Curacies: what is wrong and how to rectify it

07 February 2014

The Church's approach to new clergy has become bureaucratic, rigid, and out of date: change is essential, argues Matthew Caminer

WHEN the Archbishop of Canterbury coined the expression "Good vicars = growing Churches" (Comment, 10 January), it prompted the questions where and how such clergy would be developed to meet the needs of the Church.

The reality is that there has been a revolution in the past few years. Common Tenure, the Hind report, and IME4-7 have ushered in a new era of management-speak, which might make the Church seem well organised and up to date, but the fault lines in pastoral care are as much in evidence as ever.

The way in which the Church cares for its clergy and their families ought to be the envy of the secular world of employment. Instead, there is a fast-growing patina of professionalism expressed in the language of human resources, superimposed on old models and largely unchanged thinking and behaviour.

This is particularly evident in training curacies. Stories abound of curates and training incumbents deluged with checklists that seem to add little value, except to provide evidence that is largely subjective.

It would not be so bad if it were simply a question of over-zealous bureaucracy. Somehow, though, in its double push towards mission-shaped and minster models, the Church does not seem to have grasped the radical change in the demographics of the people who are now offering themselves for ordination.

The paradigm shift is enormous. Only a generation or two ago, the typical curate in training was young, male, inexperienced, and newly married, if not single. He would have been in full-time stipendiary ministry, and would probably serve two three-year curacies.

In contrast, today's curates represent a 50:50 mix of males and females, and nearly half are self-supporting. They frequently have extensive experience from a first career; and many already have a lifetime serving the Church in a lay capacity.

Most serve only a single curacy, and it is no longer true that all curates will move into positions of responsibility in a parish setting. That is just one of many outdated assumptions that shape approaches to training and formation, which leave a strong sense of "one size fits all".


CURACIES often do prosper, even in spite of the great mix of pressures and training overheads for the individuals and their families. Some curates positively thrive, but, for many others, the experience is one of misery, festering resentment, and mental and spiritual deterioration, without any sense of hope, because to complain may be seen as failure and detrimental to progress.

Here are some stories, based on the experiences of curates and training incumbents.

After a successful career in industry, Christopher was ordained. He had had an intense interest in theological study, and had undertaken many courses, culminating in a doctorate. When he was appointed to his curacy, his diocese required him to undertake a theological course leading to a degree, "because it's policy that all curates should undertake academic study".

This was frustrating for Christopher, and diverted him from the more productive on-the-job experience that he now needed. Here and in other instances, rigid processes seem to have overruled common sense.

Relationships can also become dysfunctional. Take Judy, for instance. It was known that she had a heart condition. There was complete transparency, and it had been expected that her contribution would be based on "light duties" in part-time, self-supporting ministry. Actually, this cohered with her special calling to prayer.

Hardly before the ink was dry on her learning agreement, however, she found herself burdened by a training incumbent who seemed to be in denial about the underlying health questions, and took the word "no" as a personal affront.

Judy had to withdraw from her curacy prematurely, because the build-up of physical and emotional stress, coupled with a dysfunctional working relationship, was likely to cause irreversible deterioration to her health.

Anthony was ordained after many years as a lay worker in hospital chaplaincy. It was always his intention that his priestly ministry should build on this. He was faced with two challenges. In the first place, his diocese did not seem to understand how anyone could want to be a priest without being an incumbent in parish ministry, as if he were opting for second-best. Also, although his full-time working week and family life left little time for study, he was confronted with a full "Rolls-Royce" post-ordination training package, which left him in despair.

It is not all one-sided, of course. Most training incumbents work sacrificially and to great effect to ensure that their assistant curates are given the best possible foundation. This dedication is not always reciprocated. For example, Richard, an experienced and respected training incumbent, was astonished at the demands of a newly ordained curate, who seemed to expect the entire life of the parish to have her vision and her ministry at its heart. The curate would not be told, and the repercussions had an impact on the whole parish. The curacy failed quickly.

