Five Ways to Avoid Compassion Burnout

Oct 02, 2017
Beth Barron

The world staggers under the weight of tragedies.
Our earth sloshes through floods in Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and areas of the United States. Hurricanes shred buildings in the Caribbean and the U.S. Fires continue to char parts of North America. Mexico is reeling from a massive earthquake. Man-made dangers loom as well: threats of nuclear strikes weigh on minds while the blood of Rohingya people flows in Myanmar. Worldwide, refugees number in the millions.
I find it easy to feel numb after reading and hearing about all this suffering, all these needs. The scope of the suffering seems overwhelming. How do we maintain a tender, compassionate heart in the face of unrelenting need? Here are five ways:
1. Connect to the Father.
Mark 1:21-34 records one of Jesus’s more demanding days. He spoke in the synagogue in Capernaum. While there, he confronted and cast out a demon. Then he left the synagogue and went to Simon and Andrew’s house where he healed Simon’s mother-in-law. That evening the whole city gathered at the door of the house where Jesus healed many and cast out additional demons. Sounds like a draining day. Verse 35 tells us how he recouped from such service. He got up early and spent time with his father in prayer. Afterwards, he began another demanding day of compassionate caring. Regularly connecting to the Father is one habit that will preserve us in times of intense ministry.
We need not only refreshment but also wisdom. Mark 1:38 tells us that many were looking for Jesus, but he knew it was time to move on. We need God’s wisdom to know what needs to meet, knowing some needs will be left unmet by us; otherwise, we will become charred and ineffective.
2. Take time to grieve your losses.
2 Samuel 1 records that David and all who were with him wept and fasted when Saul and Jonathan died. He wrote a lamentation about this great loss.
If you have been touched by loss, take time to feel your own pain before you try to minister to that of others. I wept when friends suffered loss and a church was seriously damaged by flooding in Texas. The tears were part of empathizing with their loss. When I grieve my own losses or that of those close to me, I am then better able to hear others’ stories of fear and loss.
3. Take care of your physical needs.
Elijah had a season of spiritual and physical warfare. He stood up to Ahab and the prophets of Baal and showcased God’s power: they were defeated. Afterwards, he served as the executioner of the false prophets and then prayed and waited for God to send rain. Finally, he ran all the way to the entrance of Jezreel where he received the threats of the king. Completely spent, he withdrew. God allowed him to rest and then fed him.
There may be a season of intense serving during times of crisis, but neither Elijah nor we are superhuman. Like Elijah, we must withdraw and rest and eat. If we fail to care for ourselves, we will drown in floods of need rather than rescuing others.
4. Connect with a team.
Nehemiah didn’t rebuild the city wall alone. He worked with a team. Together they stood up to the opposition of those who would discourage them.
Lauren works at a crisis pregnancy center and lives and serves among refugees, but she doesn’t do it alone. She compassionately works with others in both settings and enjoys the support and prayers of her church family as well. She can serve women with difficult pregnancies more effectively as a part of a ministry, instead of on her own. Not only that, but she has trusted people in her life that tell her “no” when she faces demands that might spread her too thin.
5. Focus on the work at hand, avoiding distractions.
Paul exhorted the Ephesians to think about how they invested their time in Ephesians 5:15-17. “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
Joseph lives among needy people. One thing that helps him avoid compassion burnout is that he doesn’t own a television and limits his social media time. Twenty-four-hour access to news can draw his attention away. He stays informed but not immersed in the news. He can’t do anything about the threats of Kim Jong Un, but he can help a refugee neighbor with a job application.
I’m praying that you and I will maintain tender hearts in these troubling days. Our broken world needs the compassion of Jesus expressed through our service. May we respond to tragedies in such a way that we can avoid burnout and serve fruitfully.

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