A Methodist minister in Cedar Rapids says “compassion fatigue” is hitting clergy in his city. Flood waters swept through Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1997 and five years later more than half of the religious leaders in that city had left for posts elsewhere.
Reverend Harlan Gillespie of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids says he’s seeing stress among the religious leaders in his city who helped their congregations through the flooding that hit Cedar Rapids two years ago.
“There’s a fairly high turn-over level of that kind of leadership because of the amount of ‘compassion fatigue’ and burnout that takes place with that,” he says. “And sometimes it’s because of the number of times in which it just feels like there’s a dark cloud out over there someplace, kind of like creating a rock and a hard place.”
Dr. Mary Fraser is director of pastoral care and counseling for the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church. She says clergy trying to help the community around them sometimes fail to stop and take time for themselves. “Oftentimes they’re caught up in the energy of staying present and juggling all of these balls in the air until, you know, people start feeling their worth and their value is commensurate with putting in incredible hours with no rest,” Fraser says. “You’ll never be able to keep that up. That pace will lead to your demise in a certain way.”
Charles Daugherty, a minister, is director of “Serve the City” in Cedar Rapids” — a coalition of 37 congregations that’s been helping in flood recovery. Daugherty realized he was getting “compassion fatigue” and sought counseling from another pastor. “You have to go off the clock…and that’s why I’m still here,” Daugherty says. “Because between the flood and now I skirted on the out-skirts, the bubble of depression, but realized where it was and got help.”
Four people have suffered burn-out and left “Serve the City” since the flood and Daugherty’s goal is to get all the clergy in Cedar Rapids signed up for counseling sessions by the end of the year. Gillespie, the Methodist minister in Cedar Rapids, says clergy who are emotionally engaged in an on-going disaster can eventually start to feel numb from the overload of counseling people coping with disaster.
“There’s not really many ways possible to kind of release that sense of spiritual angst that a clergy person may be hearing and also, then, living through with their parishoners that adds up over time,” he says. “It’s more than just cumulative. It’s almost exponential.” But Gillespie says clergy, as a group, are often resistent to counseling.
“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” he says. “Because on the one hand we encourage others to come in and talk and pray about what’s facing them, but we don’t necessarily avail ourselves of the same type of thing that we would like others to do.” Gillespie says clergy need to “embrace their humanness” and seek counseling when the workload starts leading to burn-out. Gillespie’s church escaped flood damage in 2008.