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Clergy living comfortably, long-term Living Ministry study suggests

14 September 2017


Ready to go: ordinands from the diocese of Chelmsford and the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, on retreat on the eve of their ordination as priests, in July, this year

Ready to go: ordinands from the diocese of Chelmsford and the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, on retreat on the eve of their ordin...

ORDINANDS may take comfort from the first fruits of a large-scale Ministry Division survey published this week. It suggests that most priests report high levels of well-being, including living in financial comfort and enjoying good health.

Launched this year, the Living Ministry study is following four cohorts over a decade: people ordained deacon in 2006, 2011, or 2015, and those who started training in 2016 (News, 24 February).

In total, there were 761 respondents: a response rate of about 50 per cent. Every two years, participants will be asked to complete an online survey, supplemented by qualitative research. The aim is to explore “What enables ordained ministers to flourish in ministry?”, including how different modes of training influence ordained ministers’ future ministries.

Overall, about three-quarters of respondents indicated that, financially, they were “living comfortably” or “doing all right”. Eighty-two per cent of ordained respondents were able to draw on other sources of income than that received for ministry. Those unable to do so were “much more likely to struggle financially”, with several reporting dependency on tax credits and benefits. Retirement provision emerged as a “major concern” of respondents.

The Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale was employed to measure mental health. The average score among the general population is 51 and 50.2 among clergy. Married respondents reported higher levels of mental health (although the small number of non-married respondents meant that this was an “inconclusive” finding) and the lowest levels of isolation. Several single respondents commented on the difficulty of maintaining friendships.

There was no indication that clergy experienced anxiety and depression more commonly than the wider population. Stress and tiredness were “frequently mentioned”, however, and the report says: “While ordained ministry may be expected to be demanding, appropriate levels of demand and sacrifice are not identified in this study.”

Overall, ordinands’ expectations of the type of ministry that they would engage in were “close to reality”. While none of the 2016 respondents expected to hold Permission to Officiate (PTO), however, this was the status of 15.7 per cent of the 2011 cohort. Higher numbers of current ordinands expected to work in a church plant or Fresh Expression immediately after curacy than those ordained in 2011 were currently doing; this “appears to be related to the introduction of context-based training, but whether it reflects unrealistic expectations of future church contexts or a shifting church landscape remains to be seen”. Ordinands’ expectations of ministry were that it would be more highly demanding than the actual experiences of the ordained cohorts.

A theme in the report is the influence of age and its interaction with gender. A repeated refrain is: “Gender does not have a statistically significant impact once controlled for age and mode of training.” The men in the cohorts are significantly younger than the women: 62 per cent of the men are under 51 compared with 36.3 per cent of the women. Only 13.6 per cent of female respondents were under 32, compared with 35.6 per cent of the men, and nearly twice as many women as men were over 54. Younger respondents are much more likely to be sponsored for incumbency and trained residentially.

“One thing that surprised me was that gender did not come out as such a big factor,” Dr Liz Graveling, research officer in the Ministry Division, said this week. “The results do not say that men and women are experiencing ministry differently or reporting well-being differently just because of gender.” She went on to say, however, that gender might be a contributing factor determining the age at which people pursued a calling.

There was anecdotal evidence from elsewhere that young women considering ordination questioned the impact it might have on the likelihood of getting married and starting a family, she said: “That is something we do hear.”

Among respondents under the age of 32, 73 per cent of men and 35 per cent of women are married (compared with 24 per cent of 25- 29-year-olds overall in the general UK population). The report found no evidence of gender differences in the likelihood that those who were unmarried at selection would remain single five to 14 years later. “Widespread concerns that ordination reduces the likelihood of marriage for young women in particular may be unfounded.”

One of the objectives of the Renewal and Reform programme is an increase in ordinands under the age of 32, to 50 per cent of the total. It is currently 25 per cent. In the latest figures, women made up 38 per cent of those aged under 32, compared with a historic average of 22 per cent (News, 15 June). 

The study found that male clergy were likely to be more conservative, more evangelical and less liberal than women respondents. Clergy who were younger at the point of selection were likely to be more conservative, more evangelical, less liberal and less catholic than those who entered training at a later age. 

The report notes that respondents have a “fairly narrow range of occupational backgrounds”: 58 per cent of respondents previously (or currently) worked in education, health and social care, or church work.

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