In the helping professions, burnout can seem almost inevitable.
The thing we want to give—deep, sincere compassion for others in their time of need—runs dry. We want to help, but we can only take so much suffering. We become victims of our own giving.
We don’t have to imagine the burnout progression for a Christ-following pastor, counselor, or ministry leader. We’ve either witnessed it or experienced it ourselves.
A young leader enters ministry with high hopes, extensive training, and a heart full of compassion. But after several years of long hours, little to no appreciation, and insufficient compensation, the leader grows weary. Working with less motivation and seeing fewer positive results, frustration sets in, and then frustration breaks into indifference.
Researchers have identified four universal stages of burnout among the helping professions:
To be honest, I’ve experienced all four in a single day of pastoral ministry. I can be full of compassion in an appointment at 7 a.m., weary and on autopilot by lunch, frustrated in afternoon meetings, and, by the time I get home, utterly numb.
Disillusionment is the clinical term for burnout. We had a vision of generous ministry but went broke before it was realized. The vision turned out to be illusion.
Where do we go from here?
I’ve found a deep and refreshing resource for ministry renewal in an ancient but underrated aspect of Christianity: The way to restore compassion for others is by receiving and savoring the compassion of God.
The way to restore compassion for others is by receiving and savoring the compassion of God.
Compassion is at the heart of the Christian gospel, an attribute of God that spans the history of redemption, and an essential virtue of healthy, sustainable ministry in the pattern of Christ.
Search for Compassion
So, what exactly is compassion?
Our word compassion comes from the Latin words pati and cum, which together mean “to suffer with.” As Henri Nouwen and his co-authors write in Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life:
Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human. (3–4)
Compassion is a common term in the English language, but it has immense theological weight. Compassion is an attribute of God, a virtue of Christlikeness, and a metaphor for ministry. Theologian Andrew Purves writes:
A case can be made for seeing compassion as the center of pastoral care. Compassion makes caring specific. Compassion radicalizes caring, giving our caring root in the deepest places of God’s being.
We’ve been created in the image of a compassionate God. To be fully human is to embrace our need to receive his compassion, and to show compassion to others in return.
So why do we experience “compassion burnout”? Because we are finite and fallen. Our compassion is a diminishing resource.
But when we turn to the Scriptures, we discover that God’s is a never-ending supply.
Lord of Compassion
The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. (Ps. 103:8)
Depending on your translation, “compassion” shows up 50 to 80 times in the Scriptures.
The historical books are full of references to God’s compassion in his promise-keeping to Israel (for example, 2 Kings 13:23). The Psalms consistently praise God’s fatherly compassion to his people—Psalm 103 stands out as the best example. And the prophets promise a coming compassion from God for the faithful of Israel (see especially Isa. 54:7).
When we reach the Gospels, we find compassion embodied. Jesus Christ is the ultimate Lord of compassion. When he sees the crowds, he has compassion on them (Matt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32). His healing ministry overflows from his compassion on the broken, weak, and needy (Matt. 20:34).
Compassion demonstrates our triune God’s grace and mercy in tangible acts of patience and love.
And two of Jesus’s most beloved parables hinge on compassion. The Good Samaritan is commended for acting with it: “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion” (Luke 10:33). And the prodigal son returns to find his father full of it: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
Finally, the New Testament letters repeatedly appeal to the Lord’s compassion (Rom. 9:15; 2 Cor. 1:3; James 5:11) and urgently call believers to show compassion to one another (Eph. 4:32; Phil. 2:1; Col. 3:12; 1 Pet. 3:8).
From creation to Israel to Christ to the church, compassion demonstrates our triune God’s grace and mercy in tangible acts of patience and love.
Here are three ways to renew your depleting compassion.
1. Slow Down
Compassion isn’t efficient. To care for the burdens of others requires slowing down, paying attention, and not being in a hurry.
Hurry is a surefire recipe for ministry burnout. By definition, it’s an unsustainable pace.
In our church-planting process, we set 10 commitments, including “We are not in a hurry.” To cultivate compassion, we must let God redirect our plans, let go of our timelines, and respond to the suggestions and needs of our people.
2. Stock the Pond
Artists or writers are often encouraged to “stock the pond” with images, experiences, and books from which they can later fish in creativity. In a much deeper sense, the minister of compassion will return to the well daily, drawing fresh resources from the Source of all compassion.
We stock the pond for compassion through a consistent reading of the Scriptures and a regular, abiding life of prayer. In the Scriptures, we find our compassionate Lord speaking directly to us, comforting us, encouraging us, and renewing our souls. In prayer, we lay our burdens before God, beg for help, and find peace in our time of need.
3. Lead from Within
When fatigued, we default to leading from our intellect (what we know), our competency (what we can do), or our reputation (who others say we are). But the model of healthy ministry is to lead from within, from who we are in Christ.
Think of it like this: The compassion of Christ embraces us, transforms us into his likeness, and then empowers us to the ministry of compassion.
The compassion of Christ embraces us, transforms us into his likeness, and then empowers us to the ministry of compassion.
Leading from within means reflecting on our deep thoughts and feelings throughout the day, sharing our inner lives with others, and encouraging the hearts of our people. We’re not simply trying to change others’ behavior or teach them knowledge and skills. We want their hearts to be formed in the image of Christ.
So a Christ-shaped compassion will include an inner receptivity to the compassion of the Father and an outward ministry of compassion toward those who need it most. Like Jesus, when we’re moved with compassion, we go and show compassion.
As Purves summarizes, “Our compassion is a participation in Jesus’s compassion.” Jesus extends his compassion to a needy world through us. We are his compassion conduits.
Compassion burnout is a reality of ministry life as finite and fallen creatures. But by slowing down, stocking the pond, and leading from within, we can find ongoing renewal for a compassion-filled life.