My husband and I minister at the community center, where he is both a pastor of our campus church and the director. Early on, my husband and I would work the opening shift of the community center on Sundays. One particular Sunday, a community family booked a room to celebrate a birthday. After they had finished up, an angry and dissatisfied family member verbally attacked my husband unjustly and publicly while leaving a huge mess in her wake. I was shell-shocked and shaken by her meanness and sin against my husband. The next day, I found myself having a PTSD-type moment when I came across a similar-looking situation and family. I froze with fear believing there was going to be another escalation and hurtful interaction. This reaction to a one-time event seemed like a red flag to me. Why would such an event cause me to have such an adverse physical reaction? As I took a closer look at what was going on, this was not a one-time event but a series of ongoing spiritual battles of seeing the darkness of the world’s sin. My overreaction the following day was a symptom of weariness from multiple ministry and counseling occasions. It was getting harder to sift through the evil and suffering in the world. In my counseling room every week, I had women who were vulnerable and broken from abuse, some unrepentant and selfish, some with grief and suffering. There seemed to be no end. My experiences with facing the numerous ways people sin against one another affected my counseling and ministry. It caused me to doubt my abilities to offer help. I often dreaded meeting with my counselees, and their pain weighed heavily in my soul. Ultimately, what I was doing, was doubting God’s goodness.
During this season, I reached out to biblically wise counselors who offered loving counsel. Their words pointed me to seek the LORD, repent of my idols, and rest in Him. Even with such counsel, I needed to look deeper at God’s love for those He calls in ministry. I wanted to hear what truth and comfort the Wonderful Counselor had for my weary soul. This more profound need to renew my mind started with seeking biblical definitions and solutions, which led me to study and research the topic of counselor burnout or counselor fatigue.
In his book “The Wounded Healer,” writer Henri Nouwen offers this caution of what it is like when people choose to help other hurting people. He writes, “Who can save a child from a burning house without the risk of being hurt by the flames? Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind? In short: Who can take away suffering without entering it?”(1) Let’s face it, when we choose to love, we risk our physical comfort, emotional and spiritual health. When one sinful human decides to care for another sinful human who is suffering, there will be a risk to themselves. This risk is not just a biblical counseling problem; it is a human problem.
Secular Definition of Counselor Fatigue
Psychology offers clinical terms for this specific suffering, such as counselor fatigue, burnout, compassion fatigue, empathy fatigue, and secondary trauma. There is more research in the field of psychology than can be detailed here; therefore, I will offer a summary of how these diagnoses manifest themselves for this blog. Secular studies propose that compassion, empathy, and caring are the characteristics of a good counselor and that in counselor fatigue, these characteristics are profoundly affected (2). My research in secular literature found the following as a workable definition of counselor fatigue. Counselor fatigue is a weariness and exhaustion of the whole person that affects the counselor’s cognitive, emotional, relational, and vocational intentions. Counseling fatigue presents itself when counselors or caregivers overextend their counseling schedule, in long-term care or counsel, or without proper resources to provide care for suffering people.
The following is a shortlist of some symptoms of counselor fatigue :
- Emotionally depleted, overextended in their duties as a counselor.
- Cynical and experience frequent issues of doubt about the ability to counsel.
- Emotions may be similar to depression, but the counselor is unaware.
- Reduced capacity or interest in being empathetic.
- Observable adverse reaction to working with people who have been traumatized, and the response could have PTSD-like manifestation
- Inability to bounce back (resilience) when life brings suffering into a counselor’s life.
These descriptions are helpful to identify that there is a problem. Secular psychology in this area is beneficial as it gives a clearer picture of how the counselor is suffering. However, the Bible provides more significant meaning and purpose behind the problem.
The Biblical Approach to Counseling and Possible Origin of Fatigue
With that in mind, I turned to look at counselor fatigue biblically, using biblical terms and definitions. The Bible reveals a greater purpose and power in the suffering from counseling suffering people. Let’s start by understanding a description of a biblical counselor’s approach to helping suffering people. “Biblical counseling focuses on everything related to how the whole person deals with all of life – sin and suffering – with the goal of sanctification – growth in Christlikeness.” (Kellemen, pg 46). Sinning and suffering people need the gospel, and believers need to grow in their love of God and others. The apostle Paul describes this focus as sharing “with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives because you had become very dear to us.” (1 Thessalonians 2:9) Pouring into others is how the counselor bears God’s image and love for the counselee. This pouring in is a joy but is also spiritually and physically exhausting.
