Vicarious Trauma in Ministry

By Bill Gaultiere

If you’re caring for people who have been traumatized or are in crisis, then you’re suffering with them vicariously.

Just being a tender-hearted person in our world today exposes you to vicarious trauma. Terrorist attacks on your screen, violence in your city, fires and floods in your county, division in your church, jobs lost at your place of work, grief in your community, conflict in your family.

Whenever you empathize with someone who is suffering it takes a toll on you.

In a study of over 1,000 men and women in ministry, the top five themes were: conflict, betrayal, hurt, exhaustion, and isolation.  

Recently a pastor told me about his week of ministry:

  • He just got back from the ICU praying for a frightened wife whose husband was in a car accident.
  • Yesterday he had a counseling session with a lay leader whose son said he’s gay.
  • All week he’s been upset by a harsh email criticizing his sermon.
  • A family he discipled is leaving the church.
  • Tonight he has an elder meeting on major cuts in the budget.
  • In two days he’s conducting a funeral and the next day is Sunday with two sermons and a “Starting Point” meeting for newcomers.

That’s a stress-filled, pain-wracked week! And it includes huge waves of acidic trauma!

Vicarious trauma is pernicious. It depletes your energy, keeps you awake at night, numbs your heart, fragments your thoughts, and erodes your soul. Upsetting images and conversations intrude into your mind.

It can tempt you to get away from people and “check out” of your life with TV or movies, scrolling social media, overeating, wine, or worse. You may feel entitled: “I sacrifice so much to care for hurting people — I need a little something for myself.”

You may think you just need a vacation, but the cumulative effects of vicarious trauma are too debilitating. Day after day of internalizing the suffering of others can lead you into compassion fatigue, ministry burnout, or a moral failing.

Here are some steps in a journey of healing:

  1. Be aware of your vicarious trauma. Probably, you don’t realize how much tragedy, suffering, crisis, and emotional upheaval you’re absorbing.

  2. Maintain good boundaries. There are limits to how much compassionate care and spiritual leadership you can give! Even Jesus respected his limits by sometimes saying no to people. (This is one of the chapters in our book Your Best Life in Jesus’ Easy Yoke: Rhythms of Grace to De-Stress and Live Empowered.)

  3. Reach out for the empathy you need. Most people neglect their need for empathy or don’t even understand it, but it’s the key to balancing your outflows and inflows. Receiving tender-hearted listening and care is especially critical for pastors, missionaries, and others in ministry. Here’s a saying to learn well: “We empathize with others because God first empathized with us in Christ and his ambassadors.” (Based on 1 John 4:19, Hebrews 4:15, and 2 Corinthians 5:20.)

  4. Develop a joy-filling life. What is life-giving for you? What blesses you with a sense of God’s loving presence? I enjoy being with soul friends, taking prayer walks/runs while I pray Scripture, being in nature, singing Psalms, watching a good movie, and reading an inspiring or comforting book.

If you can relate to experiencing vicarious trauma by walking with others through conflicts, family betrayals, or significant losses, check out our podcast episode Recovery From Trauma.” You can also meet with one of our trained spiritual directors to help you process your own emotions as you care for others.

This article is submitted by Carolyn Trevino of Soul Shepherding.  Soul Shepherdingis a Missio Nexus member.  Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.

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