Getting Tired of Me Getting Tired of You?

James Lyons

Donor fatigue is not an uncommon expression.  The number of requests for donations coming through the mailbox and other media has been increasing to the point where deciding where and what to give has become very complex.

There are so many needs, one person told me, that I know my little contribution is never going to make a difference.  Now I don’t give anything!

Others feel quite exhausted by the constant flow of requests.  Some get bewildered.  Some get angry. Tiredness means no energy.  No energy means no motivation; good intentions do not translate to action.

Compassion Fatigue is similar but less visible.   It affects in particular those in the caring professions.  As a priest, I have been asked to reflect on this phenomenon from a pastoral perspective.

In the day-to-day pastoral ministry a priest or lay pastoral leader is confronted with a variety of human needs:

  • A parent calls very worried about the teenage child who wants nothing to do with the Church.
  • A family seeks help with the payment of school Attendance Dues.
  • A knock at the door presents a need for assistance with food, perhaps housing or for an ear to listen to a sad tale of abandonment or embezzlement.
  • A grandparent worries over grandchildren who haven’t been baptised.
  • Parishioners in hospital or hospice need to be visited, their families comforted.
  • A death in the parish requires other commitments to be set aside.
  • Couples preparing for marriage need to be given time and attention.

The list is endless!

There have been times when, as a priest, I have caught myself racing through an appointment because of my familiarity with the issue.  I forget that, for the person involved, this is their first experience of death or loss or setback, etc., while I have dealt with it several times.

It is easy to anticipate their questions and not to be totally alert and present to their unique situation.  This can give the impression that I don’t care or do not take seriously their particular concern.

When one problem or emergency follows another, when you know there are several emails or phone messages awaiting your attention, the temptation to dismiss people as quickly as possible is hard to resist.  Or else you carry on, but you feel so very tired, and you know you are not focussing as well as you could, or should.

Compassion fatigue, in the pastoral sense, is not so much exhaustion of motivation but more a loss or absence of the ability to concentrate and to fully engage.  It is very much a case of “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”!

One factor that might allow this kind of fatigue to be less detected in the clergy, is that pastoral ministry quite often deals in the realm of the spirit and that’s harder to see.  A doctor who, through inattention may misdiagnose or prescribe the wrong medicine, will be quickly called to account.  But a priest who doesn’t really listen in the confessional or offers some outdated theological advice, or gives out some over-worn cliché response, is not going to be so readily caught out.

This sort of behaviour may not be so much the result of compassion fatigue but rather a laziness, perhaps even arrogance, that is irresponsible.  Pastoral workers owe it to themselves as much as to those in their care, to stay relevant through study and reflection.  Not to do so is to risk becoming a disappointment to themselves; that, in turn, can lead to depression and total shutdown.

While doctors and other professionals usually see people on an “appointment only” basis, priests are more “open season” to callers.  A phone call or door knock can come at any time of day or night and there is an assumption on the part of the people that the priest will answer.  No matter he may have just returned from a parish meeting or funeral preparation, the caller has a need that cannot be postponed.

Despite real efforts to hide weariness or annoyance at the interruption, the caller will often pick this up, going away with an “he doesn’t really care” impression.

Personally, the worst time is just before Mass:  Someone wants you to remember a special intention at Mass; another tells you of the death of a relative overseas; a car has been parked with its lights on – can you please make an announcement; there’s a cake stall after Mass but we forgot to put it in the newsletter – will you tell everyone; today is a special day for Mr & Mrs… - can you give them a blessing; it’s my birthday, will you say a prayer for me…

Loving and caring as such requests show themselves to be, their timing is challenging.  It is in these moments that compassion fatigue hits me between the eyes.

James Lyons is a priest serving in pastoral ministry for the Archdiocese of Wellington