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Michaelmas ordinations: Not a cross to bear alone

by
08 October 2021

Clergy burnout was happening long before the pandemic. Pat Ashworth reports on efforts in two dioceses to relieve stress

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ANY notion that clergy exhaustion began with the pandemic is dispelled by the experiences of the Bishop’s Adviser for Pastoral Care, in the diocese of Sheffield, Patricia Hunt.

A psychotherapist of 30 years’ experience, she sought responses in 2018 to serious concerns about the extra demand placed on clergy, as the diocese responded to financial constraints and to the pressure for numerical growth in congregations.

One response described the ministry as a “workaholic’s paradise”: a sentiment echoed by the psychotherapist Jan Korris, a trustee of St Luke’s for Clergy, who is working in the same field of clergy well-being.

“It’s a vocation, and the clergy response is that it has to be wholehearted. The job itself doesn’t have any boundaries. It’s what you make it, and that can lead to all kinds of demands, as much internal as external,” she says. “Senior clergy confessing that they work 15 or 18 hours a day are an appalling model for curates arriving in a parish.”

For those clergy with multiple parishes, “every church you visit, people are disappointed in you, because you can never spend enough time before moving on to the next one. Our clergy are so often under-affirmed because they don’t see colleagues regularly who are able to say: ‘What you’ve done is amazing. You’re doing really well.’”

Patricia Hunt found that a sense of guilt, failure, and even shame came through in the responses — elicited by letter, interestingly, not by survey: “Shame that clergy are feeling the way they do, that they are not honouring God as they wish to, and that they should be managing better. In extremis, the levels of exhaustion were leading to burnout. . . I found it distressing to read the ways in which the work that clergy loved and the vocation they were called to were leading to such emotions and hardship.”

Patricia Hunt, Bishop’s Adviser for Pastoral Care, diocese of Sheffield

A significant number of those 2018 responses mentioned a need for pastoral supervision. This resonated with a wider recognition of its need and value in the draft consultation document, which became the national Clergy Covenant for Wellbeing. It was made an Act of Synod in February 2020. The covenant commits the Church of England “together to promot[ing] the welfare of our clergy and their households at all levels”.

In the past three years, there has been what Patricia Hunt describes as “a sense of transformation happening in Sheffield” — from “clergy putting themselves last, seemingly, all the time, to clergy not feeling it is self-indulgent to care for their own well-being.”

 

FORTY-seven clergy are currently part of the Pastoral Supervision Scheme, in which pastoral supervisors, who are accredited by the Association for Pastoral Supervision and Education, work with groups of three clergy on a regular, committed, and sustained basis. The offer of pastoral supervision is open to all clergy in the diocese, and currently those interested are invited to contact the Bishop’s Adviser.

Funding came initially from the Sheffield Church Burgesses Trust. But, now that the scheme has become so successful and is evolving and growing, additional funding has come from central Church of England finance. News from the Diocesan Bishop, Dr Peter Wilcox, in July, that there were currently no clergy off sick with stress gave a “moment of joy”, she says, paying warm tribute to the Bishop for his concern and direction.

The Area Dean of Doncaster West, Canon Ian Smith, who chairs the diocesan House of Clergy, is a participant in one of the supervision groups. They are a safe place for people to talk “when things get tricky, or to find a way forward that you might not have seen for yourself”, he says. He acknowledges that the Church of England has been slower than secular organisations to recognise the value of this kind of pastoral care for its staff.

Much of the tension for the clergy centres around “what I feel called to, and trained for, but am now expected to deliver”, he observes. “Many of us grew up with collaborative working, but are now moving to a position of oversight. It’s like changing the wheel of your car while you’re still driving.”

Some clergy still needed convincing of the absolute confidentiality of the supervision scheme, he said, but the development of groups for curates should ensure that pastoral care of this nature would be “in the lifeblood” in the diocese in future.

 

MRS KORRIS, together with the Revd Hilary Ison, a trustee of St Luke’s for Clergy, and other members of the team, are continuing to work on developing preventive approaches to clergy well-being. “I have been banging on for 35 years about the clergy really deserving to have regular pastoral supervision. If they did, so many issues that arise would not be there,” she says.

“There would be action taken before things went bad. Given that having clergy off sick or taking early retirement costs the Church a lot of money, it makes much more sense to ameliorate the situation before it happens.”

St Luke’s is working to tailor its approaches to the needs of different dioceses — to look at the issues presented at, for instance, the different stages of personal transition in ministry. It now has an assured presence at the inductions of all new bishops and deans.

It has been piloting workshops for clergy well-being in Durham at the invitation of Canon Alan Bartlett, the diocesan ministry development adviser. Just how hard it had been for clergy during the pandemic had been illustrated by conversations with senior colleagues, he said. “One of my toughest parish priests, for whom I have enormous respect”, had admitted: ‘This has been the toughest 18 months of my ministry.’”

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Canon Bartlett realised, by March of this year, that levels of exhaustion were high — and that he himself was exhausted. The big issue of the summer that followed had been how to juggle the new, hybrid Church that had been created during lockdown. “I had a sense that we ought to be doing something more responsible to support our parish clergy through that.

“One of our hospital chaplains was saying how much the NHS was alert to the needs emanating from the trauma they had been through, and how it was going to support them as they emerged from it. We needed to do something like this, but didn’t know how to do it. St Luke’s came up trumps with different workshops for our clergy.”

Durham had dedicated funding from the Mercers Trust — a diocesan bishop known for pastoral care of his clergy, and a well-being agenda through which 70 clergy have had mental-health first-aid training. There remains one factor to be addressed: the ratio of female-to-male workshop participants was five to one.

 

OWEN BUBBERS-JONES, who has a background in mediation, negotiation, and conflict resolution, and works with many secular organisations, including the NHS, describes the challenges faced by the clergy as “pretty extraordinary”.

He continues: “My sense is that clergy are often so focused on serving God and serving others that they often find it hard to legitimise and voice their own needs.”

The brief he received from St Luke’s and Canon Bartlett for pilot workshops in Durham was to create a space for clergy to slow down and take time for themselves.

Negotiating expectations was a key focus: how to deal with the pressure to get back to normal, and crack on with implementing the mission plan from 2019; how to have more confidence in navigating tough conversations or challenging behaviour from people who were tired, confused, or grieving; how to support people to go beyond deeply held positions — “I want the ten-o’clock service to stay at ten o’clock” — and find common ground.

He spoke about the cost-effectiveness of funding pastoral care that dissuaded clergy from retiring early, or “starting off full of beans and, three years later, being off sick, worrying about a grievance procedure, how they get a pension. . .

“The metrics are impressive in my work with secular organisations. I’d love to work with dioceses at a strategic level to create a set of numbers. There’s a huge case to be made around saving costs: relational costs to the community of an interregnum and huge disruption.

“I’m not talking about specific safeguarding issues — there’s absolutely a time and a place for statutory processes — but investing in preventive, really effective training saves tons of money and time down the line.”

The assistant curate of Belmont and Pittington, in Durham diocese, the Revd Liz Hollis, had had just nine months in post before the first lockdown came in March 2020. “Everything changed just as I was beginning to feel settled in and know what was what. From my perspective, it wasn’t easy to figure out how to adjust,” she says.

She found “nuggets of wisdom for the future” in Mr Bubbers-Jones’s workshop on conflict resolution, acknowledging in herself a tendency to be a “conflict-avoider”. Learning to deal with the exhaustion of the job and recognising when to seek help, was “probably something I’m still wrestling with. For the majority of clergy, that is always going to be a challenge.”

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