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How to help others without owning their problems

We all know ministry involves sacrifice, but some ministries involve much more sacrifice than others. Many reading this know the reality of that.

In his book Zeal Without Burnout, Christopher Ash talks about sustainable sacrifice. How can we devote ourselves fully in serving the Lord without wearing ourselves out, so we can keep on in that role?

Whether our ministry and service is paid or unpaid, we are all human and our strength and capabilities have an upper limit. So, here are some points to help us think this through.

1. Be intentional about what your role involves

Some people get overwhelmed because they jump in and just go with it. Whoever turns up on their doorstep or whatever happens around them, that’s the nature of their ministry. But feeling the need to respond to everything that comes across your plate can make life tricky.

We know Christian love involves care of the whole person. But if the heart of the pastoral role is the ministry of the word and prayer, and setting an example in godly living, we need to reflect on our responsibilities and where people with complex needs might fit in.

It’s important to have intentionality about our practice of serving the Lord. If you are having to deal with need, particularly complex need, what are you trying to offer people? What’s your responsibility in the situation? How does it fit with the other responsibilities God has entrusted to you?

Being self-reflective about all this is very important.

2. Be aware of your responses

When we empathise with others we see what’s happening and feel something of it ourselves. But there can be a cost to this.

How do you feel after interacting with difficult situations and needs? What do you feel in your body? What do you take home with you? What do those at home experience from you? I think sometimes we can normalise what’s going on around us without realising the impact upon ourselves and others.

There are common indicators of increased stress that may be coming from sharing in the pain of others. Take note if:

a. it’s hard to get to or stay asleep;

b. you’re more anxious, perhaps more irritable or teary;

c. you’re hypersensitive to comments from others;

d. it’s hard to concentrate and be productive;

e. you’re experiencing things like muscle tension, headaches and digestive problems.

3. Compassion fatigue and burnout

If you are physically, emotionally and spiritually worn out by the experiences of caring for people in significant need, pain and distress, this is compassion fatigue. If it isn’t dealt with, it can lead to burnout.

The three traditional symptoms of burnout are:

Emotional exhaustion – no energy, nothing left in the tank.

Depersonalisation – when a caring, empathic person just can’t be bothered dealing with others. There’s negativity, cynicism and detachment from what’s going on.

Lack of accomplishment – becoming ineffective and unproductive in your work.

Recent research has identified two new symptoms:

Social withdrawal – not just in the workplace, but at home as well.

Cognitive impairment – you can’t think clearly, concentrate or remember things.

Those with certain personality traits are more prone to burnout. Perfectionism, being self-conscious, and being more reactive to stress and the judgments of others are significant. Being conscientious, competent, self-disciplined, and motivated to achieve also heightens risk.

Recent studies have also found burnout is very high among carers. So, let’s be alert to the signs, in ourselves and in others.

4. Don’t make people dependent

It’s always good to ask, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” because helping, caring for and loving others is always about the other, not us. Yet sometimes it is more about us, isn’t it? Many of us get significant secondary gain – something that comes back to us – from doing good for another.

If you’re someone who needs to be needed, are you aware of this? And how, perhaps, it is shaping your behaviour? Sometimes what’s really driving you is you, not them. Sometimes our “No” is a loving thing to do as it helps somebody turn back to their own resources, or to turn to the Lord in dependence, rather than to us.

5. Compassionate love has limits

I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking Jesus is the model of the perfect, loving human being. But there were limits to what Jesus could do.

Luke 5:15-16 says, “crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed”, but “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed”. Jesus knew he needed time away to be sustained. In Matthew 14:10-13, note Jesus’ reaction after he hears the news of the execution of John the Baptist: “he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place”. It appears that upon receiving this information Jesus needed to tend to his own emotional state.

As human beings our capacities are limited, and I want to encourage you – as I try and encourage myself – to embed this truth in your mind so it shapes your ministry perspective. We cannot do everything. Our love has its limits.

6. Appropriate boundaries

There are some people who, no matter how long you listen to them and no matter what level of care you provide, it’s never enough. We need to be people of grace and compassion, but we have a range of responsibilities so we need boundaries.

This is particularly important when dealing with those who have manipulative relational strategies. Appropriate boundaries means things like being clear about the amount of time you’re prepared to spend with somebody; how often you respond to texts; the fact that you won’t tolerate being yelled at, and you will leave the conversation if this happens.

It is about modelling healthy relationships, because some people need feedback to hopefully learn different strategies in order not to keep sabotaging their relationships. This is an example of how appropriate boundaries are loving.

