Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Amen: Compassion Fatigue

LutheranChik's "L" Word Diary: Compassion Fatigue

Before I get lost in all the post-primary hand-wringing I just wanted to bring to y'all's attention this really thought-provoking post from LutheranChick about compassion fatigue, or that wall some people in the pastorate hit when, to use a business term, the ROI isn't forthcoming.

What would be an acceptable Return on Investment? Well, something indicating that an impact has been made; change or improvement, however miniscule.

After years of being senior pastor of a small community church, which came after being senior pastor at a medium Baptist congregation, my dad told me and my sister this past weekend that he's calling it quits.

"I don't want to stop being a pastor, but I don't want to be pastor of that church anymore,' he said, sounding more frustrated and angry than I've ever heard him sound. 'I've taken them as far as they can go and I'm tired. No matter how many sermons, bible studies, counseling sessions, nothing changes - they don't change. All that time I could have spent with my wife, with you daughters that I spent with them and it hurts."

My sister and I said, "It's about time. They were killing you."

So, in a way, this post is for my dad who's 64 years old and deserves a frakking rest.

From LutheranChik:
I have a friend who, through her church work, got involved with a similarly dysfunctional household. Soon she was being called in the middle of the night with requests like, "So-and-So is in jail. Can you go and bail her out?" She'd schedule doctors' appointments for the pregnant unwed daughter only to have the daughter refuse to comply with the healthcare provider. She'd arrange for the family matriarch to get hooked up with this or that social service, only to have the woman fail to show up for appointments or turn in paperwork. After many months of this, my friend was becoming physically ill, anxious and filled with guilt over somehow "not doing enough" for these people. "Whenever I say I'm done with them, I think, 'What would Jesus do?'" she said, tears in her eyes.

Maybe I'm just channeling the values of my hardworking blue-collar parents, but I can't help but think that at some point Jesus would tell immature, deadbeat parents to look for work, and pursue social services for which they're qualified, with the same energy that they look for excuses; and to make their children, rather than their own comfort and whim, the family priority.

In this Lenten season, this post also makes me think about Christ's short ministry and just how much it must have taken to be on that path of His, knowing where it would end and dragging those disciples behind Him as they consistently misunderstood His mission and vision. I wonder if he ever asked for a new group of guys who were a little bit more swift on the uptake.

And I think about the disciples, ordinary men struggling with everything they're seeing and hearing, following but getting some things wrong along the way. I wonder if they ever sat around and thought, 'WTH??'

The board that I sit on in my church governs our social service programs and we were in the middle of putting together some materials for external funding. Part of our standard language describes our mission as transforming lives which is a pretty feel-good claim to make. But the man who directs one of our programs said in a meeting once, 'We don't transform lives. We feed people. We give them clothes. We meet a material need. Are their lives transformed when they come to us, when we help them? I have no idea.'

His words were like a really cold bucket of water being thrown over my head. Is it even possible for us to transform lives?

Anyway, I hear you LutheranChik. Hang in there.


Eclectic Infidel said...

"Is it even possible for us to transform lives?"

I don't think so. I think that transformation has to come from within to be real.

Penney said...

Uhm... Your father is giving up pastoring others because he FEELS people don't listened to him? Hmm.. and your comment was "about" time? Maybe the pastorate was never for him.I'm sure you are happy that his fustrations will be over sheparding people and seeing him less stressed, but I find your responds typical of pastors kidsand his rather odd , was he in it for himself? I have never heard a person in ministry talk or speak like that. Although I have seen and heard several pastors get fustrated, wanting to give up, but then there is this renew energy do what they were called to do, serve! Wasn't it Jesus who said that He would equipped those who he called? Is ministry about us, are the God who calls us to serve?
Must have been an horrible experience, his pastorate. I like this statement 'We don't transform lives. We feed people. We give them clothes. We meet a material need. Now, that is a person who knows why they are doing ministry.

Good luck!

ding said...

if my father was in ministry 'for himself', he has absolutely nothing to show for it: he lives in a tiny house in a tiny middle class neighborhood, no fancy car, no big bank account and no fancy clothes. he's an adjunct professor to supplement his income and his health, since he's approaching retirement age, is beginning to waver a bit. if you looked at my dad's life, you'd see the picture of Sacrifice and Vocation.

so, no. i'd say it's pretty clear my dad has absolutely NOTHING to show for being in ministry - other than the fact that he stuck with this loser congregation longer than anyone else would have.

