the cucumbers, the leeks, melons, onions and garlic. And in the first reading, we hear Moses complaining to the Lord; letting out all of his frustrations. Moses might have doubted whether he did the right thing.

The Gospel speaks in a few sentences Jesus’ MPD (May Prosesong Dinadaanan. Eng: He is undergoing an inner process). John the Baptist has been beheaded. His cousin has died. His closest who prepared His way has been politically killed. The Gospel tells us that when he hears of John’s death, he withdraws in a boat to a deserted place by himself. The shock and the pain must have been unbearable that He needs time to breath and collect Himself. He wants space so that He could go through the process of mourning and bereavement.

But both of them realize that the world will not stop revolving around their personal issues. They still have to do their jobs. Moses have to continue leading the stubborn and annoying Israelites. Jesus have to feed the five thousand. There is no way for these ministers to slow down and put a halt to their work to tend to their broken hearts. They cannot apply for a leave of absence so that they could go to a therapy session on anger management or a counselor who could process their loss. They just have to continue the work God has given them, despite their inner turmoils.

In our lives, this is true. We cannot bring to work, our personal problems. We just have to live with the fact that we are paid to accomplish certain tasks whether we feel like it. We just have to live with the daily disappointments and domestic disturbances. In other words, we have to function well despite the storms we are weathering. Even if we have friends, we cannot expect them to rush to our side as soon as we need them. They too have their own concerns. Even if they are our friends, they have to work out their schedules so that they will be able to attend to our emotional distress.

Nevertheless, we too have to take good care of our ministers lest they succumb to burn out or compassion fatigue. People who suffer from being burned-out are those who undertake very caring and nurturing work which includes trauma workers. Eventually, their performance will deteriorate, relationships will be affected and they become irritable. Jay Kesler, author of Being Holy, Being Human, was quoted by Charles Swindoll. He said that “Ministers out there are dying because the congregation expects them to walk on water. ‘I feel like a cow that’s been milked too many times.’”

Once we find ourselves complaining like this, it is time to take a vacation.

Or, if you hear your priest saying this, it’s time to send them some pizza. Unless they complain too frequently: if they do, don’t give them anything. There is what we call abuse and a donor fatigue.

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