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‘Even God rested on the seventh day’

08 July 2016

It is essential for the clergy to take enough time off, argue Jamie Harrison and Robert Innes

The people of Nobbleigh thought he was in Bustead; the people of Bustead thought he was in Bishops Futtock. . . (a vintage St Gargoyle’s from 23 July 1999)

The people of Nobbleigh thought he was in Bustead; the people of Bustead thought he was in Bishops Futtock. . . (a vintage St Gargoyle’s from 23...

GUIDELINES that were published last year for the conduct of the clergy focus on what they do when “on duty”. Shaped by the Ordinal, the guidelines flesh out expectations for a clerical life lived in the public sphere. They pay limited attention, however, to what it might mean to be “off duty”, when the collar is removed, and the cassock hung up.

At a time of increasing concern about how professionals of all kinds juggle the “work-life balance”, maintain equilibrium, and flourish, it is useful to address the question what it means to be off duty. Time away from the post is precious, pressurised, and open to endless assault. It is worth exploring how to build realistic strategies and resilient frameworks.

It used to be said that “GPs offered everything, on the basis that patients wouldn’t ask too much.” It was a good myth. The idea of endless availability is appealing to patients and parishioners alike. And it will be tested.

One curate friend used to dread the evening phone calls from a parishioner asking for advice on solving that day’s crossword clues — after all, he wouldn’t mind being disturbed, would he? It took a little time, and tact, to get the message across that the clergy need their own time, too.

DEFINING the boundary between public and private, between on and off duty, is not easy, especially for those with a profound sense of vocation. There can be a sense that, if God has called me to the task, and the need is so evident, then it is not my place to set limits to my availability.

In his book Ministry Burnout (Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), John Sandford explores why the clergy struggle to take time off. Mirroring the words of George Herbert, he writes about the “endless task” of ministry: there is always more for the shepherd to do.

Just as the author never senses that the manuscript is finally finished, so those in public ministry struggle to feel that the job has been completed. Like Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who pushed a stone up towards the mountain-top only to see it roll back down again, the clergy can be caught in the endless, exhausting repetition of trying to get done all that could be done.


THERE can be deeper psychological motives, too. Some of the clergy cannot delegate or let go of work to others. Others prefer to be “at work” rather than engage with home and family: how much easier to visit the “needy sick” than face an emotional confrontation with a challenging teenage son or daughter.

Some over-identify with their position: witness the struggle that some have to retire. And, once we stop, we might begin to wonder whether what we do is really worth while, whether it makes a difference, and who we are before God without our work.

The conscious or unconscious drive to attend to work easily leads to routinely incomplete days off. We must make the odd phone call or two, and the email really must be checked.

And yet, to remove oneself entirely from work allows a new consciousness to take shape. Interruption breaks that possibility of renewal. To take just a few hours off, here and there, does not allow sufficiently for recreation, where the invisible threads that connect us to our work are relaxed, allowing new thoughts, new moods, and new experiences to find their way in.


LAY people, equally, need educating about the nature of clerical vocation, and the appropriateness of time off. As an excellent archdeacon was heard to say to an over-demanding congregation recently: “He may have given his whole life to God, but that doesn’t mean he has given it to you.”

There is, unfortunately, real ignorance about the strains imposed on those in ministry. So the clergy might need to remind their parishioners that they are human beings with needs, too. Lay people understand “proper” holidays (booked and taken) better — although in severely deprived communities, where the clergy may be the only people not on benefits, it might feel unsupportive for them to go away.

Advertising — and keeping — a regular day off promotes clarity, and avoids misunderstandings. Being firm to be kind is the best policy. And it can be useful to point out that a true clerical emergency is extremely rare, for example, the sudden serious illness or death of a regular member of the congregation.


DIOCESES vary in their advice to the clergy about days off and holidays. Oddly, some with the least difficulty in attracting clergy are the least generous. Bishops often advise their clergy to take a two-day break once a month — a concept that wise lay people should see as essential. It is often unclear, though, whether this means taking the second day as part of the holiday allowance.

Dioceses could be more active in informing parishes about how much time off they expect their clergy to take. That would release the burden of guilt from those among the clergy who find it difficult to say no, and it would encourage lay people to be more directive towards their pressurised ministers: “You will take a regular day off, please; it’s good for you and for us. Even God rested on the seventh day.”


HERE are some practical pieces of advice and suggestions.

First, begin as you now mean to go on, and formally implement the policy to keep one day off per week, ideally the same day, which is advertised and adhered to. Make it clear that contact should be attempted only for ministerial help in a true emergency, and that you are off-duty. Make sure it is an uninterrupted whole day, from when you wake in the morning until you go to sleep.

Second, explain how to get help when you are not available. Leave a contact number (the church administrator’s, if you have one) for the most urgent enquiry; this may be an answerphone, but it is not your responsibility to sort out the problem that day.

Stephen Cherry, in Beyond Busyness (Sacristy Press, 2012), reminds us to learn when we must disappoint people (graciously), and also to decide what we are not going to do (his “don’t-do” list). Say no to a level of commitment that would mean being out morning, afternoon, and evening on every Sunday. Whose spouse or partner would not grow to loathe such Sundays?

Learn to decline invitations that flatter: to give a prestigious series of Lent talks, when you know you have inadequate preparation time; to become chair of the school governors (which risks huge stress, and is done better by someone who is retired).

Third, be practical and pragmatic. Plan ahead to go out for the day; turn off the mobile phone (leaving a clear mechanism for dealing with emergencies). Arrange time and tasks in a rota across the team, including any Readers.

For those who are in completely single-handed ministries: consider sharing a buddy-system with a neighbouring colleague who has a different day off. The other person can field calls, and know when and how to contact you in a real emergency. GPs have done this for years. Realise that life can go on without you.

Fourth, emails. Stop monitoring them for one whole day a week. When on holiday, work out how you will receive urgent messages, and put an out-of-office message on your email account. Brief colleagues about what you need to know about: the church’s burning down, or an unexpected death where you have a close connection.


FINALLY, seek to be more resilient. Resilience can be learnt, as well as inherited. Stephen Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Free Press, 1989), helpfully refers to “sharpening the saw”. A carpenter with a blunt saw will not do a good job and, more than that, risks actual harm. So keeping “sharp”, by being properly rested and refreshed, is essential.

Resilience thinking cites the importance of understanding cycles of stress: high levels of it may be fine for a while, but continuous stress is bad news. So the trick is to cycle it, balancing high-performing work periods with intensely absorbing and satisfying periods away from the job.

And resist temptation. After a busy week, it is tempting just to collapse into a day off, partly in front of the computer, which is neither work nor recreation. The real challenge lies in learning to shape the proper day off, the one day each week that refreshes and re-creates.

Just as sermons and liturgy need preparation, so time away from the pressures and expectations of ministry needs planning and discipline. Take time to develop hobbies, ideally in community with others, away from church life — being creative in photography, carpentry, making music, producing art-works; joining a sports team or walking group; participating in bird-watching or learning a foreign language. . . The list goes on.

A healthy Church requires healthy clergy; a wise Church makes every effort to make that possible.

Jamie Harrison, a retired GP, chairs the General Synod House of Laity; Dr Innes is the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe. They have co-edited
Clergy in a Complex Age: Responses to the guidelines for the professional conduct of the clergy (SPCK, 2016).

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