Many counselors have a good understanding of how many counselees they can meet with in a week without facing overload. Some have a pre-determined limit on the number of people their schedule can handle. I occasionally face a schedule that feels overwhelming. Not only do I wonder if I have the capacity to meet with so many ladies, but a few of these cases are very difficult. Those meetings take a toll on my emotional and spiritual capacity. A friend recently used the term “compassion fatigue” to describe a dilemma faced by many, including myself, at times. I’m speaking of the feeling that the problems of others can feel like an overwhelming test of our capacity to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). Compassion fatigue can lead to burnout or simply giving up. I know a few counselors who have ended their counseling careers due to this condition. Below are a few suggestions, taken from personal experience and the experience of others, on how to fight against becoming overwhelmed and overstretched by counselees.

1. Be like Christ: He sought out the hurting and misguided even when He was tired, hungry, and thirsty

At one point in His ministry, Jesus passed through Samaria. In John 4:6, we read that He was “wearied…from his journey” and sat by Jacob’s well in Sychar. He started a gospel conversation with a woman who came to the well in the heat of the day. When the disciples came upon their master, who apparently had not yet eaten, they urged Him to eat some of the food they had bought in the city. His response was, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). Jesus didn’t think of Himself but the needs of others. We follow His example when we are willing to be inconvenienced. “Be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). The Holy Spirit will give you the strength you need when you are accomplishing His will.

2. Be like Christ: He obeyed God’s command to rest one day in seven

Because Jesus kept the law perfectly for us (see Matt. 5:17), we follow His example when we also build a day of rest into our schedule. This can be difficult for those in ministry because you typically work on the Lord’s Day. My advice is to keep part of your Sunday clear for rest. I know that some counselors meet with people from their church on Sunday morning during the Sunday School hour or during a worship service if their church has multiple services. They might be hurting themselves, though, if they are not taking part in classes and corporate worship with the body of Christ. Exceptions can be made, but compassion overload can take place if you have not spent time in personal edification. Don’t neglect to plan for a day of worship and rest.

3. Be like Christ: At times, He left His ministry in order to pray and commune with His Father

In Matthew 14:22-23, after feeding the five thousand, Jesus sent the disciples ahead to travel across the Sea of Galilee. “He went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.” He “would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16). He taught His disciples to do the same in Mark 6:30-32. I have a counselor friend who plans time to get away on spiritual retreats. She is aware that she needs regular, intentional time with the Lord. When you recognize compassion fatigue setting in, admit your weakness. Rearrange your schedule to block out enough time to commune with the Lord. You need to take in strength from the Word in order to give out to others. This will ultimately benefit those who need your ministry. You can occasionally seek solitude with the Lord to the glory of God (2 Cor. 5:9b).

4. Be like Christ: He chose twelve disciples to walk closely with Him throughout His ministry

Although He had many followers, these twelve were selected for deeper interaction and instruction. From the twelve, Jesus selected three to be His closest disciples. For example, only Peter, James, and John were taken up on the Mount of Transfiguration to pray (see Luke 9:28-36). You follow Christ’s example when you develop a few close friends to enjoy intimate fellowship. We need one another. Scheduling meaningful chats with these special friends on a regular basis helps to keep your relationships strong. Your marriage will be enhanced when you include your spouse in your group of friends with whom you share your needs, concerns, and prayer requests. These friends may be the ones who will lovingly advise you to reassess your overloaded appointment schedule. Listen to them.

5. Be like Christ: He kept His mission and purpose in mind

Jesus declared in John 6:38, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” You will be encouraged when you follow your Savior’s example of living to please the Father above all. This goal counteracts the natural weariness or faintheartedness we feel (Heb. 12:3). Keep in mind that “you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:24). This motivation enables us to work with fervor and energy for the Lord’s sake. Even if we receive limited or no gratitude from others, even when we find our zeal flagging, remember that we are promised an inheritance as our reward. Meditate on Colossians 3:23 when fatigue sets in: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”

May these truths revive your soul and increase your effectiveness as a counselor.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Do an honest evaluation of your capacity for counseling. Based on your other responsibilities, how many cases should you agree to take? Ask your spouse or a trusted friend for help if you have trouble answering this question.
  2. Will you plan time for a spiritual retreat or at least set aside a few hours for personal spiritual growth and study?
  3. Are there additional steps you should take besides the ones listed here?