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Change is worse than a rest, say stressed clergy

18 October 2018

Start and end of curacy is particularly hard, study suggests

Diocese of Portsmouth

Candidates are ordained in Portsmouth Cathedral, in July

Candidates are ordained in Portsmouth Cathedral, in July

CLERGY struggle to cope with change, a new report on their well-being has said.

Published today, the report, Negotiating Wellbeing: Experiences of ordinands and clergy in the Church of England, says that periods of transition, for example coming to the end of a curacy, can cause physical and mental stress, and prompt clergy to question their vocation.

The report is the second to come out of the long-term Living Ministry study, which is following four cohorts over a decade: people ordained deacon in 2006, 2011, or 2015, and those who started training in 2016. The first report, published last year, suggested that most priests report high levels of well-being, including living in financial comfort and enjoying good health (News, 14 September 2017).

The Living Ministry study seeks to answer the question: “What enables ordained ministers to flourish in ministry?”

This week’s report represents the first part of qualitative research, and comes out of interviews with 85 ordinands and clergy.

It says: “During periods of transition, clergy and ordinands tend to experience lower wellbeing in multiple areas, including physical and mental stress, isolation, financial and material concern, vocational questions and a sense of dislocation within the Church.”

This comes at the end of Initial Ministerial Education (ordination training), at the beginning and the end of a curacy, and on moving into an incumbency.

One interviewee described the time when her curacy ended and she was looking for another post as like “looking over a cliff”.

Another, from the 2011 cohort, told the study: “I always knew it would be different becoming an incumbent. I saw my training incumbent had a lot of health issues, partly self-inflicted because he was a workaholic. . . I can see the effect of stress on his health and I’m trying really hard not to repeat that; but it is very difficult when you are the incumbent, I have found.”

Several of the interviewees described a high level of support from the diocese, while others reported a “listening ear” but not much action to help with well-being.

Another conclusion drawn in the report is that clergy, particularly those with parochial or incumbent positions, “may struggle to establish boundaries around their work in terms of time, space, thought, activity, relationships and finances”.

One member of the clergy quoted in the report says: “Mentally, yeah, I don’t know, I’m tired. And it’s tiring having to balance all those different [expectations] and wear all those different hats, and sometimes I feel like I don’t wear any of my hats particularly well, so, you know, church leader, ordinand, mother, wife — it’s hard.”

The report says: “Clergy, especially those in parish ministry, and even some SSMs [self-supporting ministers] who celebrate the integration of their life and ministry, struggle with work that impinges on family time, intrudes into private space, invades rest and sleep, complicates relationships, inhibits expense claims, and expands into all the minutiae of running a church.”

It concludes: “One of the commonest themes in the narratives of participants in this study is the need to be recognised and valued at a human level as well as by God. In the context of a declining Church, and pressure to increase attendance and ensure financial viability, alongside awareness of huge financial investment in specific initiatives, clergy can feel unappreciated, devalued, and demoralised.

“The implications of this cut across all aspects of wellbeing, from the perceived need to reduce personal expenditure to support a struggling Church, to physical and mental stress, isolation, guilt, vocational doubt, and a strong sense of marginalisation.”

Dr Liz Graveling, who is overseeing the research programme in the Ministry Division, said on Tuesday: “We are trying to listen to people and really understand what the experiences are of ministry life. We haven’t taken anything out; we are trying to represent people’s voices and we want to help clergy to flourish.

“The report aims to illuminate and represent clergy experiences: as much as anyone else, they need to know that they are listened to, understood, and valued. It is always interesting to hear people’s responses to the research, and we get a lot of people saying thank you — thank you for listening to us.”

The report also says that it is important to view clergy lives holistically. This means “understanding that changes in one area may have effects elsewhere, and that wellbeing is fluid and contextual”.

In the foreword, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley, who chairs the C of E Ministry Council, writes: “Rather than attempting sweeping recommendations, it [the report] paints a picture of wellbeing that is negotiated, fluid and contextual. Transition points, especially into and out of curacy, emerge as particular moments of vulnerability.

“Undefined work boundaries both increase stress and enable the rich depth of ministry that many clergy value immensely. . . Responsibility for wellbeing is shared and requires the Church to be constantly aware of the implications of its structures and practices for its ordained ministers, and to strive to develop a culture that enables them to flourish.”

The report follows a paper on clergy well-being published earlier this month. It said: “Inadequate social care, poor provision of mental-health services, and social and emotional deprivation are constantly encountered by clergy during the course of their ministry” (News, 5 October).

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