What price priesthood?

31 January 2007

The first detailed study concerning the clergy who take early retirement because of ill health — some of it caused by stress — will be published by the Church of England in a few weeks. Rachel Harden reports

Under pressure: now that there are fewer of the clergy, the responsibilites of parish life are said to be putting many of them under greater strain Helen Anderson

Under pressure: now that there are fewer of the clergy, the responsibilites of parish life are said to be putting many of them under greater strain

NORMAN was rushed into intensive care with meningitis. After a fortnight in hospital, seriously ill, he was discharged, and returned to the vicarage to recover. But the illness had left him debilitated and unable to think clearly (a common side-effect of meningitis). He became depressed.

Looking back, he admits that he was at a low ebb even before he became ill, worn down by the demands of a busy inner-city parish. But afterwards, he says, there were few structures in place to help him recover, and he could no longer face the stresses of parish life.

Clergy burnout, or stress, is not new. Over the past decade, there has been a growing amount of research into it — not just about why, and how, but about what is best practice when priests say they that can no longer cope.

Concern that increasing numbers of the clergy are retiring early owing to stress-related illness has led to a new way of recording clergy absence through sickness. In 2006, for the first time, the Church of England collated information on sick-leave by type, including stress. The figures will be sent to bishops and senior diocesan staff at the beginning of April.

Last year, the Bishop of Hulme, the Rt Revd Stephen Lowe, recently appointed Bishop for Urban Life and Faith, not only stated that the clergy were working too many hours, but called for a national debate about what parishioners should expect from their parish priest.

Writing in Crux, the Manchester diocesan monthly, he said that many of the clergy now worked 70 to 80 hours a week, and routinely put their ministry ahead of their family or their own health.

He warned: “We just can’t go on like this. The number of church buildings, PCCs, schools, parish projects, evangelism initiatives, and community demands that each priest has responsibility for are increasing inexorably with the decline in the number of clergy.”


Dr Yvonne Warren, a counsellor and marital therapist, was a clergy wife for 40 years, and experienced first-hand the pressures of parish life. Three years ago she wrote The Cracked Pot: The state of today’s Anglican parish clergy (Kevin Mayhew), in which she observed that the Church in the 21st century is experiencing a cataclysmic time of change, with huge implications. “This has affected patterns of ministry more than most, and many clergy are feeling the impact of this, not just in terms of workload, but in their sense of frustration and feeling of increasing irrelevance in a largely secularised society.”

Since the book was published, Dr Warren has been in demand as a speaker and educator for ordinands and priests.

The negative consequences of priesthood are raised in some detail in The Future of the Parish System: Shaping the Church of England for the 21st century, published by Church House at the end of 2006.

In a chapter of the book dedicated to “the psychologically dark side of church life”, Dr Sara Savage, a social psychologist and a senior researcher at the University of Cambridge, considers the negative features of the parish system. She highlights how clergy often carry about a set of unattainable goals based on other people’s unreasonable expectations.

She also identifies the cause of a great deal of stress in parish life — difficult people. “I am reliably informed that one of the most stressful features of ministry is the effort to be nice to ‘difficult people’,” writes Dr Savage, although she also admits that defining others as “difficult” can be a projection of one’s own personality disorders.

She concludes: “Theological training rarely includes ‘handling difficult people’ on the syllabus (although it should). Handling them requires compassion and firm boundaries, as in one vicar’s pithy advice: ‘Form a real relationship with them — and then sit on them.’ ”

The Revd Fred Lehr, of the American Evangelical Lutheran Church, sets out a personal stress-assessment for clergy in his new book Clergy Burnout: “Have you ever lost sleep because of the behaviour (i.e. comments) of a member of your church, and do you think everything would be okay if only a troublesome member of your church would stop or control his/her behaviour?”

If “often” is the answer to these or any of the 40 assessment questions, it is an area of ministry requiring “immediate attention”, he says. He urges priests to seek the help of a qualified professional.


Subtitled Recovering from the 70-hour work week. . . and other self-defeating practices, Mr Lehr’s book describes how, as a parish priest, he had a terrible time saying “no”, and loved feeling needed. “In reality it exhausted me, and I hated constantly being caught between my family and my congregation. I found myself helplessly falling in what we call burnout.” He sought help, and used his experience to work on a specialised treatment programme.

