Richard Harrison and Marvin Westwood from the University of British Columbia propose that the very empathy that we use to offer care to others can help to protect us from vicarious trauma. I am going to write a series of reflections on their article as it relates to pastoral care.
It’s been a hard week, all around, for people who offer pastoral care to others. I’ve been wondering about my own spiritual landscape and thinking of what I need to continue to do the work of ministry in a sustainable way. Having a holiday with family was delightful, and yet, I know I’ll begin the next week with a memorial service. How do I do the work without letting it do me in?
Vicarious trauma is not burnout, but actual injury.
One reason I am giving this serious thought is that I’ve heard at least one statistic that Unitarian Universalist ministers spend, on the average, five years in ministry. I find this staggering, since a Master of Divinity degree, the educational preparation required for ministry, takes three years. One of the things that is important to me is considering the impact of vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma is a complex group of, “cumulative transformative effects [. . . ] resulting from empathic engagement with [people].” The cumulative effect can be damaging on people who offer care and can result in, “physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms” the same as those of people in their care.” Talk about taking your work home with you!
In ministry, we talk openly about letting the suffering of others break our hearts. I think, at times, we are assuming that our hearts with naturally mend themselves. In fact, ministers or intern ministers can engage in nine different kinds of protective practices that will allow them to be resilient when it comes to the trauma of others or vicarious trauma. I’ll be writing on these separately and considering what they mean for me as a seminarian and intern minister.
"Countering professional isolation"
Addressing isolation can help us deal with the impact of trauma. This is interesting because Unitarian Universalist congregations arise and thrive in community. But their caregiver, then, the minister works, in some ways, alone. Though she may have a staff, there is some grief and trauma that she can only process with another clergy person. This immediately makes me think of UUMA resources, but I can call to mind at the same time colleagues who are too burdened with work to come to collegial meetings. That’s a real thing. The knowledge of what’s at stake urges me to both prioritize time with colleagues and to have a back-up plan for when its not possible.
I have a cohort for my ministry internship. I wonder what would allow us to make part of the culture that we talk openly about countering isolation. I wonder if there can be more specific support for consideration of pastoral care case studies. We participate in supervision as a cohort and as individual interns, but I wonder if further consideration of “supervision as relational healing” is something we can build into the work that we do together. In order to allow that to occur, I would have to be able to be open about the symptoms and effects of vicarious trauma on me as I see them. If I were discussing with others, I might hear how they deal with the effects of vicarious trauma. For everyone, the shame of vicarious trauma would lessen.
For me, this means that while it is important to gather with colleagues, the nature of the conversations that we have can make more difference if it addresses the deep difficulties that arise in giving pastoral care. I wonder if those conversations are possible in current structures. I wonder what else can be created to foster them.
For the entire article, please see, as follows:
Richard L. Harrison and Marvin J. Westwood, “Preventing Vicarious Traumatization of Mental Health Therapists: Identifying Protective Practices,” Psychotherapy, Theory, Research, Practice, Training 42 (2009); 203-219.