Biblical Definition and Descriptions
The Bible defines and describes terms theologically, with God’s character and purposes in mind therefore I will use the biblical term “affliction of the minister of the Word” (Colossians 1:24-26) instead of counselor fatigue. I focus on the specific writings of Paul and his afflictions as a minister of the Word appointed by God (2 Corinthians 4:1). A closer look at the word affliction is helpful to understand how it impacts the minister of the Word. The word affliction in the NT means pressure, burdened, persecution, suffering, tribulation, trouble, calamity. The NT (New Testament) reveals four sources of affliction; 1.) the natural conditions of humanity (James 1:27) 2.) persecution because of faithfulness to Christ (2 Corinthians 6:4) 3.) discipline to mature the Christian faith and 4.) the result of personal sin (Galatians 6:7).3 Each of the reasons for affliction is for God’s eternal purposes (Romans 8:28-29). Biblical definitions and descriptions offer hope.
Paul describes the kinds of affliction he experienced in several places in the second letter to the Corinthians. Here is a list of descriptions:
- 2 Corinthians 1:8 – Our affliction, burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life
- 2 Corinthians 2:4 – For out of much affliction and anguish of heart, I wrote to you with many tears…
- 2 Corinthians 4:8-10 – We are afflicted in every way; perplexed, persecuted, struck down, always carrying around in the body the dying of Jesus
- 2 Corinthians 6:4-5 – In afflictions, in hardships, in difficulties, in beatings, in imprisonments, in mob attacks, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger
- 2 Corinthians 12:7 – Thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me
Paul was afflicted or pressed excessively and in every way. He experienced physical issues from outside persecution and had great sorrow as he pleaded with the Corinthian church to repent. Paul’s afflictions connect to his purpose in proclaiming the gospel and the Corinthian church’s growth. As Paul obeyed his calling (Acts 9:15-16), Paul found more suffering (2 Corinthians 5:9; 14-16). As a minister of the Word, Paul poured into the Corinthian church so that they would know the grace of God (2 Corinthians 4:14-15). Paul’s job was to focus on God’s goal for himself and the Corinthians, Christlikeness. His suffering was a part of his job (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Biblical Definition of the Affliction of the Minister of the Word
The affliction of the minister of the Word is the extreme pressure both physically and spiritually that can cause deep despair, doubt, and physical exhaustion. The minister of the word experiences pressure from mistreatment and oppression from those who oppose God and his Word. Ministers of the Word do not have unlimited time and resources to serve the community’s needs (Luke 10:7). Without the right resources, the minister finds themselves exhausted and discouraged. Spiritual attacks from the enemy, the world, and the temptations in the minister’s sinful heart can plague them, causing doubt and fear.
This weighty yet biblical definition of extreme affliction’s primary cause is because the minister chooses to obey God’s calling for their life and His mission. The affliction has a powerful meaning and purpose for the minister of the Word. Jesus says if we follow Him, people will hate us (Matthew 5:11-12), and we will have trouble (John 16:33). Jesus says whoever loses his life on his account will find it (Matthew 10:39). Our death means life for others and glorifies God (2 Corinthians 4:12-15). The affliction of the minister of the Word brings life!!
Remember the beginning of this blog? I noted my overreaction to the birthday party incident came from looking too closely at the evil in my ministry sphere’s world. Secular psychology would diagnose my symptoms as counselor fatigue. Biblically, my heart was questioning God. While being diagnosed with counselor fatigue affirms my experiences, it lacks a greater purpose for the fatigue. In the biblical definition, the affliction of the minister of the Word, each phrase gives an eternal purpose that reflects the gospel and Christlike growth. Renewing my mind (Romans 12:2) with biblical terms and meanings gives me hope and helps me think through my suffering and sinful responses to my suffering in a godly way. God is reminding me of his goodness in bending all things for my good which is Christlikeness. The suffering I experience as I obey his call to love others through the ministry of the Word is for my good! “But we all, with unveiled faces, looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). LORD willing, in my next blog, I hope to look at the comfort and solutions God’s Word brings for the weary counselor.
1 Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, 1st Image ed (New York, NY: Image Books, 02), 78.
2 Wardle Elizabeth Ann et al., “BURNOUT AMONG THE COUNSELING PROFESSION: A SURVEY OF FUTURE PROFESSIONAL COUNSELORS,” I-Manager’s Journal on Educational Psychology 10, no. 1 (2016): 9, https://doi.org/10.26634/jpsy.10.1.7068.
3 Trent C. Butler, ed., Holman Bible Dictionary (Nashville, Tenn: Holman Bible Publishers, 1991), 23.