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General Synod: Self-care is ‘not the same as self-interest’ regarding clergy well-being

12 July 2019

Madeleine Davies, Adam Becket, and Tim Wyatt report from the General Synod in York


Canon Simon Butler (Southwark)

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark)

A PRESENTATION and debate on clergy well-being and the proposed clergy covenant were held on Saturday morning, with the aim of adopting the covenant as an Act of Synod next February.

Before Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) moved the motion, Jacqueline Stamper (Blackburn) introduced the report of the Clergy Wellbeing Working Group. She said that the shared commitments and big conversations were proposed to enable them to support and care for one another. Clergy life needed to be more fulfilling, and less stressful. “The covenant, in essence, is about our relationships.” She said there would be a display of what “a big conversation” actually meant.

Jan Korris said to Canon Butler, as a representative of the clergy, that he should not be alone in his well-being, and that he should prioritise family and friends. She said that the best gift that the clergy could give was flourishing. To the Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, she said that he needed to speak openly about his boundaries and how he dealt with well-being — she said that safeguarding was a particular demand that must be noted. A quality of discernment was also needed. She said: “Pastoral relationships flourish when there is timely and meaningful communication within a diocese where the Bishop knows their clergy.” To Bishop Thornton and Canon Butler, she said: “Self-care is not the same as self-interest”: it is beneficial to each other, and to God.

Canon Butler thanked Ms Korris . He said to Ms Korris: “It’s very easy to rush on without taking the time to acknowledge the work that others do.” He thanked those who saw him not just as a deliverer of ministry, but as a human being. He said: “I think I want to say to lay people, take time to find out who the people are behind the collar; don’t let us get away with hiding behind the role; do ask us about where we are with God and our vocation from time to time, too.”

To Bishop Thornton, he said: “I need to see you behind the role. I need to know your struggles. I need to know how you handle those projections.” He said that an important part of the relationship with a bishop was to build a connection, by picking up the phone.

Bishop Thornton thanked the Bishop of Selby, the Rt Revd John Thomson (Northern Suffragans), “for landing me in this”. He said: “I am disappointed by the clericalism and deference that still exists and the hard work we still have to do, for which this Covenant, I think, is one step to help us all treat each other as human beings.”

He listed the things that clergy need to do to have good well-being: “Take regular rest, exercise often, eat good grub, take holidays, go on an annual retreat, have a weekly rest day, and try and keep a hobby or interest going if we are going to give our best.”

Ms Stamper asked the trio to respond to their own groups.

Ms Korris, speaking to fellow lay members of the Church, said: “We can be key providers of care and support for clergy.” She said that it was an opportunity for lay people to engage at every level with the minister and the wider Church to enhance the well-being of the clergy. The covenant “is a great opportunity to support our ministers to flourish, and in so doing energising our parishes and the work of the wider Church”.

Canon Butler, speaking to the clergy, said that he had had a difficult time lately, with multiple funerals. He said: “Before it’s anyone else’s responsibility to care for you, it’s your responsibility and mine.”

Bishop Thornton said “hello” to his fellow bishops. He said: “I want to say we all know we have much work to do and have already been doing much work. I think this covenant is to be welcomed, but no words on a piece of paper will make the difference.” Instead, Bishop Thornton said, the difference would be made in person.

Ms Stamper said that she wanted this to be a “trust moment”, where all commit to better understanding an improved communications. She said: “Clergy care and well-being and Setting God’s People Free reinforce each other.”

Canon Butler then introduced the debate on the motion. The Synod was being asked to adopt the covenant for clergy care and well-being. He said that the project would gain the most traction not if it was a vehicle from Church House or the House of Bishops, but from the Synod. The Synod should carry this as an Act of Synod so that it could can pass down to diocesan synods and travel far.

The third part, Canon Butler said, was to turn the motion into something that could be shared and used throughout the Church. He said that he was grateful to the communications team for their help on this front. He was worried that by putting specific recommendations in, these would become the main part of the report, but instead the main focus should be on shared commitments and the big conversation. “Pastoral supervision is the norm to be encouraged,” Canon Butler said. It should be taken seriously, although this could not happen overnight.

SAM ATKINS/CHURCH TIMESCanon Joyce Jones (Leeds)

Canon Joyce Jones (Leeds) said that she knew plenty of clergy who had left ministry. Their leaving of ministry was not only a personal tragedy for them, but also a waste to the Church of valuable resources. Often, it was caused by isolation. The best way to address this was to introduce clergy mentors, which was happening for first-time incumbents in Leeds diocese. There also had to be a change of culture, so that it was not seen as a weakness to ask for help and admit that you were struggling.

Bill Seddon (St Albans) said that there was not enough mention in the proposed covenant of stipends and pensions, probably the greatest source of stress to the clergy. “Honouring the covenant through continued support of the Pensions Board should remain a high priority for the Church,” he said. Overall, he urged the Synod to adopt the motion.

Canon Carol Wolstenholme (Newcastle) was concerned that the covenant excluded lay ministers, who bore many of the same burdens as clerics. Well-being was an important issue for the “whole people of God, laity and clergy alike”. Many parishes in her diocese increasingly had mixed teams of priests and lay ministers jointly leading ministry.

The Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent (Southern Suffragans), said that, while he strongly supported clergy well-being, he opposed the covenant. It was good to have the “touchy-feely stuff” and communicate best practice. But the covenant seemed to have an impact on more structural issues around terms of service for clergy. He was worried that this initiative would drift accidentally towards a more “employment and contract culture” in which the Ordinal was replaced by job descriptions, and capability assessments became micro-management.

What would stop litigious clergy taking their bishops to an employment tribunal if they were seen to have failed to uphold the things that were promised, he asked. If the Church wanted to move on from seeing the clergy as officeholders, not employees, it should do that intentionally and thoughtfully, with consideration of the consequences. “Go for the soft stuff and good practice,” he said. “You don’t need the covenant and the unintended consequences which will follow.”

The Revd Peter Kay (St Albans) welcomed the covenant and said that the time was right for a fresh look at clergy well-being. He said that his amendment, which added an encouragement for each diocese to “commit the necessary resources” to implementing the covenant’s proposals, was “friendly” in approach. The dioceses were central to clergy well-being, both in formal terms through area deans and archdeacons, and in more informal ways.

“I’m enthusiastic about the covenant, but a question kept going through my mind: where do dioceses fit into this plan to improve things?” Important national work on this topic would not land in the lives of the clergy unless dioceses took up the baton too, he said.

He moved his amendment. Responding, Canon Butler said that the motion had very little to do with the national Church, and was very much about the dioceses. He resisted the amendment, and said that dioceses should not take a lead on best practice; instead, it should be done through a national website or similar. “Gently resisting, but no real hostility,” he said.

Mr Kay’s amendment fell.

Adrian Greenwood (Southwark) said that it was difficult to vote against the motion; so what were the best resources to get the best out of this motion? A lot was being said through the Ministry Council about the flourishing of all the people of God, and he hoped that this report would be set in that context. The clergy-laity relationship was crucial in Setting God’s People Free, and more needed to be done on this. Mr Greenwood said this could happen through big conversations. He spoke of non-stipendiary ministers, who might be excluded from these conversations.

Canon Rebecca Swyer (Chichester) spoke of things going wrong in ministry — when the public and private person were different, and when discernment of calling was confined to the distant past. She said that she supported the motion, but wished that the steering group would do more on the integration of private and public life, to create a more sustainable pattern of ministry.

Anne Foreman (Exeter) said that she was involved in conducting clergy reviews. Experience of working in a team should be shared to assist the well-being of clergy, and the quality of relationships should be where all energy was focused. She also noted that Setting God’s People Free suggested two days off a week.

SAM ATKINS/CHURCH TIMESCatherine Farmbrough (Deaf Anglicans)

Catherine Farmbrough (Deaf Anglicans) asked about deaf and disabled clergy: when was the Church going to take their needs seriously? She said that it was important that they took everyone’s mental health seriously, but they should especially remember disabled people, who could become easily isolated. “Profoundly deaf people like me can’t just pick up the phone.” Minorities needed to be intentionally included: when they were not, they felt as if they did not matter. People need to be treated equally and have the same access to provisions. Ms Farmbrough asked for a specific piece of work on clergy, and those who wanted to be ordained, who were deaf.

In a maiden speech, Geoffrey Shuttleworth (Birmingham) said that it was important to note the work that lay people could do to support parish clergy. “Ministry, whether from town or country, face challenges,” he said. He spoke of the different dynamics people faced in their different relationships. “We are all vulnerable to the pressures of life,” Mr Shuttleworth said. He welcomed the expectation of a change of culture, from self-care to helping together.

Responding to the debate, Canon Butler welcomed the comments from Bishop Broadbent, and said that the language of contract and the language of covenant were addressed, and the report pointed towards the covenant. Clergy could be litigious when the Church had failed, Canon Butler said. The level of accountability that they were asked to take on now was to do with compliance, he said, and this was something that would only increase. He said that it was not a speech against office-holding, but that this covenant offered the opportunity to embed best practice across the Church. There was nothing to be feared in accountability, Canon Butler said.

An attempt to obtain a vote by Houses was lost, and the motion was carried overwhelmingly. It read:


That this Synod:
a) adopt the Covenant set out at paragraph 20 of GS 2133 as a statement of its commitment to clergy care and wellbeing;
b) request the Business Committee, with the agreement of the Presidents, to make arrangements so that the Covenant can be affirmed and proclaimed an Act of Synod at the February 2020 group of sessions;
c) request the Clergy Wellbeing Working Group to oversee the transformation of the proposals contained in GS 2133 into actual practice, in particular by making the Shared Commitments and Big Conversation (at paragraphs 21 to 32 of GS 2133) available online in a way that enables their practical use by clergy, parishes, deaneries and dioceses by the end of 2019;
d) request the Appointments Committee to appoint members to a Clergy Care and Wellbeing Facilitation Group to encourage and evaluate progress in the field of clergy care and wellbeing across the Church of England, with a view to the Group reporting to the General Synod within the 2020-25 Quinquennium.

Read full coverage of the General Synod here

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