Right Start: Moving Pastors Warned About Compassion Fatigue


Every year the Missouri Conference hosts a Right Start seminar at the end of May for clergy who are changing appointments. The purpose of the event is to help pastors make a healthy transition out of their current appointments, help pastors make a good beginning in their new appointments, ensure pastors receive information they need on practical matters including pension, health insurance and conference moving policy, and help pastors understand the importance of clergy ethics in the moving process. Missouri Bishop Robert Schnase, the five Missouri Conference Directors, and other Annual Conference leaders make presentations throughout the two day seminar. This year Amy Thompson shared the following information with the group about Compassion Fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is a combination of physical, emotional and spiritual depletion associated with caring for others in distress. Compassion fatigue deserves greater attention than it receives. Pastors, as well as other professionals in the helping field, can suffer from compassion fatigue due to the demands of the job. Often times the intensity of the demands goes unnoticed and over time leaves a pastor feeling worn out, even burned out.

In a survey by the UM Board of Pension and Health Benefits, almost 50 percent of clergy identified their jobs as stressing them out. In general, the pastoral duties of leading a church creates stress. Stress can be found in trying to balance family time and church time. Stress levels rise during appointment changes. Limited selfcare practices decreases ability to manage stress well. Self-care practices for pastors are often sacrificed with the many long hours and irregular hours that is required in responding to the care needs of a congregation or a community. A pastor’s time is also dedicated to being connected to the community, to resolving conflicts, to listening to the hurt and pain of others, as well as the celebrations and joys.

Pastors also respond to calls with members or worshippers that involve trauma related experiences such as accidents, possibly violence, or suicide, all of which require more of an emotional investment. The emotional and physical drain of supporting families through the death of a loved one and performing several funerals over a period of time can also have an impact on physical and emotional health. While trying to live an authentic life, a pastor strives to meet self-imposed expectations based on values and beliefs which can create emotional and spiritual pressure. With these demands and others over time, a pastor may encounter compassion fatigue without consistent strategies to support a healthy lifestyle.

The Symptoms

It is important for pastors and members of their families to be knowledgeable about the symptoms of compassion fatigue. These symptoms can leave emotional, physical, and cognitive ramifications. Physical ailments along with sleep and appetite disturbance can impact daily living.

Over time you may experience depleted immune system and digestion disturbance that impacts physical health. Emotional symptoms can begin with mood shifts and irritability, which can be a result of high levels of stress and disrupted sleep and eating patterns. A person can find themselves leaning towards times of isolation to avoid interacting with others and can also become disinterested in hobbies and interests.

When depleted, a person may feel helpless to change the situation, which in turn increases stress level. Unresolved grief can also surface during times of emotional distress and may appear as anger and depressed mood. With the physical and emotional disturbances are cognitive disturbances that impact focus and motivation. A person may find that tasks take longer to complete due to distractions. A person may experience ruminating thoughts which interrupts the ability to focus.

Low motivation develops when feeling low in energy and emotionally detached. Some people turn to nicotine, food, caffeine, or alcohol to provide relief or to find a burst of energy which only lasts for a short time. The ability to set boundaries becomes disrupted and leads to an unbalanced schedule and use of time.

The symptoms can appear over time and may change in intensity over time. A person often is unaware of the severity of the symptoms until you are feeling overwhelmed, worn out and close to burn out. Be aware of the symptoms and have conversations with family and individuals close to you in order to monitor your physical, emotional and psychological health.

It is vital to the health of our pastors that we increase our awareness of compassion fatigue. It is vital to our pastors to have healthy supports and self-care practices. It is vital to the health of our congregations that we have healthy pastors available to lead and guide our spiritual journey.


  • Avoid soaking up the pain of others. Learn to provide empathy for the pain without taking on their pain 
  • Set and maintain boundaries with your time  
  • Evaluate your schedule frequently so that you are balancing family, personal, and church time  
  • Identify and use your support system. Identify a mentor, coach, clergy colleague, trusted friend that can be available to you as needed to talk. Schedule regular time with this person as a self-care practice  
  • Initiate a self-care routine that focuses on movement and exercise, good sleep and eating habits, time with hobbies, relaxation, and spiritual time


  • Know your pastor’s schedule. Be sure that it includes defined time off away from the church  
  • Support pastor in setting boundaries. Do not allow pastor to be in meetings every night of the week  
  • Encourage use of vacation time. Be supportive of your pastor being away when you have conversations with other church goers  
  • On a regular basis ask your pastor about the self-care strategies that he or she uses  
  • Pray for your pastor