(i'm not a pastor so i can be angry and bitter. my comments might be typical of other PKs because we see what happens in churches behind closed doors. we see it without the spectacle, the ceremony, the 'show.' we see the hard gritty details and the tolls being in ministry takes on a pastor and their family.

and, sometimes, we're right to be bitter.)

and, no, he's giving up pastoring that particular church because he knows they're never going to go any farther. i know that church, i've been to that church, and i've known those people. he's well shod of them.

jesus also said that we should bring the gospel and when the message is rejected, brush the dust from our sandals and move on. my dad's moving on.

i think we all need to stop being naive about the realities of shepherding congregations - especially congregations in an urban context. not all congregations are full of nice, wonderful, ideal, churchy folk who cleave to a pastor's every word and do what they ought.

some congregations are like the people described in Lutheran Chik's post and drain the very life from a pastor. they take and take and take, without showing any kind of growth or accountability, until the person giving has absolutely nothing more to give.

does Jesus really want my dad to have a stroke and die behind the pulpit because he's trying in vain to pull people up and they don't want to be pulled? i doubt it.

the relationship between a pastor and the people he leads is a complicated one. when everything is aligned - vision, ministry, mission and the ability of a congregation to 'get on board' - the pastor/congregation relationship works best.

but when there's a serious disconnect, what do you do? my dad, after years of watching his congregation get further from the standard set, has decided that perhaps they need a different pastor - one that's not him. he's done the counseling, the bible studies, the sermons, the teaching, the everything a pastor is supposed to do.

but all to no avail. there is no spirit of renewal or vibrancy in that church. my dad's fault? who knows? the congregation's fault? well, their apathy and selfishness contributed something.

so, do i think my father, after over 20 years of being a pastor, should save his life and take a break or seek another flock? hell, yes.

ding said...

If, as Eclectic Infidel says, transformation is sparked by something within the person - then what to do with a person who has no such spark? What to do with a person who does not want to be transformed?

I'm talking about a churchgoer who will go to the sermons and bible studies because they know they should but nothing resounds within them and they're just taking up space within a church, like a lump of lead?

Are Herculean efforts really supposed to be spent on spiritual transformation for such a person?

Greg said...


I generally agree w/ your posts, but with this one I have serious problems. First, as a good Lutheran I believe that only God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, has the power to transform people. As your friend said, all that we can do is ...feed people. (...) give them clothes. (...) meet a material need.. It is also a fundamental tenet of my faith that we do this NOT to transform people, or to make God love us more, or even to "help" these people in a direct sense, but simply as an expression of thanks to God for God's unconditional love for us. We are moved by God's love to behave lovingly towards God's creation. Basically, this is a form of worship and praise. Any help or transformation which may or may not take place in connection with our actions comes ultimately from God, not from us.

Concerning your (and perhaps your dad's) attitude toward his congregation, I can understand the feeling, and if it was me I'd have been out of there long ago. Still, I think we could aspire to something better. There is a passage in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Living Together" which speaks directly to this issue, which I include below. This is not intended as a scold (although Bonhoeffer, writing to seminary students, may have meant it that way), but as something to think about.

In the Christian community thankfulness is just what it is anywhere else in the Christian life. Only those who give thanks for little things receive the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts God has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for the daily gifts. (...) How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from God the little things? If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.

This applies in a special way to the complaints often heard from pastors and zealous members about their congregations. A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men. When a person becomes alienated from a Christian community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament. But if not, let him nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of the congregation before God. Let him rather accuse himself for his unbelief. Let him pray God for an understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brethren. Let him, in the consciousness of his own guilt, make intercession for his brethren. Let him do what he is committed to do, and thank God.

Stern instruction, to be sure, but this rings completely true (in a Christian sense) to me. Whether or not it means anything to you is of course not up to me.

Anonymous said...

He's arrogant! Puffed up with pride and obviously blind to his own sinfulness. The entire congregation has resisted his sermons? I doubt it. I believe it was a famous theologian that comes on the radio, very well known who said to his congregation, "I have nothing to offer you but the truth,that is what I have been called to do, preach the truth in season and out of season...there is nothing magical about me... I too will stand before God and give an account" May God bless him.

We so need to get over ourselves.
I feel for those people in your dad's church those people who want the truth but are lumped in his bitter and arrogant opinion. Yep, he is sinning, and that is a judgement I'm making. Ding, we help people by speaking the truth, in love of course even if it is our dad.

Zan said...

Wow -- talk about serious judgement! Preachers are human beings, just like everyone else. If it's time to move on, it's time to move on. And if he feels like people aren't hearing him or that he's not getting through to them --he's got a right to those feelings. If he's frustrated with his congregation, he's got a right to those feelings too. People get frustrated. It's human nature. And preachers are human beings too.

My dad was a deacon, so I got to hang out with lots of PKs while they all did the church business. And yeah, people will drive you nuts, not matter how called you are to love and minister to them. Clergy aren't above human fraility. They deserve rest and vacations and a life as much as any one else.

