IN HIS first year of training at St Mellitus, a London theological college, the Revd Mike Griffiths attended a residential weekend that involved simulations of pastoral situations that he might encounter during his ministry.
The first exercise involved a role-play with a mother whose young daughter had given birth to a stillborn child, which they had stored in the freezer. It isn’t, thankfully, a situation that he has encountered so far in his five years since ordination, but he is profoundly grateful for the experience the training gave him.
“I’ve come across some of the other exercises we did that day, situations with people with dementia, for example. When I looked down and saw that first exercise, I thought: “What?” But it has stayed with me ever since. It was a brilliant exercise for thinking about how you handle situations which break down all the normal barriers of response. We had input from medical professionals, and others, and it was really excellent.”
Mr Griffiths’ experience is just one example of how theological colleges are trying to prepare their ordinands for some of the traumatic situations that they could encounter. It is an approach that also places a strong emphasis on how much those who minister pastorally need to look after their own well-being and mental health.
At the end of the long list of the Church of England’s “Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of Clergy” (www.churchofengland.org), it states: “The bishop, and those exercising pastoral care of the clergy, should both by word and example actively encourage the clergy to adopt a healthy lifestyle which should include adequate time for leisure, through taking days off and their full holidays, developing interests outside their main area of ministry, and maintaining a commitment to the care and development of themselves and their personal relationships.
“Helping the clergy understand and overcome unrealistic expectations needs to be a priority.”
For too many in ministry, for too many years, creating healthy boundaries between their public and private lives has come last on the “To do” list. Theological training now attempts to change that, ensuring that “self-care” (as it is commonly known) is on the agenda from the very beginning.
Ordinands are taught to set boundaries and look after themselves, in order to sustain their ministry for the long term.
The Revd Richard Wallis trained with the South West Ministerial Training Course (SWMTC), and is now in the second year of his curacy in the diocese of Truro. He said: “From day one at SWMTC, the focus was on self-care and setting boundaries, and we were told of the need to ensure we took regular days off. And that message of self-care continues now through IME [Initial Ministerial Education] with our tutor. I see other priests who don’t take the time off they should, and see the impact this has on them.”
Mr Griffiths, now in his first incumbency in a parish in Winchester, agrees. In a demanding job before ordination, he has found the demands of parish life less stressful in some ways than he expected.
“Having worked for a US software company, where you have the feeling that the company owns all your time — and you are given a mobile phone so they can contact you at any time of the day or night — I came to terms pretty quickly with the fact that in ministry you have too much to do, and can’t do everything. So, in many ways, I don’t feel as stressed as I did in my previous job.”
Combining work, family life, and training ensured that he had to “set boundaries pretty tightly” just to get through to ordination.
The Revd Nicky Davies is combining ministry in the New Forest with paid work, as she did throughout her training. Even so, she says, she didn’t really believe all the warnings she heard at college of how consuming ministry could be.
“I must admit that I thought at the time, it can’t possibly be like that. . . . But it is. You have to learn very quickly to say no. I’ve learned how easy it is for part-time ministry to take over your life, if you aren’t careful.
As a female vicar, the Revd Nicky Davies (9th from right at her ordination), particularly remembers advice about physical safety from her training
“I have served in the village where I live since ordination. It’s a joy to be serving here, but, since my curacy finished two years ago, and I’ve stayed in the parish, I’ve noticed things are increasingly busy, expectations have grown, and the role changes constantly. I really need time to reflect, and I try to take myself off for a walk, or a swim, to try and give myself that time.”
SU BLANCH, from the consultancy 3D Coaching, works with curates to prepare them for the challenges of incumbency. She encourages them to hold face-to-face conversations early on to set boundaries.
“I encourage people to talk corporately with churchwardens and clergy, to ask: What do good boundaries look like? And what does a crisis look like? So things that aren’t crises don’t need to come in the middle of the night.
“I heard a recent example of a suicide attempt, and that was in the middle of the night, and needed an urgent response; but [there were] others where churchwardens have called in the middle of the night about something that really didn’t need an urgent response.
“Setting joint parameters, regardless of whether the clergy person has a family, is really important.”
It is even more important for those who might be described as having a tendency towards a “saviour complex”.
“Some curates can feel anxious about having that conversation,” Ms Blanch says. “They feel they are there to serve, and almost feel they should just do as they are told. . . But that can set the pattern for the rest of their ministry, which often leads to problems.”
