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Angela Tilby: Exiting from parish ministry is not always a failure    

29 July 2022

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FEW would doubt that parish ministry is demanding and requires men and women of exceptional commitment, prayer, and stability. These virtues, discerned at selection and, it is hoped, strengthened by appropriate training, should foster self-awareness. Clergy need to be able to lead, teach, and care for others without themselves becoming over-dependent on others’ affirmation, or hardened to the point of indifference. It is a delicate balance.

Wesley Carr, a former Dean of Westminster, used to say that it was important that clergy had a touch of cynicism. Not too much, but enough to warn them when they were in danger of being exploited or enlisted into time-wasting projects, or even, at the mundane level, of being persuaded by an apparently heartbroken and needy individual to part with a few hundred pounds for a train ticket so that he could attend his mother’s funeral. (Yes, this was one I fell for before the pandemic. I even prayed with the poor man, who cried most convincingly. Then I discovered he was trying it on all over the diocese.)

The stresses and ambivalences of clergy life do lead to some falling by the wayside and needing to leave. There are toxic, bullying parishes. There are well-intentioned clergy who simply find that they need a sharper focus, clearer management, a week with a weekend.

Failing to flourish in parish ministry is not always anyone’s fault, nor is it always a failure. We are all recycled in various ways in the course of life. When he was Director of Mission in Oxford diocese, Michael Beasley (soon to be installed as Bishop of Bath & Wells), explored the possibility of funding some of those who were exhausted or disillusioned, to leave with a decent exit package. He judged, quite rightly, that too many cling on because they have no alternative, and that they would be happier, and their parishes would be better served, were it made possible for them to leave with dignity.

All this could be depressing, but surveys of job satisfaction frequently show that clergy report high levels of fulfilment. Much of this has to do with trust. If they feel trusted by the Bishop and the people for whom they care, it is worth persevering. Perhaps God is not as anxious as we often are about money and numbers. Perhaps God can be trusted to see his Church through this dry, barren, argumentative season.

If I were in parish ministry today, I would personally try to ignore the snazzy straplines and upbeat, guilt-inducing mission statements. Yet it remains true that ministry requires elements of self-containment and genuine sacrifice. T. S. Eliot spoke of “A condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything).” Those lines, at the end of his Four Quartets, lead to the famous quotation from Julian of Norwich: “And all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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