What Missionaries Ought to Know about Compassion Fatigue

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What Missionaries Ought to know… does not mean that the author sat down and decided what missionaries ought to know, but that missionaries themselves asked about these topics. During the author’s 35 years of college teaching he learned that if one person asks a question, others probably want to know the same thing—and if two people ask, it was certainly a topic that others need to know about. These are things missionaries need to know because several missionaries have asked about each of them at one time or another.

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Bill has been an effective and dedicated missionary for a decade, but now, in his mid-30s, his missionary service seems more like labor than a labor of love. He used to enjoy interacting with nationals and feel deep satisfaction in his friendships with them. Although he continues to spend time with them, he becomes annoyed at what he sees as their increasing demands.

From all appearances he is a successful missionary that others respect and even envy a bit; however, internally he is exhausted, feels isolated, and seems spiritually depleted.  Even talking with his supportive wife does little to help. Bill is suffering from what has recently come to be called compassion fatigue.

What is compassion fatigue?

An article in Family Practice Management published by the American Academy of Family Physicians defines compassion fatigue as “a deep physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion accompanied by acute emotional pain” http://www.aafp.org/fpm/2000/0400/p39.html.

Compassion fatigue is a combination of burnout and secondary trauma. In classical burnout missionaries cope by withdrawing and becoming less compassionate; however, missionaries with compassion fatigue continue to give fully to their work with nationals. They often feel like they are being pulled irresistibly down by a whirlpool, and they are powerless to stop. These people may be viewed as incredibly dedicated and successful missionaries by others, but they often do not feel that way about themselves.  Here are some of their major symptoms.

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