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House-for-duty clergy: questions to answer

20 December 2013

Part-time posts seem to make full-time demands. Parishes' expectations should be more realistic, argues Ron Wood

MORE and more advertisements in this newspaper are for house-for-duty positions - not just for assistant members of the clergy like me, but for Priests-in-Charge of whole benefices. The adverts all seem to read the same, whether they are for full-time stipendiary clergy, full-time non-stipendiary clergy, or part-time house-for-duty priests. All ask for commitment, vision, enthusiasm, and the willingness to engage in every aspect of the life of the parish.

Not all dioceses are prepared to employ clergy on a house-for-duty basis, but those that do are doing so more and more. I am becoming curious. Is this the Church, strapped for cash, getting a cheaper alternative to conventional, stipendiary ministry?

I wonder whether those parishes that are advertising are counting on the idea that, once in place, their priest will actually work pretty much full time. Perhaps the people of those parishes are not really aware of what they are getting, and not getting. The place to start asking, I thought, was here, in Camelot, Somerset.

I could have stayed at my previous parish in Surrey until I was 70: that is what "common tenure" means. Or I could have stayed until I was 65, and retired; but that would have seemed a bit abrupt, landing in retirement with a thud. So, at 60, I compromised. I wrote to some West Country bishops (most of my ministry had been around these parts), asking what they had in the house-for-duty line. Bath & Wells made the right noises, and here I am.

WE HAD done the sums. I could take my pension and, with my wife's pension, we would have enough. And that is the case. But another house-for-duty priest in this diocese has not been so fortunate. He is actually Priest-in-Charge of six parishes, and lives outside the benefice, in the town near by. I'll call him Jim.

Jim had thought that, as he had his pension, he would be, as it were, retired, and the fees for occasional Offices would be part of his income. I must admit, I had thought the same thing. Not so: fees go to the diocese, just like those for stipendiary clergy. Jim found that he had less income than he had counted on.

There are ten parishes in my benefice, and I am Assistant Priest. There are three Readers, and a number of Lay Worship Leaders. I am part of a strong, supportive team.

So I have my weekly meeting with the Rector on Thursday morning, do the toddler group and school assembly on a Thursday, and the retirement-home services and visits on Thursdays and Sundays. Fridays are for visiting anybody who I think might need my ministry (and that is the Rector's day off).

The problem is that the rest of the benefice is set in its ways. The Group Council meets on a Monday. The Ministry Team meets on Saturday mornings. Funerals get arranged for early in the week. Wedding couples cannot always meet me on Thursdays and Fridays; and they mostly get married on Saturdays.

So I do things when they need doing, and actually I don't mind much, although my wife sometimes grumbles that we could have had a longer break at our seaside flat, if it hadn't been for that meeting, that committee, or that funeral.

Jim also does things when they need to be done, regardless of which day they happen to fall on, but, as he is the only priest in six parishes, there are more of them. And, if a funeral has taken up a day, or more, with visits to the bereaved, and the service itself, does he have time off in lieu? Not if his parishioners have any say. They expect him to do whatever else he does, and be where he normally is. As far as his parishioners are concerned, funerals are as well as, not instead of.

I CAN boast that I get all the fun bits of ministry - visiting, leading worship, being with people - with none of the hassle, administration, and rotas: that is all the Rector's responsibility.

Jim's churchwardens assured him that they would deal with the admin side of the parishes, and so they do. Jim is not expected to go to PCC meetings. But this means that the PCC cannot discuss the real, spiritual side of things, such as patterns of worship, unless their priest is there.

A great deal of the life of his parishes can actually go on without his knowledge. Perhaps that does not matter, but which is easier: to go to a meeting, or to spend time afterwards being briefed on what went on?

Then there is the whole matter of what the diocese terms as work. Writing sermons, preparing special services: is that work? If I sit at the keyboard for an afternoon, writing my sermon, or putting the family service together, why am I not out visiting?

People in the parish do not always understand that their priest is still working, even if they cannot see him or her. And believe me, if people make you feel guilty: you feel guilty.

The urge to be the priest whom people expect is strong, and I wonder whether parishes are counting on this, when they decide to go down the house-for-duty road. It might just be hard for a part-time priest to do a full-time job.

If a diocese or archdeaconry decides that it wants a house-for-duty priest, part-time, that parish needs to be thoroughly educated to a realistic expectation. Perhaps I was lucky, in that there was a priest before me on the same basis. The benefice had had time to get used to the idea of a priest who was there for them, sometimes in every sense bar his physical presence.

The churchwardens may pay lip-service to the notion, but the ordinary parishioners also need to understand that whatever their past vicars have delivered, a two-day working week cannot be the same.

The Revd Ron Wood is house-for-duty Assistant Priest in the Camelot Parishes, in the diocese of Bath & Wells.

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