So, if you’re meeting up with people, do you provide clarity about what’s involved? How long is reasonable to spend with this person? How do you end a meeting in a clear way? You might say something like, “Thanks for sharing what you’ve shared. It sounds really hard. I’ve got another commitment now. Can I pray for you?”

All this requires wisdom, and I love that Scripture encourages us to call upon the Lord and ask him for wisdom (James 1:5).

7. Don’t be a lone ranger

Many people fall into the trap of thinking they can go it alone. You might not have a team around you, but do you believe in the body of Christ as a meaningful theological concept? Among the people you’re ministering and serving with, who else can you involve? How do you share the load?

With those who might tend towards being manipulative in relationships, where clear boundaries are important, it’s very helpful to have two or more people involved. Having you all maintain the same line is a loving, helpful strategy to assist that person in growing and developing their relational skills.

8. God gives the growth

We all desire to see change in people but none of us can make anyone do anything. The lesson of 1 Corinthians 3:6, that God gives the growth, give comfort and enables me to dedicate myself to faithfully serving others without being crushed when the outcome is not as I would wish.

Our institute recently ran a trauma seminar with Dr Gladys Mwiti – a clinical psychologist who often spends her days listening to people’s experiences of trauma. She told us at the end of each day that she prays for these people and hands them over to the Lord. And she goes home. And she sleeps. Because she doesn’t carry all of it with her.

Remember that there is only one saviour in this world and it’s not me, and it’s not you. Christopher Ash says the Lord doesn’t need us to do his work, and the work we do doesn’t define us. Do you believe that? It’s a theological truth that shapes and drives not only our practice, but our emotional state.

9. Don’t neglect practices that sustain for the long haul

In the book Death by Comfort, Paul Taylor says modern Western society is killing people because it’s too comfortable. He says our greatest achievements tend to involve a level of stress and being pushed out of our comfort zone.

Stress is not bad for us, but getting stuck in stress is. Taylor says that we need challenge as long as it is followed by recovery. Are you aware of what your needs are – physically, emotionally, spiritually? Are you aware of how you fill yourself up so you can be present for people in difficult circumstances without being run into the ground?

Exercise, sleep and nutrition are profoundly important for our wellbeing. Another critical thing is warm, nurturing relationships – they keep us healthier and happier.

Many people find it helpful at the end of the day to get into water, whether to swim or just have a shower. It’s as if they’re washing off the troubles of the day. Another issue is digital hygiene. It’s not a good sign when the phone is the first thing you look at in the morning and the last thing you look at before you go to sleep.

A few key questions: do you have an on-off switch for your work? Are you able to turn off? Are you aware of what drains you? Are you aware of what refreshes you?

10. Seek external counsel and direction

If you regularly deal with complex situations in difficult contexts, it’s so helpful to have input from others. Proverbs 12:15 says, “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice”. Do you have friends and colleagues who you consult with and chat with? Do you have a professional supervisor who can run through things with you?

We also need assistance when the needs of others seem to be overwhelming us. If anything here has raised concerns for you, please go and talk to a health professional.

11. God’s wondrous grace and kindness in Christ

Christian life and ministry is marked by a pattern: cross before resurrection. We follow Christ in his vulnerability, not just his victory. When serving him is hard, when the life of ministry is wearing me down, this gives me a lot of comfort.

In 2 Cor 7:5, Paul speaks of conflicts without and fears within. External pressure, internal pressures – that’s the ministry life. But in the previous verse Paul says, “in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds”. In 2 Cor 6:10 he says, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing”. We can have multiple emotional experiences at the same time.

No matter what external stresses and difficulties we face, we are caught up in a spiritual reality that can’t be taken away from us. It’s just sometimes hard to remember during the hard slog. That’s why I love this quote from the Puritan, John Flavel: “If we but once thoroughly understood what power there is in God’s hand to defend us, what tenderness in his heart to comfort us, and what faithfulness to all his promises given over to us, oh, how quiet and calm would our hearts be”.

May the Lord direct our hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance (2 Thes 3:5). May we grasp more and more how deeply God loves us, his delight and joy in us. May we find comfort in knowing that Christ did the persevering to ensure that even when we are doing it tough, the victory and glory is ours in him.

The Rev Dr Keith Condie is co-director and co-founder of the Mental Health & Pastoral Care Institute. This is an edited version of a talk he gave at the Ministry in Marginalised Areas Conference 2023.

This article was first published on Sydney Anglicans.

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