Finally, there is Janice. Variations of her experience seem to crop up with monotonous regularity. Her curacy started well, and she had an excellent working relationship with her training incumbent and the parish as a whole.

Then the incumbent obtained a new position, leaving Janice without any structure, while undertaking many of the tasks that had previously been shared. Someone outside the parish nominally acted as her supervisor, but they met only once. The curacy drifted. Without adequate pastoral oversight or a reliable support mechanism, the result was overwork, stress, and breakdown.

BEING stretched is not bad in itself. To an extent, all curates need to go through a refiner's fire to prepare themselves for the reality of priestly life. In a climate of appropriate care and supervision, it can be a rich period of growth. Without such support, however, the curacy can be blighted by indifference, futile bureaucracy, bullying, and more.

The impact of curacy-breakdown is huge for all those involved - curate, training incumbent, congregation, and wider Church. From a financial point of view, the attrition that too frequently occurs offers a poor return on the huge investment of the Church in selection and training.

It would not be necessary to raise awareness of situations such as these if they were discussed openly. More often than not, however, most people are unaware of the difficulties encountered by far too many curates. Others take the view that "We had to go through it, and it didn't do us any harm." Such an attitude is hardly a recipe for healthy curacies as a foundation for ministry, or for flourishing congregations.

THERE needs to be a sober realisation that today's ordinands and curates are different fromyesterday's. They represent a diversity of church-involvement, ecclesiology, gender, personality, skill-sets, occupational experience, and family situation. What they offer is a gift to the Church.

An enlightened approach is needed to help curates respond to their vocations, while offering appropriate pastoral frameworks. The same flexibility and care are needed to protect already over-stretched training incumbents, while congregations need to have a clear understanding of their part in nurturing curates.

Here, therefore, is a five-point plan:

1) At a national level, the Church should review the effectiveness of the different components of IME4-7, now that the first cohort is completing curacies. It should assess what has worked well, and what has not.

Things that enrich curacies, such as hard-skills days and ministry-development groups, should be maintained; whereas requirements that appear to satisfy due diligence without adding any other value should be scaled back. These could include the sort of essay-writing that belongs in the pre-ordination phase, and much of the form-filling. Best practice in different dioceses should be identified and adopted in the wider Church.

2) At a diocesan level, IME officers, bishops, and archdeacons should review their processes for handling difficult curacies. They should seek to restore the pastoral dimension that appears to have been diluted.

They could consider deploying work consultants at the start of the curacy, in order to provide an independent voice in the establishment of the working agreement; and they should not hesitate to recommend mediation when the need becomes clear.

3) Curates should be realistic about scenarios that may challenge their integrity, and not allow themselves to be squashed. They should protect their family life, nurture friendships outside the church, and use support mechanisms.

They might also, however, review their expectations, particularly in terms of the obedience, humility, and hard graft that are inherent in their position, and in terms of the continuing professional development that is the norm in many fields.

4) Some training incumbents may similarly need to review the huge responsibility that they are taking on. They might start by reviewing their working patterns, protecting their time off, and ensuring that they, too, have support mechanisms in place for when the going gets tough. There should be an understanding that a curacy is a net overhead, and not a net gain.

5) Finally, congregations need to be educated that accepting a curate is a shared responsibility, and is not simply about getting a "spare pair of hands". Quite the opposite: it is actually likely to make incumbents busier, and to occupy large amounts of their time.

The national Church and dioceses should consider producing a simple curacy training pack for churchwardens, PCCs, and the rest of the congregation.

This is just a start, and the plan could be elaborated on. At a pragmatic level, a frank appraisal that leads to corrective actions would help to protect the Church's massive investment in selection, formation, and training. At a pastoral level, it would ensure that the shepherds are nurtured, and their families, too.

At a spiritual level, it would provide a more assured basis for the mission of the Church and the Kingdom of God.

Matthew Caminer is a management consultant and the author of  A Clergy Husband's Survival Guide (SPCK, 2012). He is collaborating with Martyn Percy and Beaumont Stevenson on a book about the dynamics and psychology of curacies.

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