Social justice activists are in danger of buckling under the weight of responsibility to create a better world – and they need to guard against burnout, according to Evert-Jan Ouweneel, a fundraising adviser for World Vision.
In Australia recently and speaking at The Justice Conference in Melbourne, the Dutch expert told a group of Christians interested in social justice that it was not possible for them to solve the world’s problems, especially if they relied on their own strength. He suggested they need antidotes to counteract their compassion.
“Compassion is a highway to a burnout because if you truly start loving a person in need, it’s never good enough until you reach perfection, so you will feel the responsibility,” he told the 1100 delegates at the annual conference hosted by Tear Australia, which had the theme ‘Love Thy Neighbour.’
He counselled the Christian audience to celebrate small steps of progress, hold on to joy, make sure their vision was as big as God’s and keep within God’s kingdom.
“We don’t want you to get burnout from loving your neighbour. So we need some pastoral care, if not some damage control, because we can’t only heat up the fire in our lives and become more compassionate. It’s just that you can’t become compassionate for seven billion people. You need to make choices; you need to somehow see what is your share.”
Six tips on how to limit compassion overload
1. Discern what is on your plate
Ouweneel suggested three tools to decide what to get involved in. First, use your intuition: which issue touches you the most; what keeps haunting you? “What is the issue or opportunity that makes your heart beat faster?” Second, if you are touched by all of the issues you encounter in your life, calculate what you can do the most about given your gifts and talents. Finally, if you are hyper-gifted and can do everything, ask someone else for advice on what to focus on. “Someone else could be God, as well,” quipped Ouweneel.
2. Don’t start organising. Let go
“Remember you’re actually an employee in the kingdom of God, so here’s the next step – let go,” Ouweneel said. “It’s not your kingdom; you’re about to enter a project in someone else’s kingdom … If you’re not entering the kingdom as you act upon your compassion you’ll be limited to who you are … There will be more if you include God.”
As soon as you feel the burden of activism weighing on your shoulders, you will need antidotes. “Three times a day, like taking a pill, keep repeating: ‘it’s not my kingdom.’ Keep repeating it until you believe it … Three times a day: ‘your will be done’.” And bear in mind, Ouweneel said, “the more you can entrust yourself to the king, the more he can entrust stuff to you. No trust in the king – no project from the king.”
3. Ensure your battery is charged
Ouweneel said that in his work with World Vision he had met a lot of people in very difficult circumstances. He had observed that some of them “dance themselves through their misery.” Why? Because, to cope with difficult circumstances, you need to find the joy. “Here’s one joy: you’re not alone; this is not your project; again, God is with us – keep staying grateful.” The other joy is remembering that evil will not conquer the good things in life. “So what you need to do if you are facing evil and injustice is, somehow you need to get back on a regular basis to the good foundations of life to charge your battery.” Catch up with friends, walk in nature, attend a concert, look at marvellous paintings. “Do whatever you like to charge your battery and to convince yourself that good is stronger than evil.”
4. Enjoy your one-sidedness
Don’t think you have to be self-sufficient. There are many situations where we are supposed to join forces, Ouweneel said. “Benefit from the fact that you’re a one-sided person – you have the best excuse in the world to look for someone else to help.” He joked that God had the greatest fun creating us because when he made a human being, he made two. “If you want to look at what human being created in God’s image looks like, you need more than one person.”
5. Keep thinking too big
You don’t need the “kingdom focus” if you limit your vision to what is doable, he said. “You need Christ to hold on to a dream that’s too big, so make sure that you don’t ever reduce your dream into what is doable … pursue that dream of fullness of life for everyone and every creature on earth. That’s the dream God has in mind. Don’t make it smaller.” Just be available to God.
6. Keep celebrating small steps
As a Dutchman, Ouweneel said his countrymen have the Calvinistic attitude of not celebrating progress because they already see the next wrong. “No, no, no, no, no! …You won’t recharge your battery if you don’t celebrate. You need to celebrate small steps and then you will see we are making progress. And as you celebrate small steps, discern what was your share in it and what was God’s share in it and the more you see that it was also God acting, and even primarily God acting, then you will know again you are not alone; you have reasons for gratitude.”