THE Society of Martha and Mary, (www.sheldon.uk.com) in its 2002 report Affirmation and Accountability, called on dioceses and other church structures to provide more constructive solutions for clergy who were on stress-related sick leave.

The suggestions included a code of professional conduct for each diocese, as well as a recommendation that every diocese should have a director of pastoral care and counselling who operates alongside ministerial review schemes to identify those of the clergy who are under pressure.

Four years later, Sarah Horsman, a spokeswoman for the Society, said that the ecumenical charity was functioning at capacity in dealing with members of the clergy, spouses, and others in leadership who were struggling with stress.

“We do not collect statistics, but anecdotally we have to say it is not a problem that is going away.”

A Church of England spokesman said that every diocese now had a director of pastoral care and counselling, and ran ministerial review schemes “to identify clergy under pressure and ensure that potential problems are addressed before they become acute”.

But one of the Society’s ongoing concerns is the lack of options for the clergy who may need more than two or three month’s sick-leave.

“For some, the only option is a year or 18 months out of ministry and then a slow, structured return. But this does not often happen. The real problem arises when stress is linked with the place of work — the parish. They are the people we worry about most. There need to be special measures, which we talk about in the report. There are so many things to take into account, particularly if there are children at local schools; so moving right away is not an option. We hope that dioceses are taking up our recommendations.”

Early retirement on health grounds is not always the most constructive way forward, says Ms Horsman, particularly for clergy in their 40s who may have 20 working years ahead of them. “Constructive compromise is what is needed.”


Some dioceses are trying to help clergy work out a more acceptable work/life balance as an established pattern in ministry, by offering access to stress management consultations paid for by the diocese or by individual PCCs.

InterHealth specialises in the care of personnel in overseas aid, relief, and development, and Christian ministry. They offer personalised consultations for the clergy. The consultant pyschotherapist Annie Hargrave, after 17 one-off consultations, found common themes of an enjoyment of ministry and an ongoing desire to sustain commitment. This was overshadowed, however, by stress — particularly from the never-ending workload.

A significant number also said that a lack of supportive line-management was a problem. And nearly half said that they had specific difficulties in the parish which they found hard to separate from their home-life.

“We sought to explore whatever possibilities seemed realistic to encourage clergy to be creative and pro-active about their work/life balance, so as to enhance their personal wellbeing and enrich their ministries,” said Ms Hargrave.

At the end of the session, clergy were given self-monitoring questionnaires that would be used to track progress. Follow-up appointments were also offered. InterHealth is gathering together the work/life-balance ideas that people said were working for them, and is posting them on the company’s website (www.interhealth.org.uk).

THE Revd Helen Lealman, who has been a trained counsellor for 20 years, established the Listening Ear counselling service in the diocese of Bradford three years ago.

This can be the first port of call for clergy and their families in need of support, but as the issue is not always straightforward, Mrs Lealman often refers them elsewhere. Last year, she also ran a deanery stress workshop, which, she hopes, will be repeated.

“Clergy usually make contact with a specific problem, which is often accompanied by stress, but while some degree of stress may be normal, it is when a crisis arises within or without, or stress continues for prolonged periods, that they find themselves unable to cope.

“Stress-related problems can be very difficult to disentangle — how each person contributes to his or her situation, what belongs to a parish, and how to deal with each of those.”

Mrs Lealman feels that there are heightened expectations of the clergy in parish life today which can be difficult to live up to. “Not coping can bring a sense of shame or disgrace, which only adds to the sense of isolation. This is doubly difficult with the gaze of a parish upon you.”


She believes that it is very important for the clergy to try to keep appropriate boundaries. They must “give themselves permission to ask for help which may avert a crisis later on.”

Maintaining boundaries is easier in chaplaincy work than in parish life, she says. But chaplaincy, too, can bring its own stress. Last month, Worcester NHS Trust reported that two of its three full-time hospital chaplains were on sick leave due to stress-related illness (News, 19 January).

One of the things she feels that the Church needs to address during theological training is clergy stress. She also believes it is important for there to be a person who can be consulted who is not part of the diocesan structure.

“When the contact person is ‘clergy’, they could be seen as part of the organisation. There must be no possible conflict of interest when clergy are off sick, as, even though counselling might be part of recovery, it should be completely separate from the response made by the diocese as employer.

“I would suggest that all clergy should have access to regular supervision, where they can talk about their work and relationships in a supportive environment.”

