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Counting the cost of pandemic ministry

20 August 2021

What is the state of clergy morale, one year after the first lockdown, ask Leslie Francis and Andrew Village

OUR first survey, Coronavirus, Church and You, ran between 8 May and late July 2020. We wanted to assess the immediate impact of what was then thought to be a short-term strategy to deal with the pandemic.

Our first survey provided useful data on the emotional toll of Covid-19 (Comment, 16 October 2020), the fragility of rural churches (20 November 2020), the perspective of retired clergy (1 January 2021), the greater dissatisfaction of older churchgoers (12 February 2021), the eucharist in time of lockdown (19 March 2021), the growing alienation of men from the Church (14 May 2021), and the spiritual awakening evoked by the lockdown (2 July 2021).

When, responding to the third upturn in infections, the Prime Minister introduced a further lockdown on 4 January 2021 (News, 8 January), we decided that it was time to take further soundings. The Covid-19 and Church-21 Survey was launched on 22 January to capture an update on how clergy and laity were responding. Among the 6000 participants in the second survey, there were 413 Anglican clergy engaged in full-time parochial ministry in England.

Most of these clergy engaged in full-time parochial ministry had been innovative, creative, and doing a good job to keep their churches engaged. But all this has been at considerable personal cost, and it has taken its toll. The purpose of this, our first report from the Covid-19 and Church-21 Survey, therefore, is to draw attention to the extent of this personal cost, and to do so through an established model of work-related psychological well-being.


OUR model of work-related psychological well-being employs the theory of balanced affect, which has its roots in the pioneering work of Norman Bradburn in his book The Structure of Psychological Well-being (Aldine, 1969). This theory, which distinguishes between positive affect and negative affect, was brought to research into clergy well-being by the Francis Burnout Inventory (FBI; Francis, Laycock, and Brewster, 2017).

We see positive affect (happiness and satisfaction) and negative affect (stress and exhaustion) as separate systems. What keeps clergy going is the way in which positive affect offsets the negative consequences of negative affect. Coping with the pandemic can bring increases in both positive affect and negative affect. What our data tell us is that, among parochial clergy, the increases in negative affect outweighed the increases in positive affect. The following statistics illustrate this point.

In terms of positive affect, 15 per cent of clergy said that their sense of calm had increased during the pandemic, but 40 per cent reported a decrease; 17 per cent said that their enthusiasm had increased, but 43 per cent reported a decrease; nine per cent said that their happiness had increased, but 41 per cent reported a decrease.

On the other hand, 56 per cent of clergy said that their sense of gratitude had increased during the pandemic, compared with eight per cent who reported a decrease; 52 per cent said their sense of thankfulness had increased, compared with eight per cent who reported a decrease. These are positive signs, with increasing feelings of gratitude and thankfulness. Serious erosion in enthusiasm and overall happiness, however, may damage the resilience to bounce back after experiences of negative affect.

In terms of negative affect, 82 per cent of clergy said that their sense of fatigue had increased during the pandemic. For 67 per cent, frustration had increased, and, for 73 per cent, exhaustion had increased. Fifty-seven per cent had become more anxious, 60 per cent had become more stressed, and 51 per cent had become more irritable.

These are not positive signs. These figures are high, and it is here that we can begin to quantify the detrimental effects of living through and dealing with the pandemic on the well-being of parochial clergy.


THE second lens through which we viewed the way in which clergy perceived the effect of the pandemic on their well-being was through asking direct questions about how well they had coped, and how they saw the effect on their health.

A year on, 42 per cent said that they had not found it easy to cope: 46 per cent were experiencing deterioration in mental health, 36 per cent in physical health, and 26 per cent in spiritual health. These figures help to illustrate the consequences of changes in negative affect outweighing changes in positive affect.

There are strategies that clergy can employ to compensate for increases in negative affect. Nearly half (48 per cent) said that they were eating more: 37 per cent were eating more chocolate, 34 per cent were drinking more alcohol, and 28 per cent were drinking more coffee. More than one in three (37 per cent) said that they were taking less exercise. The problem, of course, is that neither eating more, nor drinking more alcohol, provide long-term solutions.

Here are issues that we consider are worth researching in greater depth, in light of the best available knowledge concerning the science of clergy well-being.


The Revd Andrew Village is Professor of Practical and Empirical Theology, and Canon Leslie J. Francis is Visiting Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, both at York St John University.

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