Similar conversations about boundaries also need to happen with partners and family, she says. “It’s important, if there are children, to consider how boundaries may change when the children get older — because what is OK for a two- or three-year-old may not be OK for a ten- or 15-year-old.
“It can be difficult for congregations to recognise that the children are growing up, and, maybe, don’t want to be the centre of attention. If you have the conversation, and go back to it regularly, then things can be discussed and reviewed.”
She often suggests that curates with families do a bit of “visioning”, asking themselves: ‘How would we like to live, [and] what would we hope to feel like?’ so that they can set expectations. This should be done at the start of a curacy “rather than six months in, when everyone is exhausted because there is no privacy, and everyone feels they have to be on their best behaviour all the time.”
BESIDES offering one-to-one support and retreats for the clergy, the Society of Mary and Martha at Sheldon, near Exeter, has developed “The Hub” — an online community so that those in ministry can explore concerns together, pool expertise, pray, and support each other.
“However much people are taught the component skills of ministry,” the Warden at Sheldon, Sarah Horsman, said, “there is still the whole formation element: that is, putting together a life in ministry that works in the round — including the role, personal maintenance, and domestic/family life. We don’t talk enough about that.”
The Revd Mike Griffiths (with his family after his ordination) found pastoral scenarios role played during training still live with him
A particular stress for people in positions of first responsibility is if something big takes place early on in ministry: for example, a significant colleague taken sick, or there is a personal trauma or a local tragedy.
“These things are difficult at any point in ministry; but when big stuff hits early, people may not have the support networks, or the practical experience, or the developed reflexes, to draw on. And in the early years, there may be pressure to prove that you’re managing, and [that] everything is OK.
Equally, it can be genuinely hard to know where to ask questions or get advice.
“We set up the Sheldon Hub because we could see this gap — a place to go to ask practical questions, or tease out thorny issues without being embarrassed. It’s lovely to see those sort of conversations and mutual support taking place.”
Ms Horsman is wary about the way terms such as “well-being” and “resilience” are bandied around.
“Well-being and resilience are great concepts, and there is some good training around; but there is a risk they get misused, as a way to blame people who are not coping. What if the person is in a situation where hardly anyone would cope, and it’s the situation that needs addressing?”
Matthew Caminer, whose wife is ordained, has written Curacies and How to Survive Them (SPCK, 2015), with Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and Beau Stevenson, a psychotherapist (Features, 10 July 2015; review, 16 October 2015).
Despite the challenges, the book’s authors conclude that, for most curacies, it is “worth hanging in there . . . that working through the difficulties will pave the way to a more robust, secure, and integrated future ministry”. Mr Caminer acknowledges, however, that many challenges remain for clergy families, despite suggestions that the Church has improved dramatically in this regard.
“The Church selects the individual, not the family. When people say: ‘There are no expectations of clergy families: that’s all changed,’ well, just ask your nearest curate about that. I know a curate’s wife who, just after the first Sunday service in the new parish, had a call from an irate parishioner, who had expected her to lead junior church because her predecessor did.”
Many people now train on part-time courses, which do not demand the upheaval of full-time residential training. Mr Caminer and Dr Percy express concern that, as a consequence, spouses and partners are often not fully prepared for the dramatic changes that follow ordination.
Mr Wallis, Mrs Davies, and Mr Griffiths all attended part-time courses, and all felt that they were well prepared. Mr Griffiths said that provision for clergy partners had needed to improve at St Mellitus, and did so during the three years that he was there.
“I don’t live in a clergy house, which helps, because it’s not quite so open-access,” Mrs Davies says. “But my husband also has a public role, and the house is tied to his role; so people do still come to me here. We are both aware, through our roles, of the need to be needed, and how it can be ego-boosting; so we try to keep an eye on that.”
She also refers back frequently to the training she received on physical safety, particularly in one-to-one pastoral situations. “There was a talk at college about self-care in relation to physically protecting yourself — particularly, perhaps, as a woman in difficult situations. It was useful things like where to place yourself in a room if you feel unsure of how the situation may develop [near a door, for example].
“I have had situations where I’ve needed to retreat quickly; so I try to refer back to my training to remind myself.”
Though training to help clergy look after themselves has undoubtedly improved, there is still more to be done, says Ms Blanch, who works with dioceses all over the country, besides offering individual coaching. “Dioceses are seeing the need for doing more about clergy well-being, which is great; but we’re a long way away from everything being OK and right.”.
“The gap between training and the real world can be a shock,” Ms Horsman says. “Human beings’ trying to get along with each other is usually complex and messy, and there will be conflicts to handle.”