Conversations on Compassion Fatigue is a series where we interview professionals from high-stress and trauma-exposed environments to discuss issues around compassion fatigue, organizational health, vicarious trauma, moral distress and self-care.
We sat down with a Minister and volunteer Police Chaplain to discuss his personal experience with compassion fatigue, how it helped him connect with police and first responders, and his strategies to manage stress and burnout.
Can you tell us a bit about your work as a Minister & Police Chaplain?
“I’ve been a minister since 1998. I am currently based in Western Ontario serving in a Presbyterian church but have served in several different churches throughout Ontario. I also serve as a volunteer chaplain for our local police service.
In addition to my ministry work, I teach courses on maintaining healthy boundaries, managing multi-staff teams, formal mediation skills and coaching skills at a local college. I am passionate about engaging with my community and have been involved with organizations that support poverty elimination and affordable housing.
What has been your experience with compassion fatigue?
There was a time earlier in my career when I truly thought: “I can’t do this anymore.”
One thing that was really getting to me was the amount of people telling me that they had been diagnosed with an illness. In speaking to a counsellor at the time, I remember telling them that I just couldn’t handle one more person with bad news from the doctor’s office.
I was also starting to get déjà vu moments when visiting someone in hospice or the hospital. I would be in a room visiting – and have the eerie realization that I had been in this exact same room just last week visiting a different person.
I remember thinking: “I don’t want to be compassionate anymore. I’m fatigued. I think I got that thing.” I am a voracious learner, so I had heard the term compassion fatigue before and kind of understood what was happening.
What did you learn from your experience with compassion fatigue?
One thing that has been particularly helpful in working as a volunteer police chaplain is learning that there are many parallels between the work of ministers and of first responders.
Not everyone is a Christian – so, when you’re a person of faith working in public service, you need to approach it in a way that resonates with others and in a way that is useful to them. I’m not there to proselytize and I don’t show up with a ‘Team Jesus’ t-shirt. It’s all about building rapport.
One parallel between my work and that of first responders is this funny shift in perception that can happen when someone finds out what you do for a living. People start to act a little weird and change how they behave – they might censor their language or immediately start telling you all of their problems.
There is also a professionalism piece that is similar. Whether it’s to speak to a witness or to offer words or a prayer, you’re in a situation where people are mourning and people are hurt. But you have to maintain your professionalism and do your job – that can be difficult.
For those who work with trauma, we might be impacted by trauma every week – sometimes every day. We need to learn to be aware of our own baggage. If we’re carrying a lot of shame or anger, those things can start to impact us and our ability to do our jobs.
It can be difficult to talk about these things with first responders. One tool that has been helpful when I talk to them is the idea of ‘seepage’. I might say to an officer who is struggling: “I think your bucket is full – and its seeping out in weird ways.”
That kind of language seems to resonate with them and has been useful to open the way for conversations on compassion fatigue and other difficult things.
In your field, what do you think could be done to mitigate the effects of compassion fatigue?
Self-care isn’t really part of our training in the ministry. As a population, we don’t look after ourselves very well.
I think one of the biggest challenges in the world of ministry is around boundaries. As ministers or chaplains, we often get embedded into people’s lives – and that can easily spill over and blur the lines. Social media is a great example.
I’m not on social media and I don’t do pastoral care on Facebook, but some of my colleagues do. With social media, you’re always working and you’re always on, and its easy to inadvertently disappoint people. If someone posts something about a difficult situation and you don’t comment or don’t see it, that person can be disappointed or even angry. And that’s a lot of extra stress and pressure.
Another challenge that I see in my work is related to this idea that, if you are suffering, you must be doing your job well. Some ministers or chaplains don’t appreciate their limits and and are constantly burning the candle from both ends.
We all know that trite saying about oxygen masks – but its true. In order to do this work well, we must recognize our limits and learn how to take care of ourselves.
What does your self-care practice look like?
I am very intentional about my time off – when I’m off, I’m off. Being firm with your boundaries isn’t something that makes you very popular, but it is important for myself and for the people I serve.
Each year I take a silent retreat in a monastery in the States. During this time, I don’t talk to anyone or use any technology. The first year, it was difficult to disconnect from work since people have expectations about what you should or should not be doing.
But if you’re firm, people will eventually acknowledge the boundaries that you set.
One year when I was away, our church steeple got struck by lightning – and no one from the church contacted me about it. I found out about it in a funny way. I was talking to someone in the police service and as they were hanging up, they said: “Oh, and sorry about your steeple getting scorched.”
I didn’t rush back to help with the situation. One of my mantras is: “I serve a role and I’m important – but I’m not irreplaceable.” I knew that there were capable people who were handling it and I would do my part when I returned to work. You need to have faith that others can figure things out in your absence.One of my mantras is: “I serve a role and I'm important – but I'm not irreplaceable.” You need to have faith that others can figure things out in your absence. Click To Tweet
What do you find challenging about your work?
One of the biggest challenges of working in ministry is when our values as an organization don’t match up with our actions. As a church community, we express things like “loving our neighbours” – but then, we don’t act very lovingly to our neighbours.
This has big implications, but I’ll give you a small example. A few years ago, our congregation wanted to purchase fair trade coffee for our events to support ethically sourced products. However, it turns out that fair trade coffee is a heck of a lot more expensive than a can of Folgers. Plus, we were still using disposable Styrofoam cups and offering bottled water because it was convenient and cheap.
We preach concepts like caring for the environment and supporting others – but then sometimes decisions are made that are based on self-interest. It can be heartbreaking and difficult, especially when you are in a leadership position.
What do you find rewarding about your work?
I love having the opportunity to talk to people about stuff that is meaningful to them. I really enjoy talking with people and having in-depth discussions about this crazy life of ours. It really jazzes me up.
I have the privilege of being with people and supporting them during the most challenging situations that we encounter as human beings. It’s incredibly challenging but I think it’s part of how I’m wired – I love what I do and it’s an incredible gift.
Do you have any favourite resources or books that have helped you in you work?
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk and anything by Brené Brown.”