You want to talk about truth? Truth is I can't imagine Jesus treating anyone with so little compassion and understanding. Those in church leadership give up more of their lives and time for others than should be expected of any other human being. Their families suffer for it, in ways most people can't imagine. Give the man a break. Let him be with his family and catch his breath.

ding said...

well, apparently the comment i posted yesterday didn't go through. it's all for the best. i was a little angry with Anonymous.

my dad is still pastoring this church, by the way. and he loved the Bonhoeffer quote when i sent it to him. in his email to me he said that he always checks his own sin first. he still feels alienated from this congregation but do i think he's going to walk out the door? i have no idea.

i want him to but that's why i'm not the pastor.

@ Zan - your comments make me wonder how a congregation can be so ignorant of what their pastor is going through, you know? i mean, how can a congregation not tell that a pastor has pulled back from them and then not wonder what it is that they've contributed to this change.

it makes me glad i go to a presbyterian church now where these sorts of rife relationships are less fraught.

Greg said...

Hi Ding,

I'm glad your dad didn't take the Bonhoeffer quote the wrong way. Both my father-in-law and my brother-in-law were pastors. My father-in-law quit around 1969: as a pastor or an all-white church in east Texas, he was in favor of desegregation. It was a very unpopular stance, and he eventually got so disgusted with his congregation that he quit. My brother-in-law was forced to give up his call in a small central-Texas town when he got divorced: his congregation was not amused.
So I have some idea of what it means to be a pastor, and some idea of just how hard the Bonhoeffer quote is. But I also think he's right, just like I think Jesus was right when he said that we need to love our enemies, even though I find that mostly impossible to do. So, best of luck to you and your dad, however it turns out.

ding said...

Bonhoeffer is one of my dad's favorite guys - his martyrdom appeals to a real masochistic streak in my dad, in my opinion.

I don't think my father is going to leave this congregation in the dust. I think he wants to ramp down some aspects of his duties (the man is 64, for pete's sake) and concentrate more of his time on teaching rather than being lead preacher.

I'm curious to know what your father and brother in law did next? What does a pastor do when he gives up a church?

Celeste said...

It's hard when you try to help people who don't particularly want any help. If all he's got to give is fishing lessons, and all they want is a fish sandwich with extra tartar NOW, then something's got to give.

I'd like to think he made a difference even if he doesn't FEEL like he did.

I see nothing wrong with him giving somebody else a chance at bat here. I'm glad he is making the change before he is completely burned out.

Greg said...


Both my father-in-law and brother-in-law have remained very active in their churches. In my father-in-law's case, it's the same congregation of which he was pastor. He went back to school, got a Ph.D (very tough time for my mother-in-law, who had to both support and raise a family with no workplace skills while he was in school), and worked in public service until he retired. He still teaches adult Sunday school and confirmation classes, and stands in as pastor when the regular pastor is on vacation (he's 77 now). My brother-in-law went back to doing what he did before he went to seminary, which is engineering. He did leave the small town he was in as soon as he lost his call, more to find work than to get away from the congregation I think, but don't really know.

Given that your dad is near retirement age, I would think that he could switch to being a very active lay person. That usually can't happen at the same church where he was pastor - my father-in-law is exceptional that way. Although I admit that at my church our *two* most recent ex-pastors are both members, but that is considered *very* unusual, and works largely because both of them stay away from the core functioning of the church (won't serve on church council). They are both active retirees, involved in community service and choral groups (both are excellent singers). So, that's what some pastors do when they retire.

Anonymous said...

Dings, personal comments as a pastors kid being neglected because of her fathers devotion to his church is understandble. She is entittled to some anger, should it be directed at church people that her father leads, now that remains questionable.

Ding's comments in her posts including the original post about "Amen: Compassion Fatigue", and the very outspoken comments that her father made regarding "that" church and the PEOPLE he pastors, warrant some comments. As parisherners I would think that we too have something to say about those who lead us. Especially if we have spent time studying the scriptures ourselves as well as listening to those who lead us. Judgement begins with the house of God first.

Now, in my studying I found this, thought about what I wrote and decided to share this:
"Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field." NIV

What did Jesus do after being accused or ignore for doing right? He kept on doing what he came to do why, because he had COMPASSION, or LOVE for those who were helpless, THOSE PEOPLE who wanted and needed the message.

If a leader wants to walk away from those who he leads because of what your father said, then go right ahead. At 64,I hope he has trained up someone to take his place, someone who understands calling,and most importantly, someone with campassion and the truth. Did God tell him to concern himself with those who did not listen?

I have been working on my humility, too.

Have a nice day!

ding said...

Yeah, well, Jesus also knew his ministry was finite - 3 years, tops.

Again, my dad has not walked out on these people (no matter how much my sister and I wish he just had a better congregation to work with).

Will he? Probably not. He's such a martyr.