How to Avoid Compassion Fatigue when Preaching About Crises

Photo by  Luis Tosta  on  Unsplash

Photo by Luis Tosta on Unsplash

" A priest, a rabbi, and a minister go fishing..."

"A preacher, an imam, and a Hindu priest go for a hike..."

You're ready for a joke, right? These classic set-up lines prepare us for something funny. In fact, they're already kind of funny. Know why?

They're funny because comedy puts together things that are at odds with one other. Jokes put together things that, at first glance, don't belong together.

Surprisingly, human shock at horrific events shares this quality of comedy. The difference, though, is the "punch line" from shock isn't funny. It's horrifying.

  • A parade marches down a street in the USA. Nazi salutes replace high school dance troops.

  • Sunshine sparkles on water that laps gently at the roof line of a house.

  • In a shaded window seat, a brown teddy bear rests against pillows, dripping muddy water and smelling of mold.

  • At sunset, a tree's shadow undulates on the walls of a log home, mesmerizing. The shadow is cast by a wildfire, not the sun.

Comedy and human shock have even more in common.

When we hear a joke the second time, it's not as funny because we are no longer surprised. We know the punch line.

In fact, each time we hear the same joke, its comedy diminishes until, finally, it's boring or even annoying.

Unfortunately, this law of diminishing return is true for shock, too.

Every time we hear the same story (or variations of it) about a shocking event, the story produces less impact because we know the emotional "punch line:"  horror, sorrow, grief, or outrage.

Exposed to the same story too often, we might feel bored, annoyed, numb, or irritated.

Commonly called "compassion fatigue," this reaction is formally known as, "secondary traumatic stress.*"

According to compassion researcher Dr. Kristen Neff, empathetic people are more prone to compassion fatigue for one very simple reason: we care. We care about the plight of others, we care about what happens to them, and we want to help.

Because we're Christians who care about the welfare of every human being, we're prone to compassion fatigue.

When so much is happening in our world concurrently, from natural disasters to national public policy changes and the rise of overt prejudice and racism, many of us wake up in the mornings, pick up our news source, roll our eyes heavenward and ask, "What now?"

What do we preach then?

  • Do we preach round-robin style, one horror per week until we circle back again?
  • Do we preach on all of them at once?
  • Do we not preach on them at all because neither we nor our listeners can take the emotional drain anymore?

Given the depth, breadth, and scope of horrors piling up around us, we have a few choices, but I don't recommend two of them.

1. Not Recommended: Keep preaching about the needs of the world and asking listeners to give/contribute/get involved.

This is one choice, but compassion fatigue is likely to set in quickly, and many listeners are likely to tune out. They'll feel exhausted, numbed, and paralyzed by the prospect of so many unmet needs that persist no matter how much they give or get involved.

This is the "One Note Nelly" sermon message entitled, "More, More, More!"

I don't recommend this approach.

2. Not Recommended: Up the ante.

If people no longer feel shocked by water lapping at a roof top, find a more shocking story to get their attention.

For instance, tell them the story of a church who, after Hurricane Harvey, handed out two hundred lunches in thirty minutes. They handed them out to impoverished homeowners in their front yards who were gutting their soaked houses and depositing their life savings in heaps at the curb. While living in a flood plain. Without flood insurance, savings, connections, job prospects, or resources to start over on higher ground.

Again, this is one preaching choice, but how far does a preacher continue to go?

How much do we up the emotional ante to keep people's attention?

Plus, at what point do the stories cross the emotional Rubicon to the land of manipulation in order to get a response and keep people involved?

This approach likewise sets us up for compassion fatigue because we get numb to "ordinary awful" and might only respond to "extraordinary awful."

That would be like Jesus asking Peter how high was Peter's mom's fever? "Just 101.1.? Sorry, not high enough, old chap. Call me when it reaches 103, OK?"

I don't recommend this approach either.

3. Recommended: Be loved.

I recommend this one.

As Christians, we already care.

We care a lot.

We care about the poor and those whose homes are flooded or go up in smoke. We care about people different from ourselves, wanting them to be treated with respect. We care how public policy affects the marginalized.

Getting our listeners to care generally isn't the hurdle.

Reminding them they're loved is.

When we know we're loved enough, we naturally care for others. People who know they're loved—who reflect on, soak in, and consume God's love for them—are less likely to experience compassion fatigue.

Those who...

  • sit with God in prayer for their own souls' sakes, as well as pray for others
  • read Scripture for self-nourishment as well as for guidance to help others
  • and renew their awe at the extraordinariness of God by paying attention to nature, keeping up with good friends, savoring a great meal, or delighting in a terrific play

...won't need to be emotionally shocked before they're motivated to reach out.

Preach that God loves them.

Preach encouragement to spend time and attention steeped in that love.

Then preach the needs of the world.

We all, preacher and listener alike, will connect being loved to loving our neighbor, no matter how long the shocks to our systems continue.


*Neff, Kristin. Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind (p. 192). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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