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Wartime chaplains working through ‘compassion fatigue’

Wartime chaplains working through ‘compassion fatigue’

The New York Times profiles Maj. David Bowlus, a chaplain to Army Rangers.

A recent doctoral dissertation by Vance P. Theodore at Kansas State University, based on a survey of 408 chaplains, calculated that about 20 percent showed signs of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. One evocative umbrella term for chaplains is “compassion fatigue.”

…. Only after six or seven years did the toll begin to catch up with Major Bowlus in the form of weight gain, lethargy, irritability, aloofness from his wife — what he summed up recently as “the road to depression.” Doing what comes hardest for almost any minister — admitting he or she needs help — Major Bowlus began confiding in several other chaplains, some West Point friends and an Air Force officer he had come to know during church services in Afghanistan.

…. Around the same time, in 2008, the Army established its Center for Spiritual Leadership, to offer everything from retreats to discussion groups to reading lists for chaplains hitting the same psychic wall as Major Bowlus had. The overall goal is to equip chaplains with “resiliency,” an alloy of perseverance and faith.

The abstract of Theodore’s research:

This study examined the relationships between and among the factors of compassion fatigue, burnout, compassion satisfaction and spiritual resiliency in association with the care work of United States Army chaplains who minister to soldiers, families, and Department of the Army (DA) civilians in the military. This investigation breaks new ground in understanding the factors that affect chaplain care work. Data were collected from 408 active duty Army chaplains who responded to and completed the online survey…. Of particular interest, the measurement scales of Spiritual Well-Being and Resiliency were combined to develop a new measurement construct labeled Spiritual Resiliency…. Findings indicated that spiritual resiliency ebbed and flowed as a function of the different levels of compassion fatigue, burnout, and compassion satisfaction experienced by the chaplains because of their care work…. Results from the findings were underpinned by explicit narrative comments provided by chaplains. These comments provided rich material in support of the significant relationships discovered in this study, and offered insights into how care work is both meaningful and necessary for maintaining a healthier chaplaincy.


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