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Clergy are in the dark about how well they’re doing, new study finds

06 January 2022


“HOW do clergy know that they are doing a good job?” is among the questions raised by the latest report of the Living Ministry study. It finds that fewer than half the respondents feel that they have any space to reflect on and measure their performance.

The study, launched in 2017 (News, 24 February 2017), is following four cohorts over ten years: clergy ordained in 2006, 2011, and 2015, and those who entered training in 2016. Its aim is to gather evidence about “what enables ministers to flourish in ministry”. The latest report — Clergy in a Time of Covid: Autonomy, accountability and support — draws on data collected online from 521 clergy in March 2021.

Part of the report focuses on clergy well-being. Almost half (44 per cent) reported their mental well-being as being worse than before the pandemic, while 42 per cent reported feeling more isolated in their ministry.

“While this may reflect changes in the general population and be less severe than experiences of some other occupations, such as healthcare workers, social workers and teachers, these are still notable drops and are already likely to have recovered from steeper declines in 2020,” the report observes.

More clergy reported an improvement than reported a fall in their personal financial and material well-being: 30 per cent reported managing better financially, while nine per cent reported that their financial situation had worsened. Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) said that their overall health was about the same; 16 per cent reported an improvement; but 23 per cent said that it had deteriorated.

The proportion of clergy reporting that they had adequate time to pray increased from 68 per cent in Wave 2 (2018) to 76 per cent in Wave 3. Vocational-fulfilment questions produced a “mixed picture”: 28 per cent felt that they were fulfilling their vocation less, rising to 45 per cent of those in parochial positions, which, the report suggests, may be connected to restrictions on ministry.

The report notes that “important sources of spiritual nourishment fell sharply, notably retreats but also spiritual direction,” and that more than half (54 per cent) of the respondents did not take all their annual leave in 2020, compared with 34 per cent in 2018. It recommends that “mental health challenges and isolation should be seen as priority issues. Broad-brush strategies are likely to be less effective than detailed listening and contextually-informed responses. Space and resource should be made available to enable: vocational reflection, lament, processing and learning from the pandemic, holiday away from the parish.”

The particular focus of this Wave 3 study is autonomy, accountability, and support. The report, written by Dr Liz Graveling and Louise McFerran, researchers at Church House, observes that the lives of most clergy, as office-holders rather than employees subject to line management, “entail complex dynamics of autonomy and accountability, as they minister within simultaneous relational frameworks of covenant, contract and constitution”.

Autonomy is explored as “scope to make decisions”, with the finding that “respondents in general want more autonomy, particularly when it comes to style/tradition and changing things that stop them flourishing. This is most notable for curates.” Clergy were “generally very positive about the input they received from others into the decisions they made in ministry”, but many wanted more input from others: 45 per cent said that they did not receive enough input from parishioners, and 38 per cent wanted more from bishops.

When it comes to accountability, the report notes that in previous studies most clergy spoke of two sources: God and their bishop. It observes that “one of the challenges with episcopal accountability structures, and more widely within the Church, is that bishops and other senior figures combine a range of different responsibilities, sometimes with conflicting interests.” It also notes that episcopal direction is “not always well-received”, noting opposition to both the Renewal and Reform initiative and the Vision and Strategy initiative. In total, 65 per cent of respondents felt that their bishop valued their ministry.

The study lists12 “spaces” where accountability could be measured (including Ministerial Development Review, the PCC, and spiritual direction), and asked respondents whether they found them to be helpful in four measures: “measuring your performance, ensuring you enact your role well, allowing you to talk openly about your ministry, and providing feedback and support”. Thirty per cent of respondents said that their PCC provided none of these functions.

While the “vast majority” had helpful spaces for three of the measures, fewer than half (47 per cent) said that they had any space beneficial for measuring their performance. The highest score was for the Ministerial Development Review, which is conducted every two years: 39 per cent said that this helped with measuring their performance; but most other spaces, including PCCs, were referred to by fewer than ten per cent of respondents.

The report says that this raises two fundamental questions: first, is “performance measurement relevant to ordained ministry enacted within a covenantal relationship? . . . Second, how can performance be assessed? Or, in other words, how can clergy know they are doing a good job? . . . Is how clergy inhabit and conduct their role more important than what they achieve?”

These questions will be explored further in a forthcoming qualitative study, the report says. It recommends that “further consideration should be given to performance measurement, including the extent to which it is beneficial, appropriate ways of doing it, and provision for clergy to engage in it.”

