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Do parishes really need thick-skinned priests?

07 October 2022

If the Church want responsive pastors, someone needs to warn them about bumps in the road, writes a first-time incumbent

“YOU grow a thick skin in your first year of incumbency,” a well-meaning senior colleague said soon after I took up my present post. His words were prophetic: both foretelling and telling-forth a truth. Because, one year in, my metaphorical ministry “skin” does feel thicker after various bumps and bruises. This has helped me to survive the parish so far. But I question whether any church is better served by a priest with a hardened outer layer after navigating the transition from assistant curate to vicar.

Anyone taking on a first incumbency recently has surely had it tough. Almost all the usual ways of getting to know a parish and people have been disrupted by Covid restrictions or adjustments to the “new normal”. Such circumstances have also intensified the effect of factors that made incumbency starts difficult before. Intensity has made these easier to define, if also harder to endure in this cohort.

But continuing trends in parish ministry in much of the Church of England suggest that these factors — which I’ll call here the causes of thick-skin vicaring — will become more widespread only if congregations and dioceses do not consciously choose to counteract and avoid them.

The following are three causes that I have noticed from my own and peers’ experiences.

THE first cause is how forcefully the weight of incumbency lands on fresh shoulders. Some clergy liken the responsibility and liability these days to a rucksack of rocks pulling on thin, unpadded straps. The difference is how roughly the whole burden is thrown on a single back. If church volunteers drop everything with relief at the end of a vacancy, or covering clergy withdraw quickly, the thin straps and back will dig and chafe until the skin is raw.

A generation ago, it was to the smaller and less complex parishes that a signed-off curate was appointed. These churches could consciously adapt to fresh-faced incumbents, benefiting from their energy and enthusiasm.

Today, fewer such parishes exist, and stipendiary curates are even known to step into the position of team rector or oversight minister — especially in dioceses that are restructuring their full-time posts. Like other former “second-incumbency” posts, these contexts have only ever known an experienced operator in charge. No matter their maturity, all first-time incumbents will find the first months under the full weight of such multi-layered roles staggeringly harsh — unless allowance is made for padding or bracing the load for a while.

A second cause of thickened skin is collision with a parish’s hidden furniture. Every church prepares for a new incumbent by displaying its more attractive features and aspirations to applicants. Once installed, every incumbent expects to uncover things that are less palatable or more intractable. But the pain comes when disclosures are felt as unexpected impacts on soft tissue — like walking into an immovable object that you did not see. These contacts can be anything from an innocent question that provokes an outraged reaction to a decision for efficiency which explodes a conflict suppressed for a decade.

After several such knocks, an incumbent is wont to grow an all-round shell, in case there are more to come. But congregations — ideally, the churchwardens — should consider whether the wiser and kinder option is to brief a new incumbent on the location of hidden furniture rather than let the incumbent hit it and get hurt so soon after arriving.

THE third cause of thicker skin is when an appointment to an incumbency fits a wider diocesan agenda more than the clergyperson really fits the parish. A kind of rubbing and blistering will be experienced here, like walking in poorly fitting shoes.

This happens for numerous reasons, perhaps most commonly when bishops are keen to retain someone in the diocese. After between five and seven years of funding a cleric’s formational training and curacy up to this point, a diocese can only offer the posts that it has vacant. Bishops and archdeacons can be tempted to lean on square-peg candidates to see themselves in round-hole incumbencies.

Given recent divergent patterns of vocations and clergy retirements, many curates are being appointed to incumbencies outside their tradition — typically, former Evangelicals moving to parishes with central or more Catholic identities.

However much diocesan directors of ordinands demand that their charges end their training “deployable”, sub-optimal fits will happen. Where skin can rub and callus in such cases may not be theology or worship style, but unstated expectations around leadership. Candidates and appointment panels must consciously avoid the intense friction generated when either incumbent or benefice alone believes in a rigid framework of ordained authority and command, while the other innocuously expects a collaborative model of ministry.

Of course, the Church of England needs robust and resilient parish priests. New Testament verses may be marshalled to validate the endurance produced by harsh experiences. And the Ordinal purposefully reminds would-be priests: “you cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God.”

All the same, I ponder the cost to church life of the roughened shoulders, tender sides, or blistered feet that I refer to here. Priests surely need sensitivity and perception to care for the body of Christ. Toughened skin makes that sensory work harder. Congregations and dioceses should consider the part that they play in better supporting, briefing, and receiving their first-time incumbents — for a gentler Church.

Read more on first-time incumbencies in our Michaelmas Ordinations feature here

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