Compassion Fatigue

There are times I get frustrated with our local newspaper, but every once in awhile they get something right. As much as we lament the heroin epidemic, my heart goes out to those whose very professions make it impossible to escape it. Here's the link to the Enquirer article about first responders and heroin.

I want to offer a few thoughts on what the article terms "compassion fatigue," as it’s very real. We’ve nearly completed 12 years living in the urban core, in addition to the first 22 years of my life spent in an urban church. With every passing year, my heart unfortunately hardens. I’ve neither lost faith in the gospel, nor have I abandoned the mission. Still, I’m increasingly disillusioned when ministering to the down-and-out (this applies to the up-and-out as well, but that’s a different topic altogether). 

Even the best among us can become jaded when constantly exposed to constant exaggeration and half-truths. 

  • I’ve witnessed a man briskly scale two flights of stairs only to be leaning on crutches while panhandling just hours later.
  • I interacted with a woman who invented a dead child in an attempt to scam our church for funeral expenses.
  • I had to kick a guy out of church who created a diversion and stole money from the offering plate. 

Ask urban workers about the lies they’ve been told and story-time will go on for hours. I’ve known dozens of vibrant servants who fully invested time to city ministry only to burn out years later. When you’re viewed only for your provision, it’s natural insulate yourself from that exposure.

Dwelling among those in need has the potential to negatively impact one’s walk in faith. When my Christian friend joined the Peace Corp, I encouraged him to use the opportunity to focus on spiritual growth. In the third world country in which he worked, however, he was unable to connect with any indigenous church there; whenever he visited a new church, they saw he was American and treated him less as a brother and more as a financial resource.

I struggle to bring up these negative issues as they can be used to defend our disconnect. Instead, we must view our compassion fatigue as yet another spiritual hurdle to be cleared. It's happened to me, friends. And if I don’t overcome it, it has the potential to lead me to sin.

Rather than offering three solutions to combating our cynicism (be slow to judge, be honest in your conversations with those in need, pray more), I want to lean into one that has helped me the most: surround yourselves with the hopeful. 

Right now, I’m incredibly thankful that our church has young leaders who are passionate about serving the least of these. Even though I want to gently dampen their passion with a dose of reality, I try to shut my mouth. I’m giving them space to try things that turned out poorly for me. I don’t want them to experience pain (although she is a good teacher), but I’m reminding myself that every situation is different. Just because someone I attempted to help lied to me doesn’t mean that everyone in need is pushing a scam. I’m letting this generation chart their own path while soaking up their enthusiasm. And then, years down the road, when they experience the fatigue I now feel, I’ll trust that the Lord provides them with the inspiration to persevere.

The apostle Paul wrote advised us, "as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). He added no caveat here. I’m trying to live up to this.

Be compassionate. Encourage others to persevere as well.