Dr Graveling said last month that it was “much easier to measure personal flourishing — well-being — than the flourishing of a ministry”, and that it was “virtually impossible to have a standard that says that everyone has to tick exactly the same boxes in terms of their impact or the outcomes of their ministry”.

Among the first impressions emerging from her qualitative work building on the study was that “measuring performance needs to be nuanced and contextualised, with objectives and goals co-constructed with the clergyperson rather than a set of criteria imposed on people.

“There may be core principles that go across the board, but the detail of it is going to be quite specific.”

Another was that “part of measuring performance is about knowing that you are doing a good job”. A response from some clergy asked about how they discerned this was “I just know.” This sense was forged, Dr Graveling suggested, from “years of discipleship, formation, and experience, developing the ability to discern God’s will and enact appropriate approaches or responses to situations and people in any given moment”.

A 2019 Living Ministry report found that clergy were “overwhelmingly positive” when asked to rate their own ministerial effectiveness (News, 13 December 2019).


‘You don’t really get it until you’re in it’

PUBLISHED alongside the Wave 3 report is a qualitative study drawing on interviews with 61 clergy (from the same four cohorts) carried out at the end of 2019 by Dr Graveling and Dr Ruth Perrin: You Don’t Really Get It Until You’re In It: Meeting the challenges of ordained ministry.

Among those who had begun training in 2016, conflict with their training incumbent (TI) was, for some, “the pressing issue. . . Discerning how to navigate and address complaints about the incumbent from the congregation was pressing for one. For others, the challenge was around a clash of spiritualities and their TI’s insistence on the curate emulating the TI’s spiritual practices. Whether this was around daily prayer, rhythms of study or times for reflection, these were pinch-points that they were unsure how to resolve. Negotiating these issues from a less powerful position is challenging and, in some cases, was extremely taxing.”

For those ordained in 2015, it was “evident that adjusting to the responsibility and demands of incumbency was stretching for them all and, in some cases, verging on overwhelming”. The report warns that “those concerned with clergy development and wellbeing need to note and address the reality that the learning curve of first incumbency is sharp, and that research shows this is a time at which clergy particularly need and yet often lack support.”

Several of the respondents ordained in 2011 “wanted to challenge the thinking that ‘the vicar will do everything.’ They wanted to raise up congregations to participate, take responsibility and become more outward focused.” One told interviewers: “I think the apathy is the thing that will destroy me.” Many respondents were “trying to address passivity and historic disempowerment in their churches, or to ‘raise the basics of prayer, mission and being outward-looking.’”

For half of those ordained in 2006, concerns were “centred on the changing structure of the Church of England. For some, this was concern about sustainability and future of their individual churches, particularly in rural areas. The impact of diocesan restructuring was frequently mentioned as occupying their thoughts. Although not all were negative about this, and recognised the complexities, one described theirs as ‘a tsunami sucking the tide out, away from churches on the periphery’. Another was concerned about communication, and, although acknowledging the pressure on senior diocesan officials, recognised that the uncertainty was endemic and detrimental all round.”

The report notes the additional challenges faced by self-supporting ministers, observing that several felt “undervalued, unsupported in the complexities of their context and, in some cases, taken for granted or virtually ignored by their diocese”. It also reports difficulties faced by the unmarried, for whom “existing close friends were often geographically scattered and building such relationships in a new parish as a priest was complicated and could be challenging. The result was the experience of being very much alone.”

The report raises questions about the provision of diocesan training and ministerial development, finding that “overall, diocesan IME 2 training did not appear to have provided the majority with additional resources for their current challenge. Continuing ministerial development also received little comment.”

The diocesan environment and support has “a huge impact on the wellbeing of clergy as they consider the challenges they face”, it says. “Best practice is where individual priests feel known and valued, where senior officials are available and communicate well with realistic optimism.”

It warns that, among the new incumbents (ordained in 2015), “many despaired of being able to develop ministry or invest the time in relationships needed to bring about change. For some, exploring options and ideas took more than they had capacity for. Several spoke about having to ‘fight for time to do the thinking and reading I need to do.’ Space for learning, creativity and to make strategic decisions was clearly important for clergy at all stages, but too often felt to them like a luxury.”

Forthcoming Events

2 July 2022
Bringing Down the Mighty: Church, Theology and Structural Injustice
With Anthony Reddie, Azariah France-Williams, Mariama Ifode-Blease, Luke Larner, Will Moore, Stewart Rapley and Victoria Turner.

4-8 July 2022
HeartEdge Mission Summer School
From HeartEdge and St Augustine’s College of Theology.

More events

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