Vicarious Trauma and Self Care

‘It is inevitable that the doctor should be influenced to a certain extent and even his nervous health should suffer. He quite literally ‘‘takes over’’ the sufferings of his patient and shares them with him. For this reason he runs a risk and must run it in the nature of things’1

Pastors, like therapists, routinely listen to people who tell stories of trauma. Pastors routinely deal with intensely conflicted situations. We are frequently the primary first-responders when a family is in conflict, in crisis or in trauma. The results of this kind of chronic exposure to trauma can be quite significant. There is now a whole vocabulary for what can happen to people who witness or hear about traumatic experiences: indirect trauma, vicarious trauma, secondary trauma, burnout, countertransference, compassion fatigue. Whatever you call it, pastors are at high risk. Fortunately, if you know that ‘vicarious trauma’ is potentially part of the territory, you can anticipate it and make appropriate self-care plans.


Headington Institute eLearning Course on Trauma Related Stress (Click on ‘continue’ at bottom right of first screen)

See also their training modules here. While focused on the vicarious trauma and stress experienced by international humanitarian workers, the overlap with the experiences of religious professionals will be obvious.

Post Traumatic Stress: The Pastoral Experience by Thomas F. Fischer.


Clergy Self-Care: Finding a Balance for Effective Ministry by Roy M. Oswald.

Rest in the Storm: Self-Care Strategies for Clergy and Other Caregivers Kirk Byron Jones


Vicarious traumatisation: current status and future directions. Dunkley, Jane; Whelan, Thomas A. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, Feb2006, Vol. 34 Issue 1, p107-116, 10p

Preventing Vicarious Trauma: What Counselors Should Know When Working With Trauma Survivors., By: Trippany, Robyn L., White Kress, Victoria E., Wilcoxon, S. Allen, Journal of Counseling & Development, 07489633, Winter2004, Vol. 82, Issue 1


Get a Therapist/Spiritual Director/Coach/Sponsor
You have got to be kidding. I’m way too busy taking care of other people. The only therapists I trust are the one’s to whom I refer people in my congregation. I can’t be sitting in the waiting room when they come out of a session! Pastors aren’t suppose to be the one’s needing help. I’m suppose to be the one helping traumatized people. My congregation needs me to be strong. My family needs me to be strong. God needs me to be strong. . . sound familiar? Just do it.

Keep the Sabbath
Remember that bit. . . the bit about resting. The biblical text does not present rest as an optional activity. So. . . rest. If your higher power complains that you are not dedicated enough, committed enough or working hard enough, fire him (or her). If you serve a God that doesn’t insist that you rest and support you when you do it. . . that god does not deserve your worship and service. Fire him. The sooner the better. Don’t try to negotiate with that you-are-not-working-hard-enough god. Just fire him. Do whatever it takes to find a God who honors you when you honor the Sabbath, a God whose ‘burdens’ are light.

Take a Sabbatical

Other Options
Exercise, limit your office hours, stop going to all those meetings (it might actually empower some others to lead), do boundaries (not study, do), build a support base outside of the congregation, build a support base within the congregation, connect with other pastors who are struggling (see Clergy Recovery Network), ask for help, ask again, do something fun, read something that can’t possibly fit in the category of ‘sermon preparation’, tell the truth (it takes a lot less energy than image management, spin etc. ), if you need to go to A.A or S.A. then go to A.A. or S.A., . . . None of this is really rocket science. None of it. But it does require action. Do it. You are a lovable, precious and fallible child of a grace-full Father. . . taking time to care for you is not a waste of time.

  1. JUNG, C.G. (1966). The Practice of Psychotherapy: Essays on the Psychology of the Transference and Other Subjects . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University. 

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