Clergy burdened by unrealistic job specs, C of E told

02 October 2018

ALAMY

Weary by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884).

Weary by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884).

AN END to “unrealistic” job-descriptions when clergy appointments are made is among the recommendations in the paper on clergy well-being launched on Tuesday.

It includes a draft Covenant for Clergy Care and Well-being, and identifies, in particular, a pressing need for regular pastoral supervision. “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,” it says.

The Church’s decline in “social influence and economic stability” leaves it “prey to potent collective anxieties”, an accompanying theological reflection warns.

Central to the proposals is a “Big Conversation” on clergy well-being at both parish and national levels. The paper is conceived as “a dialogue rather than a lengthy list of recommendations” and “an opportunity to gain and offer trust afresh”.

The Covenant was commissioned after a debate in the General Synod last July (News, 7 July 2017). The working group (News, 24 November 2017) includes the Prolocutor of the Lower House of the Convocation of Canterbury, Canon Simon Butler, who, in a presentation before the 2017 debate, suggested that, at its worst, the Church “moulds us into a straitjacket that slowly ekes away our human goodness into a caricature of Christ”.

In its paper, published for consultation, the group calls for a shift towards prevention rather than cure and a “culture change . . . towards greater concern for the health and well-being of its ordained ministers”.

The draft covenant comprises four sets of commitments based on the 14 sections of the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy. These are broken down into commitments to be made by the individual minister, the local church, and the wider Church, which includes the Bishop.

It suggests that the clergy “set aside time for rest, recreation, retreat, training and study” and that the local church make a commitment to “respecting the boundaries that the minister and their household should properly place around their home life”.

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The paper sets out a list of questions to be explored at parish and national level.

For ministers, these include an invitation to consider whether they might be described as “hard to reach” by senior clergy and well-being professionals, and whether they are aware of the warning signs of stress and burn-out.

The local church is invited to ask whether its expectations are reasonable, and whether the children of ministers are “judged by different standards to other children”.

The wider Church and Bishops are asked to consider what is in place “to ensure that informal encouragement of and concern for ordained ministers is offered alongside more formal opportunities” and whether the Bishops are “perceived as examples of giving care and attending to their own well-being”. They are also asked whether well-being is considered when pastoral re-organisation or “major initiatives across a diocese” are planned.

Six recommendations for the Church are made. The paper notes that, “among many issues considered by the Working Group, none has attracted greater support and enthusiasm than the need for all clergy to engage in some form of pastoral supervision.”

This is envisaged as “a structured process with a frequency and regularity, where clergy take time out to reflect upon their experiences and pay attention to their feelings”.

“We recognise that this will take expertise and funding,” the authors write. “But we believe its time has come, as we face increasingly demanding pastoral needs that are especially complex in a world where 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.

“Clergy are in the front line of the Church’s response to such realities; the provision of pastoral supervision, will be a tangible sign of the Church’s commitment to responding to these needs.”

Another proposal is “greater clarity on mutual expectations and responsibilities” in parish profiles and job-descriptions.

The paper suggests that “one of the greatest sources of stress and burnout among ministers is the lack of focus and clarity over the nature of the ministerial task.” Descriptions “often reveal an over-challenging set of expectations, ranging from large numbers of churches to serve, unrealistic Role/Job descriptions, and the absence in them of any evidence of commitment to clergy care and well-being”.

The accompanying theological reflection is by the Revd Dr Margaret Whipp, lead chaplain at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, who originally trained as a doctor and specialised in oncology and palliative medicine.

She writes that “an unduly vivid sense of sacrifice . . . , unless sustained by an equally vital experience of transcending grace and mutual generosity, can lead to exhaustion, guilt, and deteriorating personal and vocational identity.”

Although the recent Living Ministry study reported high levels of clergy well-being in recent surveys, and anxiety and depression were judged to be no more prevalent than in the wider population, the authors noted that “appropriate levels of demand and sacrifice are not identified” (News, 15 September 2017).

The Experiences of Ministry Project suggested that at most risk of psychological burnout were “those who sacrificed the most, felt less clear about their calling and were less able to psychologically detach from ministry in their time off” (News, 22 September 2017).

“Where identity and vocation are insufficiently nourished and supported, clergy may be tempted to drive the work of ministry through an anxious preoccupation with outcomes, in a futile attempt to secure affirmation and spiritual significance for ourselves and our community of faith,” Dr Whipp writes. “An unholy ‘drivenness’ in the life of the Church can be symptomatic of deep-seated frustrations and fears which from which we are yet to be fully redeemed.”

She goes on to explore institutional anxiety: “A church . . . which faces decline in social influence and economic stability will be prey to potent collective anxieties; and clergy who uncritically embrace a strong sense of responsibility for the thriving of church communities can be prone to corrosive fears of personal, and vocational, failure. . .

“Church members (both clergy and lay) who perpetuate an uncritical paternalism conspire to increase the burden of anxiety laid on leaders; whereas church members (both clergy and lay) who work graciously to foster a covenantal spirit of mutual responsibility, and to challenge inappropriate dependency, help to liberate clergy from an undue burden of anxiety. Church members (both clergy and lay) who face their shared anxieties in a spirit of courageous honesty and compassion can be agents of profound liberation and spiritual renewal for others.

“In a Church which has many reasons to feel anxious, one of the most redemptive uses of power is to relieve less powerful members of their fears of one another. Clergy, and especially supervising and senior clergy, have a particular role to play in modelling the good news of freedom from pervasive anxiety and slavish overwork, so that all may serve in joyful communion with Christ and one another.”

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Dr Whipp also suggests that, relationships in Christian ministry are “often highly complex, and fraught with inherited patterns of privilege and duty which are not always conducive to contemporary well-being. In the name of Christ, we may be called to challenge structures of captivity and blindness which, wilfully or otherwise, afflict and oppress the lives of clergy and people. Naming and engaging these structural forces, with honesty and openness, will require an element of codification and explicit commitment to relationships of transparent justice.” 

Recognising that the paper may be regarded as “special pleading” for the clergy, the working group argues that “healthy, supported clergy are also effective clergy, able to focus on others as they address their own needs with realism and resilience.”

The draft Covenant will be considered by the College of Bishops this year, by the Houses of Clergy and Laity at the Synod sessions next February, and, as a final post-consultation draft, by the Synod for debate and adoption next July. It is recommended that the final text have the status of an Act of Synod.

It is available for comment and discussion at www.sheldonhub.org (a website for those in ministry) and at www.churchofengland.org.

Comments are invited until 31 December: email to clergywellbeing@churchofengland.org.

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