PASTORAL and chaplaincy assistants who are relying on their posts for income and stability are feeling “useless”, “expendable”, and “insecure”, some of them have said, since the outbreak of the coronavirus, which led to restrictions on their ministry after church buildings were closed last month (News, 27 March).
A pastoral assistant employed by a church in Westminster said: “My church runs as much on its pastoral assistants as on its clergy, and the fact that the church is shut down at the moment is leaving us without much to do. I’m feeling a bit useless and helpless.”
Pay and conditions among pastoral assistants can vary. Some are on a scheme, while others are recruited directly through a church and can be paid anything from £50 to £100 a week, up to £23,000 a year. Some assistants are given housing, while others are not. Not all assistants find that they can make ends meet, and, since the Covid-19 outbreak, some have felt insecure about the status of their jobs.
The Westminster assistant’s situation of having to undertake multiple jobs, but with no guaranteed extra pay, was exacerbated by the coronavirus. “I volunteered to step into the role of parish administrator in November, until they could hire someone else, and I pressed through January and February to be remunerated. When Covid-19 happened, because the church chose 1 March as a start date, I was not on payroll by 28 February, which was the cut-off date for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. They will not claim back any money for me; so I’m on unpaid furlough until further notice.
“Things feel very disorganised and ad hoc. I feel like I showed some good will, and it’s come back to bite me.”
The pastoral assistant of St James’s, Piccadilly, Elijah Kinne, who also works in fashion, said: “My job in the church is safe for at least two months, but it’s uncertain beyond that. I feel I’m on the chopping-block, as anyone low down in the rankings is always the first to go. As most pastoral-assistant jobs are only for a year, with six-month probation periods, and a lot are not even paid appropriately, we are seen as expendable.
“Particularly in the current climate, we are seen as something extra-curricular rather than a part of the functioning of the church. Yet I’m paid per hour, and contracted for just under four days a week, even though, on average, I probably do five-and-a-half to six days a week. I enjoy what I’m doing; but there’s always the expectation that you will kill yourself working in the role, otherwise you are not seen to be taking it seriously.”
Two pastoral assistants in London told of their concerns about their route to ordination. One in east London said: “We have taken seriously the advice and guidance from the Government and Archbishops, but it has been a massive adjustment. My fear is that if I could not progress into ordination training this year because of the outbreak, I might be out on the street in September when they get the new pastoral assistant in.”
Brandon Fletcher-James, from St Martin-in-the-Fields, said: “I haven’t had my psychological assessment, which is a main component of the selection criteria. I’m also waiting for the appointment with my bishop. You want some form of effective leadership and clarity in a moment like this, and it feels like we’re all in a moment of darkness.”
A Ministry Experience Scheme (MES) student at St Philip and St James, Bath, Jay Cook, said that he found his placement important in his vocational development. “It exceeded my expectations, and I feel I have grown massively in my faith and had the freedom to work and explore this area of ministry.” He also said, however: “I get paid for a certain number of hours in the week, but I do one voluntary day per week for the church, and I’ve had to do a part-time job as well to back things up and be able to live.”
Those on placements in university chaplaincies have also found the lockdown challenging. A chaplaincy assistant at King’s College, London, Doris Barrera, who now works from home, said: “We are here to support people in this journey at university. We are working with people, not with a computer.”
Not all assistants are finding the changes to be negative, however. The manager of the MES, which provides year-long placements for 18- to 30-year-olds in 24 dioceses, including Europe, Vic Wilson, said: “None of the MES participants can engage in the usual ministry areas they have been doing. All ministry has gone online; the social-media aspects will not be entirely new, but will have taken on new meaning, such as allowing participants to help the vulnerable and isolated in their communities.”
There are currently 100 participants on the scheme. Mr Wilson confirmed that recruitment would still be happening for the 2020-21 intake in September.
One MES participant, a pastoral assistant at the Woven Church Group, Nottingham, said that the numbers worshipping with that church online were increasing. “Buildings and physical gatherings have shut down, but the church is as active as ever. Lots of people that wouldn’t want to turn up to a church building find it much easier to join a live stream of a service.”