Christ and Culture

Sam Williams: Do You Suffer from Compassion Fatigue?

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Christ and Culture · Sam Williams: Do You Suffer from Compassion Fatigue? -EP05

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In Christ & Culture podcast with Dr. Ken Keathley, we explore how the Christian faith intersects all avenues of today’s culture through conversations with leading thinkers.

Today’s Episode: What is compassion fatigue, how can we recognize it, and how can the church minister to their ministers? On today’s podcast, biblical counselor Dr. Sam Williams talks with us about pastoral and missionary resilience.

Listen to the podcast above. Read a few exercepts below (edited for clarity).


Everyone can improve and get better at their capacity to weather adversity.

What is resilience?

“Resilience the capacity to bend and not break, the capacity to bounce back in the face of adversity, stress or even trauma. It’s that human capacity to adapt the changing and sometimes very difficult conditions of life.”

How can resiliency be formed?

“As it is with many human personality traits, there’s probably a temperamental, biogenetic component where we are born and predisposed with certain strengths and weaknesses, and there are probably some that fund better resilience. And at the same time, resilience is also a skill that we can develop, learn, and build. So it’s not unlike language. We’re born with the capacity for it, but the more you practice the better you get. Some people have a little more capacity and are psychologically, biogenetically wired for a little more resilience than others. But the good news is that everyone can improve and get better at their capacity to weather adversity.”

On pastors and vocational stress.

“Pastors and missionaries are at the upper end of job-related stress, vocational stress. It’s important for them to learn how to weather the adversity that’s intrinsic to this God-called vocation.”

Burnout symptom #1: Emotional Malaise

“Compassion fatigue is one aspect of burnout. Burnout is gradually developed syndrome. It usually develops over time. It’s not acute in its onset, but much more gradual. And typically it comprises three dimensions of symptoms or signs. You see something going on emotionally, largely emotional fatigue. The person just feels emotionally drained, spent. For some people that will look more like depression. For some people that looks more like anxiety and worry. And for others it can look more like irritability and anger. This is where our unique personalities and biogenetics come into play in terms of what burnout looks like — especially in an emotional dimension.

“But it’s a kind of emotional fatigue, emotional malaise. It feels absolutely terrible…. It’s chronic, not episodic. It’s there almost every day. Once you’ve arrived at burnout, it doesn’t go away unless you’ve developed a plan for recovery.”

Burnout symptom #2: Relational Disconnect

“The second area we see changes in is relational. That person ends up feeling relationally more isolated, more lonely, more detached. Sometimes cynical, jaded, skeptical, grumpy, don’t feel good about anything or anybody….  So there’s a relational disillusionment that sets in…. Oftentimes that person’s relationship with not just with others, but also with God and self, is disrupted by this gradual and insidious state of burnout that can set in.”

Sometimes churches can have unrealistic identity demands of their pastors, and it’s difficult for them to match up.

Burnout symptom #3: Vocational Incompetence

“The third area we see changes in is vocational incompetence — a sense that ‘I’m not any good at this anymore.’ Sometimes that may be perception, sometimes that may be true. It may be that that person is only feeling like they’re ineffective. They may still be preaching and pastoring as well as ever, at least on the outside for the time being, but they just feel ineffective. And then sometimes a person can be, as a result of burnout,… they’re really not hitting on all cylinders. Or perhaps there’s an incongruence between their job responsibilities and their actual skillset that may also have been a part of burnout. This is where the match between the pastor and his church — there must be a congruence there such that the pastor’s skills are really what that church is looking for and believes what they need most.

“These are called identity demands. Sometimes churches can have unrealistic identity demands of their pastors, and it’s difficult for them to match up with that. Most pastors are going to try on the front end, but over time they begin to realize, ‘I can’t live up to this. This is not who I am.’ So the incongruence of what the church is looking for and what the pastor is reasonably capable of delivering … where that gap is wide, that’s a setup not just for the church members but also for the burnout of the pastor.

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The Christ and Culture podcast with Drs. Ken Keathley and Benjamin Quinn seeks to connect faith with every aspect of your life.

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