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How to Fight Compassion Fatigue

How to Fight Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is a common challenge for those serving in ministry. While helping others is deeply rewarding, the constant exposure to others’ suffering can take a toll on one’s emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.

Recognizing compassion fatigue is only the first step to combatting it, but there are a few ways to work through it. Hal Donaldson, CEO and founder of nonprofit organization Convoy of Hope, wants to help others fight their fatigue head-on. In his new book, What Really Matters: How to Care for Yourself and Serve a Hurting World, Donaldson opens up about his own struggles with serving, including how he had to change his physical, spiritual and emotional practices. We sat down with Donaldson to hear more about how to handle compassion fatigue and burnout.

This conversation has been edited for strength and clarity.

You released a new book called What Really Matters: How to Care for Yourself and Serve a Hurting World. Why did you want to release this book right now?

Yeah, it was the result of so many leaders who are friends of mine who were in crisis and many people seeking advice and direction. I felt like maybe I’ve learned a few things through the years and needed to put it in writing to help more people.

Absolutely. It feels like, especially within the last few years, people are at least speaking out more about experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue. Do you think this is something more people are struggling with, or are they just identifying it more?

I think they’re more open to talking about it. For me, my change happened when I was about 50, working really hard, feeling like if I wasn’t giving 110%, I was disappointing God. I was spending 150 nights away from home. We were building a great ministry, but it was taking a toll on me. At 50, I found myself in the hospital on the verge of a heart attack. They had to put two stents in my heart. That was an eye-opener for me. It changed my perspective, but I think the biggest thing is that people are more open to talking about it now. It’s not a scarlet letter, so to speak.

I had never talked to a counselor or therapist before. I did some years ago, and it was transformational. Just being able to talk to someone who could give context to what I was feeling helped me immensely, and helped my wife. There’s more openness today.

Do you have any thoughts on why we used to be so closed off about it and why we’re open about it now?

We used to interpret it as lacking faith or being unspiritual to deal with these issues. You just needed to get on your knees, and that could resolve it. Prayer is important, but the world appears more complex, with more emotional tensions than before. The pace of life is faster, and expectations are higher. These factors lead to our need to talk about it. There’s nothing unspiritual about talking with people of faith and education about what you’re feeling.

Do you have any tips for recognizing that we’re getting to a place where we feel burned out before it reaches a crisis point?

A lot of it is making sure you’re surrounding yourself with the right people. There’s a tendency to surround ourselves with people who tell us what we want to hear, sometimes opportunists. Surround yourself with people who will speak the truth into your life. It also comes down to your devotional life. When you’re talking to the Lord about what you’re feeling and experiencing, if you find yourself whining day after day in your prayer life, it’s probably a good sign you need other help.

If I have a friend who comes to me and says they’re struggling or burned out with their mission or calling, what can I do as their friend to encourage them and not cause further harm?

A lot of times, it’s asking the right questions. People experience burnout because they’re trying to do too much or find it difficult to rest. A good friend asks the right questions: Are you getting enough sleep? Are you exercising? Are you taking time away to recharge? Jesus did that, and it’s a great example. Start by asking the right questions.

When we talk about burnout, it can be physical, emotional, or spiritual. How do we address all three areas in the mission field?

It takes discipline and honesty. We press on through challenges, but it’s critical to know when to stop and ask the right questions. I was paying attention to the spiritual, partly to the physical, but very little to the emotional. Building a great ministry touched millions, but it took an emotional toll. I wasn’t honest with myself. We need to look in the mirror and ask if we’re pleasing God and making sacrifices He’s not asking us to make.

It’s always good to hear that making these changes brings a distinct, noticeable difference. Thank you for that. Switching gears, I want to talk about compassion fatigue. Convoy of Hope has many volunteers who struggle with burnout and compassion fatigue. Do you have tips to protect yourself from getting burned out on compassion?

Jesus was surrounded by needs but didn’t heal or feed everyone. He did what His Father asked Him to do. Our prayer life is critical to compassion because we need to ask the Lord if there’s something He wants to do through us. Understand that you’re a channel of God’s blessing to the world, not your own blessing. Keep that channel open by having conversations with God about who to help.

Years ago, when I interviewed Mother Teresa, she asked if I was doing anything to help the poor and suffering. I told her I wasn’t, and she said everyone can do something—just do the next kind thing God puts in front of you. It’s important to have a strong prayer life and ask God what He wants to do through you.

Great, simple advice. To wrap this up, what do you want people to learn from your story that you’ve put out in the book?

I’ve tried to be transparent and not candy-coat it. I’ve had an amazing life and am thankful for all that God has done. But there’s a price to pay, and sometimes we’re paying a price God isn’t asking us to pay. In our quest to make the world a better place and achieve, we make personal sacrifices that He isn’t asking us to make. I hope people ask themselves what sacrifices they’re making and why.

And one more thing: I have a journalism background, so I think questions are important. Another question to ask is, God, where do you need me most? That question can take the ceiling off what God can do in and through your life. It’s a good question to ask.

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