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Clergy ‘positive’ about ministry in ten-year study

13 December 2019

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CLERGY engaged in a landmark ten-year study co-ordinated by Church House were “overwhelmingly positive” when asked to rate their ministerial effectiveness, a report published this year shows.

Against a backdrop of stories about decline, the report painted an “encouraging picture”, Dr Liz Graveling, who is overseeing the Living Ministry study, said on Tuesday.

The study is following four cohorts over a decade: people ordained deacon in 2006, 2011, and 2015, and those who started training in 2016. The first report, published in 2017, suggested that most priests reported high levels of well-being, including living in financial comfort and enjoying good health (News, 14 September 2017). In total, 579 ordained clergy and 113 ordinands participated.

This second report asked clergy to respond to 31 items designed to measure the effectiveness of their ministry, exploring their relationship with God and sharing faith, ways of working in the Church, and relationships in and out of the Church context. Statements included “People experience God’s love”; “We want to grow in number”; and “People are cared for pastorally”. In total, 90 per cent of the respondents had an average score indicating agreement with the items (suggesting that they considered their ministry effective).

The report notes that effectiveness of ministry is “a contested concept”. While acknowledging the requirements of ordained ministers set out in the Ordinal, Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy, and the selection criteria for ordination and formation, it observes that “performance measures are less easily defined”.

In the Clergy Experiences of Ministry project (2011-17), conducted by King’s College, London, in partnership with the Church of England, the key indicators of effectiveness were spiritual and numerical growth (News, 22 September 2017). This week’s report notes that “growth is the underlying concept of much thought relating to flourishing ministries”, and one emphasised by the Renewal and Reform programme, but states that it is “not universally seen as the sole indicator of flourishing in ministry”. Bishops and senior diocesan staff have their own ideas about ministerial outcomes, it notes — and these have a greater impact on clergy than national views.

The Living Ministry team decided to explore two factors: “how the ordained minister is shaping and facilitating the ministry of the Church”, and “the extent to which clergy feel equipped for ordained ministry by initial ministerial education (IME)”. It adopted measures based on the characteristics required of ministers in the Ministry Council paper Ministry for a Christian Presence in Every Community, presented to the General Synod in July, along the lines of the “seven marks of a healthy church” set out by Robert Warren in The Healthy Churches Handbook.

The reports note that respondents were most positive about their impact, and least positive about how IME had prepared them. There was also no significant difference between modes of training on ministerial effectiveness.

It also builds on the 2017 report’s study of clergy well-being: participants continue to provide positive accounts, although those moving into their first incumbency were more likely to experience a small drop in mental well-being (News, 18 October 2018).

Of those who had experienced a drop in the mental well-being score of ten or more points, just under half provided an explanatory comment: two-fifths were personal/home-life related reasons; one quarter were about the demands and stresses of the position; one third related to a lack of support, or relationship issues within the church hierarchies.

Of the support and development activities explored, retreats scored highest, and were found by participants to be highly beneficial, followed by spiritual direction.

The report notes that many of its questions rely on subjective responses, and that further light could be shed by looking at attendance figures, or eliciting perceptions of congregations, colleagues, partners, or senior clergy, although “each of these will have similar epistemological limitations”.

Dr Graveling suggested that, while it was “impossible to find a single approach that will give us a comprehensive account of effective ministry”, it was “really important to hear people’s voices. . . It’s really helpful for people just to be listened to.”

She continued: “We tend to hear the negatives all the time — stories of decline — and, actually, when you talk to clergy . . . as far as they are concerned, they think they are doing right in their ministry.”

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