Apart from offering counselling to clergy and their families in Bradford, the Listening Ear service also offers a session to those going to a bishop’s advisory panel. “We offer the chance to explore feelings if the Church were to say ‘no’, as this can have an enormous effect on someone’s life. Should that be so, then three further free sessions are available. This service gives candidates the experience of being listened to, and fosters their ability to reflect upon themselves. I know that it has been much appreciated.”

‘No one obvious to talk to’
Jane, 45, first incumbency

Apart from offering counselling to clergy and their families in Bradford, the Listening Ear service also offers a session to those going to a bishop’s advisory panel. “We offer the chance to explore feelings if the Church were to say ‘no’, as this can have an enormous effect on someone’s life. Should that be so, then three further free sessions are available. This service gives candidates the experience of being listened to, and fosters their ability to reflect upon themselves. I know that it has been much appreciated.”

‘No one obvious to talk to’
Jane, 45, first incumbency

“I had no idea how stressful it could be, not being able to hand things over to my vicar. I was glad to move on from my curacy, as I wanted to be able to run things, but I spend a lot of time worrying, often waking in the night. There does not seem to be anyone obvious to talk it over with, and it does not help that I am single. I am coping at the moment.”


‘A culmination of factors’
Andrew, 51, long-serving parish priest

‘A culmination of factors’
Andrew, 51, long-serving parish priest

“Clergy stress is often not one thing; it is a culmination of factors — the difficult person or situation may be just the final straw.

“I know a lot of priests like myself who have been ordained since their late 20s: we still live over the shop, have a much higher workload than when we started (yet we get little recognition for this), and it is certainly not reflected in our salaries, as is the norm in other walks of professional life. I also think, compared with a generation ago, clergy get less respect.

“I am an area dean, as well as having elderly parents to consider, and two children at university.

But I did make a mental decision a few years ago not to feel guilty if I played the odd round of golf when it was not my day off. You have to balance that with the times when you are working very long hours.”

‘Parish life contributed’
Ruth, 54, clergy wife

‘Parish life contributed’
Ruth, 54, clergy wife

“My husband retired early on health grounds a few years ago. I am convinced the stress of parish life contributed to this. It is difficult to pinpoint, but one of the hardest things was when he was ill, and people kept stopping me and the children to ask.

“By the end, I just felt they wanted us to go. It was a very difficult time. We briefly relocated in the area while the children finished school.”

‘What was lacking was a structured approach’
Norman, 52, his story continued . . .

‘What was lacking was a structured approach’
Norman, 52, his story continued . . .

When Norman moved back to the vicarage for recovery, the church secretary still came twice a week to work, but the parish had been told by the area dean to leave him alone. As it turned out, Norman feels that “structured, pre-arranged contact at this point, from a designated person in the church, would have been very welcome.”

He received pastoral visits from the Bishop and his chaplain. But Norman felt the underlying agenda was: “When do you think you will be back at work?”

“One of the hardest things for a parish priest is that when they fall ill, for whatever reason, it can be very hard to be supported by those you know well — your congregation. They are told to leave you alone, or cannot cope with a leader no longer being able to lead. For anyone else, a church can be a great source of comfort at this time.”


Pastorally, he felt that a local group of Roman Catholic nuns made him feel most supported. And he admits he was in the fortunate position of having a small property where he could stay — but not all the clergy would have this option, particularly those with children at local schools. His wife, however, was not able to go away with him, as she worked full-time. More than that, she came to feel that she could no longer attend church. The marriage came under strain, and the couple eventually separated.

Norman was on sick leave for just over two years before retiring, aged 47, on health grounds. Even at the end, he said, the situation was not handled well.

“The mountain of detail was often left ambiguous, leaving all parties feeling confused and frustrated. Summaries of discussions in writing would have been helpful, so as to prevent later misunderstanding and frustration for both parties.”

Since then, Norman has undertaken further study; he has helped out at a church in a pastoral capacity; and he has been able to maintain a relationship.

He hopes that dioceses now have better systems for the clergy on long-term sick leave.

“What was lacking for me was a structured approach. There should be a default system that comes into play — not necessarily led by the church hierarchy, but by a designated person.

“My situation was probably summed up best by the fact that a man who knocked at the door carrying out market research saw that I needed help with my sickness-benefit form. He came back later to help. I would like to think that that has changed, and that systematic and proactive diocesan procedures — devised by pastoral specialists with psychological, legal, and financial advisers — would now be part of the default diocesan package.”

*All names have been changed



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