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Time of trial in the vicarage

05 July 2013

Alan Wilson wishes he had read this book on clergy stress before a crisis in his ministry

Resilient Pastors: The role of adversity in healing and growth
Justine Allain-Chapman
SPCK £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT448 )

MINISTRY is great if it doesn't kill you. Every church values pastoral care, but what is the cost? St Paul's great list of acute stressors, hazards of being an early Christian, included shipwrecks, beatings, hunger, false brethren, riots, and imprisonments; but worse than any of that, he said, was the chronic "care of the churches".

I have myself skirted the edge of personal breakdown, most acutely in the 1980s as an urban vicar. I was trying to be a priest, serve the community, bury the dead, keep the living happy, do a bit of paperwork on the side, run a PCC, entertain other people's children, keep the prayer wheels turning and the home fires burning, feed a few gentlemen of the road cheese sandwiches, and occasionally make good things happen.

This toxic mess was brought to the boil by having to cope with my parents' declining health on my days off. In a moment of frustration with the whole damn lot, I burst into tears, and kicked in an electric fire under my desk. If lashing out was supposed to make me feel better, I instantly felt worse: I had believed that I was just a nice little vicar, not the kind of child to behave like that.

I suspect that most clergy of long travel, as the Methodists call it, have experienced such spikes. The chickens come home to roost from high ideals and too-ardent beginnings, and we have to reinvent ourselves from time to time. How can this be done? How can the stressors in ministry be turned to good account?

Justine Allain-Chapman's work, based on doctoral research, examines the place of struggle in developing sustainable and fruitful ministry. She uses desert spirituality as a great resource, with its underlying concept of the Christian as an athlete in training. The Olympics and Paralympics demonstrated that a due measure of stress, sensitively handled in a focused way, can sometimes yield greatness. She adds to this insight from the field of psychology.

This is not a how-to book. The only fruitful ways through pastoral breakdown involve personal growth - gardening rather than engineering. The growth happens only within the context of mutual relationships and honest willingness to engage with life as it is.

This pragmatic and compassionate book is a cogent protest against any tendency to romanticise ministry, or to hide behind the kind of steel-rimmed, depersonalised façade that was much in vogue among some of the Catholic clergy of my youth. The author deconstructs the ideal of the "wounded healer", especially in its more escapist forms.

I wish I had read this book years ago. It might not have saved me all my most cringeworthy experiences, but it would have set them in context, and helped me accept them with compassion, understanding, and hope.

Dr Alan Wilson is the Bishop of Buckingham.

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