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A clergy family’s survival guide

07 July 2017

Nell Goddard reflects on growing up in a clergy household and offers pointers for children and parents


Prayer for patience: Nell Goddard warns clergy children to expect a long wait after church

Prayer for patience: Nell Goddard warns clergy children to expect a long wait after church



Boundaries are excellent things

AS A vicar, or a member of a vicar’s family, especially if you operate an open home, you are considered public property. Don’t get me wrong: this is a lovely thing in most situations. Having the ability to share your home with people who might not have one in which they are comfortable, or the means to show love to people by giving them cups of tea and feeding them cake is incomparable. But there have to be limits.

My mother introduced me to a brilliant word. She said I was allowed to use it any time I wanted, to anyone I wanted, when they asked me to do something for them. It’s very short, but highly effective; only one syllable, but it can save you a great deal of time, argument, and awkwardness. It goes something like this: “No”.

And I can actually use it. When someone comes to my house in the middle of the afternoon, when I’m home alone, and asks for a cup of tea, I can say “No”. When someone outstays their welcome in my house, and I just want to go to bed, I can say “No” to their next request and then ask them to leave. And it actually works.


I SPENT a long time being terrified of offending people, because they needed me, or because I felt guilty for refusing when they’d asked so nicely. But I’m beginning to learn the many benefits of saying “No”. It means that you’re not forced into having company when you’d much rather be alone. It means you can have a quiet evening in if you want to. It means you can get on with the really exciting part in your book before you go to sleep, because the people you invited round didn’t outstay their welcome.

So, my friends, embrace your boundaries. They will serve you well. You honour them, and they will honour you. Just practise using the word “No”. I promise, it will come in useful at least five times a week.


Always lock the toilet door

THIS is a lesson for all people every­where — a public-service announce­ment, if you will. It does, however, apply particularly in a vicarage, as you have an above-average number of people using your house (and toilet) on a day-to-day basis.

A while back, our downstairs toilet-door lock broke. For most people, this would be a mild incon­venience. For us, it was a full-blown disaster, because the downstairs toilet is the “public” toilet in our house. But, as it turned out, this was actually a learning opportunity disguised as a disaster.

You see, it was through this disaster that I discovered just how many people will happily walk straight into the toilet, even when the door is closed. You would be surprised at how many it is. (I think my record was six in one week.) This means that when you are on the toilet, you have to keep an ear out for anyone approaching the door, and then be ready to shout out “I’m in here!” or “BACK OFF RIGHT NOW!” as they reach for the handle.

So, the lesson from this tip is to lock the toilet door. More than that, when your parent says: “Oh, I’ll fix the lock when I have time,” do not believe them. They will never have time. Just get out a screwdriver and do it yourself, or face the embarrass­ment of having to make small talk at church with someone who walked in on you weeing 24 hours earlier. Trust me, it’s worth learning how to use a screwdriver just to avoid having to do that.


Don’t bother waiting for your parents before leaving church

WHEN you’re a vicar’s child (or, indeed, the child of anyone who is well known and loved in the church), you have to promote the view that you are well-mannered and polite, which means that you cannot grab your parent’s hand after the service and start walking while they’re still talking. (I tried that once. It didn’t work.) It got to the point where I would go and find the church book collection, settle down with a slightly-too-old-for-me theological exploration of some­thing or other, and read until my parents came to find me.

When I was old enough to have house keys, I could walk home unsupervised. I was still, however, young and naïve, and was therefore often convinced by my mother’s declaration that she would “only be a little while”. Because of this, I often ended up waiting for her all the same.

Once, I was informed by my mother that she would be “under five minutes”. Half an hour later, I was still there. This failure of parents to leave church never ceases to amaze me. Even now, aged 22, I still fall for it. “I’ll only be five minutes!” they say. “I’d love to walk home with you and chat!” they plead. And there I am, half an hour later, longing for a cup of tea and a cuddle with my dog. So, my friends, don’t wait for your parents to leave church. It will only end in frustra­tion and wasted time. Trust me; I know.




Involve your children in decisions

I CANNOT begin to emphasise how important this is. For as long as I can remember, my parents have always talked to me and my brother about everything that’s been going on, no matter how serious or painful it has been. No decision is too big for a child not to be given an input, no matter how young, immature, or shy they are. If you don’t involve your children in your decisions, you are treading a very dangerous path.

Surely, if you’re involved in ministry, you want your children to be supporting you? If you don’t let them have a say in decisions, they won’t actively support those decisions, because they won’t feel as if they have the autonomy to do so. Respect your children as individ­uals, be honest with them, and be willing to reconsider your views in the light of their thoughts on the matter. This comes from a place of relationship: no one has a veto, and no one has a trump card. It’s a team decision!


Your children will see and hear everything — so talk about it with them

A LOT of children are far more intuitive than their parents give them credit for. They pick up on emotions and tensions within the home and at church. In addition, children will overhear conversa­tions: that’s just how life works. But it’s extra significant in a vicarage, because clergy children overhear a wide variety of discussions — from people struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts to people talking about their sex lives during marriage preparation.

Even for an adult or teenager, this is a lot to take in, but for a child, it needs to be explained. It needs to be talked through and worked through and properly addressed. It’s so important that a clergy child feels free to ask questions — whether about mental illness, sex, God, faith, doubt, love, joy, hope, exorcisms, cave men, or dinosaurs (all of which have been dinner-time conversation topics in my house). And if your child overhears something confid­ential, tell them that it should go no further. A child understands the idea of keeping a secret. Don’t shut your children out of your ministry: they’ll come to resent it if you do. Embrace them and their awkward questions wholeheartedly, and I doubt you’ll ever regret it.


Let your children be selfish about their time with you

AS A vicar, you’ll be a busy person. As a parent, you’ll be equally busy. Juggling the two roles can be hard. But remember that your church is made up of lots of people who can do things to help the needy as well; only you can be your child’s mother or father. So let them be selfish with you sometimes. Not all the time, because that’s silly, but some­times.

Set aside some time each day to spend with your children — walking the dog in the morning together, or sitting down before bed to watch a TV programme. Let them answer the phone on your day off and ban anyone else from talking to you because it’s your time with them.


Make sure your child feels safe

VICARAGES can be really scary places, especially if you’re home alone in one. They’re massive and dark, and lots of people know where you live. So make sure that your child feels safe. No matter how irrational their fear, acknowledge it and find a way to placate it. A male parishioner is making your teenage daughter uncomfortable? Make sure she’s never placed in a situation on her own with him. Your son dislikes other people using his mugs? Put them on a separate shelf. The doorbell rings when they’re home alone? Tell them they don’t have to answer it. Persistent ringing of the doorbell? Make sure they know where the panic button is.


This is an edited extract from Musings of a Clergy Child (Bible Reading Fellowship, £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20)). Nell Goddard is a writer at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. Read more on her blog: www.musingsofaclergychild.com. Listen to an interview with her on Episode 15 of the Church Times Podcast: www.churchtimes.co.uk/podcast.

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