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Self-care alone will not boost clergy well-being

by
12 February 2021

The Church of England should be more alert to systemic and occupational causes of stress, argues Sean Cathie

THE recent Church Times webinar “The Weight of this Calling” discussed how to promote clergy well-being. There was much practical wisdom, mined from personal experience. The speakers, however, including the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, addressed this mainly in terms of clergy self-care. The predominant message was that clergy should look after themselves, and that bishops will “model good self-care”.

This is now the dominant narrative about clergy care and well-being. But it assumes too easily that it knows the problem and its solution. It ignores research into stress in the caring professions and among the clergy, thus screening out the systemic and occupational factors, and locates the problem in individuals.

This is unfair to them and leads to an impossible problem. Support is assumed to mean one-to-one, and, clearly, it is not possible to provide that for all who need it, either in parishes or among front-line clergy. This assumption makes the problem seem impossible and leads, I believe, to this emphasis on self-care.

The Church’s own traditions of pastoral care, with their emphasis on community and the part played by oversight in building it up, point to different possibilities; as does the research into stress in social and mental-care organisations, which show there to be a range of group and organisational ways to support staff and build up resilience. These methods have greater leverage because they work with groups of staff and colleagues, and address the issues arising from the work and the organisational context.

Such approaches provide the opportunity not only to provide support to individuals, but also to address the problematic aspects of their work culture.

 

THIS is particularly relevant to ministry. Speakers in the General Synod debate on clergy care and well-being (News, 12 July 2019) testified to the pressure of expectations and the limiting effect of the Church’s “culture of chronic niceness”. The resulting difficulties in sorting out difficult situations, or discussing problem issues, contribute to patterns of “silo working” and of being slow, as clergy, to seek help.

The power of these defensive patterns makes them difficult to challenge. Imagine, for example, trying to encourage open and honest communication where it does not exist, or trying to overcome silo working by suggesting a collaboration. Yes, individuals can act counter-culturally, but only in their sphere of influence, and to the degree that they can forge a working alliance with others. There is a limit to what the individual can do.

That is why those in authority have a particular part to play. Their position gives them greater opportunities to set the tone of the culture and initiate a “virtuous circle of kindness”, to quote John Ballatt and Penelope Campling in Intelligent Kindness (RCPsych Publications, 2016).

This is a way of describing how kindness can be expressed systemically and institutionally. Recognising the link between “kinship” and “kindness”, it gives attention to the quality of relationships at all levels. Beginning with attending to how people join and leave, kindness is expressed in attuning staff action and words to colleagues and those being helped. This, in turn, builds trust and reduces anxiety. Communicating clearly what is expected, and how things are done, is complemented by encouraging open and honest discussion, especially when something has gone wrong.

This challenges the tendency of those in authority at parish and diocesan level to pursue action or efficiency without regard for pastoral aims, broadly understood, and at the expense of listening and relating to people. This is constantly sacrificed for the quick fix: for example, when jobs are offered which have significant problems, but nothing is said about them, leaving the priests who accept such jobs to feel deceived. This is how acting for “convenience” plays out in practice.

Yet when tasks and goals are pursued by taking relationships into account, and plans are explained to and discussed with those involved, people are more willing to collaborate and relationships are strengthened. This leads to more effective working, with better results.

 

SUCH a “virtuous circle” strengthens people’s resilience and engagement, and provides a way through the common conflicts between vision and values, on the one hand, and doing the work on the other. We could sum this up by saying that promoting a healthy Church, and the well-being of the clergy, depends on addressing issues at the level of the individual, the group, and of the system as a whole.

The quality that this requires has been described as “mature dependency.” In Managing Vulnerability (Karnac Books, 2010), Tim Dartington writes that this “is not . . . about the simple gratification of needs, passively demanded of an often absent leader. It is an interactive process, requiring both thought and action, where there is a recognition of difference and a use of difference to achieve mutually agreed ends.”

The potential for better clergy well-being and higher morale is far greater with this than simply focusing on clergy self-care.

 

The Revd Dr Sean Cathie completed his doctorate in theology and ministry at King’s College, London, with theological and empirical research into “The Clergy’s Experience of Pastoral Care”.

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