Friday, July 15, 2011

Clergy Compassion Fatigue ...

This September 11th, a date which she has contemplated with some wry humour, my youngest sister will be ordained priest in the Anglican cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon, before taking up a position in her first, two-point parish in Dawson City and Old Crow.

To say that I'm excited for her is a understatement. But, reflecting on the challenges before her, (as well as the possibilities), I can't help but think about the risk of compassion fatigue for her and for all clergy, regardless of faith tradition.

Although unlikely to see themselves in this light, most clergy are trauma workers - and, depending upon their degree of involvement in their partners' ministries or their own professions, so are many clergy spouses.

The clergy work in a wide variety of settings - in parish ministry, as chaplains to the military and to other front line responders, in hospitals, in hospices, in schools, on disaster relief teams, in retreat or counselling centres and in prisons, to name but a few. In these settings, they are likely to be called out at all hours of the day and night to comfort those who are injured, ill, dying, or in spiritual or emotional distress - to say nothing of continuing to support them and their loved ones through often lengthy periods of healing or bereavement. Frequently, the people whose needs they are called upon to tend are folks intimately known to them, thus deepening the emotional impact of the work.

As trauma workers, these clergy are at risk of developing Compassion Fatigue (CF), the posttraumatic stress, "fatigued compassion", diminishing empathy, and increasing disengagement that can arise from secondary exposure to others' suffering and trauma.

Aside from trauma exposure, a number of stressors, some unique to the clergy, can increase clergy vulnerability to CF. Counsellor and United Methodist clergywoman, Sheri Ferguson, pointed out in a 2007 article, Clergy CF, the following factors:

1. Lack of adequate training and experience in pastoral care

2. Isolation
    - expectations of "perfect clergy" that prevent sharing struggles and pain
- frequent moves that prevent maintenance of sustaining relationships
- lack of access to personal mental health support in rural areas
- lack of access to mental health referrals for parishioners in rural areas

3. Personality traits - needs to rescue/caretake, have approval, be "good", be perfect

4. Church culture that reinforces caretaking and perfectionism 

- parishioners' projection of parental issues upon their clergyperson
- parishioners triangulating their conflicts by drawing in the cleric            
    - an expectation that the clergyperson, as God's representative, should be available  

I remember when my husband, also an Anglican priest and spiritual director, became very ill with mononucleosis at the advanced age of 50-something, an unrecognized symptom of his own compassion fatigue. After many weeks away from work, (mono is not an illness you want to get as an older man), and many conversations regarding his true priorities and motivations, he decided to divide each day into 3 parts and to work only 2 of the 3 parts. He also decided to take an unheard of two days off work, consecutively, each week. It took quite a while for some members of the congregation to adjust to that idea, though many saw the sense in good clergy self-care once it was explained and compared with their own lives.

So, what would I suggest to my sister and her classmates as they enter upon their new vocations?

1. That they acknowledge and heal their own personal trauma (past and current) to reduce their CF risk
2. That they engage in exquisite physical, psychological and spiritual self-care - including appropriate respite time
3. That they develop personal and professional support networks who are charged with gently, but firmly, providing feedback regarding CF symptoms and self care - sometimes, whether the clergyperson wants to hear it or not.

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