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Michaelmas ordinations: So much to do on a first solo flight

07 October 2022

Going from a curacy to an incumbency affects the well-being of many clergy, Liz Graveling reports


Developing a network of support increases clergy well-being

Developing a network of support increases clergy well-being

“I PROBABLY thought curacy was busy,” Katy says, her voice clear through my phone. “Now, it’s like, wow! Curacy was so restful.”

Almost exactly two years earlier, Katy had sat with two other curates — all participants in the Living Ministry research project — in a small meeting room in Church House, Westminster, telling me how relentlessly busy and overwhelming they were finding their first years of ordained ministry.

Now, a year into her post as Team Vicar of a church in a busy market town, Katy describes the step-change of moving into greater independence: “I don’t think anything in training prepared me for the volume of, just, stuff, in parish ministry.

“That’s my biggest issue at the moment, the sheer volume of different things you have to handle at any one time; keeping on top of that, and keeping the balance between pastoral and administrative and missional and all those things.

“But”, she says, “it may just be one of those things that you don’t really get it until you’re in it.”

Judging by the experiences of the other participants in the same research study, Katy is not alone. Quantitative analysis of clergy experiences at different stages of ordained ministry, two years apart, tells us that the move into the first incumbency represents the only consistent change — a statistically significant drop — in well-being.

Each context is different. For Ed, the main challenge is moving from a relatively isolated curacy into a fast-paced urban church, where he is managing a staff team.

Sarah moved in the opposite direction, into an isolated rural benefice, where she “spent the first year listening and getting to know the parish, just tweaking things where necessary”. And Peter is finding it lonely, getting to grips with parish ministry in a suburban church with no colleagues. “You don’t have others you can turn to; you don’t have friends you can turn to; you can’t turn to the parishioners; so you do feel quite isolated.”

Becca has taken on a church in a suburban team ministry, and “realised quite quickly the church was in an absolute mess”. From safeguarding to finances, she explains, “each one, you think, ‘I’ll just deal with that. . . I’ll just deal with that.’ I was just working, working, working, and working.”

Ben, in a deprived coastal parish, is concerned about the spiritual implications of “being busy for Jesus . . . the busyness of being in a parish that needs a lot of work doing to it. But how long can that last?” he wonders. “When does the tank empty? What are you going to draw on?”

Beyond the temporary challenges of moving house and familiarisation with new places, people, and functions, underlying each story is an increased sense of responsibility.

Jon, who is struggling with his mental health and has recently become a suburban priest-in-charge, observes: “No matter how well I know this shouldn’t be the case, I do feel hugely responsible for the future of my particular church, the congregation — its future, financial issues around the congregation, and the age demographic, all that sort of thing — and that weighs heavily on me.”

Besides being a burden in itself, the sense of “the buck stops with me” can also increase workload, as Becca has found; and isolation, as for Peter.


ALONGSIDE this, however — and this is the thread that sustains many clergy through the challenges of first incumbency — responsibility can increase vocational fulfilment.

Katy, Ed, Sarah, Peter, Becca, Jon, and Ben were ultimately not called to be curates, or, as others may be, to assistant ministry: they were called to lead churches.

Reflecting on his move to incumbency, Ed says: “I’m feeling far more at ease within my role, and that’s partly vocational as well; it’s partly that I am doing what I’m called to do, even though it’s hard.”

Sarah, who made a deliberate decision to tackle her isolation by accepting invitations to involve herself in diocesan work, says: “It’s OK to be me now, whereas before it felt like I was having to be squeezed into the curate’s box.”

Besides feeling released in what they do, new incumbents commonly feel liberated with regard to the way in which they do it.

Along with responsibility comes flexibility. Diary management is crucial. Amid all his busyness, Ben explains: “One of the joys about being incumbent-status is that actually you can [spend time with family] without having to have any feeling of guilt pressed upon you by anybody else. . . That means I might have to juggle some bits around in the afternoon, so that meetings happen in the evening, but that’s my call. I was released by that independence; I flourished because of that.”

To leave behind the structure of curacy training and navigate well the move into incumbency, a solid support network is essential. Statistically, family and friends are consistently rated as the most valuable sources of support: 84 per cent of respondents in 2017 rated family, and 65 per cent rated friends, as highly beneficial to their flourishing in ministry, compared with 57 per cent colleagues, and 44 per cent congregations.

It is important to nurture these relationships for the well-being of the cleric as well as the sake of family members, who may also be experiencing change and turmoil. It was Becca’s partner who called out her overworking: “My husband said, ‘You’re working too many hours. You’re getting physically exhausted. That’s what’s going on.’”

Single clergy who don’t have immediate family to help them to set boundaries find it helpful to prioritise relationships with wider family and friends which militate against overwork and isolation. Other support might also continue, including spiritual direction, or close peer or “cell” groups, from college or curacy.

At the same time, new relationships are developed, both locally (congregations, parish colleagues, deanery chapter, and local community) and professionally (mentors, coaches, pastoral supervisors, diocesan staff, and reflective-practice groups). Some clergy value courses and retreats for first incumbents, as much for networking with others in the same situation as for the training content.

Katy’s interview is peppered with sources of support: colleagues in her team ministry; a local ecumenical church leaders’ network; a mentor provided by the diocese; churchwardens; a local peer group from her curacy days; the vicar from the church where she discerned her calling; specific diocesan departments. “I’m quite well resourced really, aren’t I?” she says at one point, in surprise.

Not all first incumbents have access to such support. Senior clergy do well to check in periodically with new incumbents to find out how they are managing, and what kind of support they need; however, few clergy in this study mention such a proactive approach.

“I know I will need support,” Paul says, just two weeks into his new post, with no colleagues, licensed lay ministers, or retired clergy in the parish; with elderly churchwardens; and recognising that support from the area dean and bishop, while well-meaning, will be limited. Alongside a prayer triplet formed during college, he is pinning his hopes on local networks: deanery chapter and ecumenical relationships. “It’s not that I’m not building relationships, and trying to form networks,” he tells me.

It remains to be seen whether Paul will be able to find the support that he needs. For Katy, her first year of incumbency has proved a continuation of the learning curve of an assistant curacy. With a strong network of support, her capacity has grown: “I’m not as anxious as I was in the early days of this job. I’ve had wobbles this year, that’s for sure; had to deal with some quite challenging things. . . But I had mechanisms to deal with it, and places to deal with it.”


The people in this report have been given pseudonyms, and some are composites of participants in the research.

Dr Liz Graveling directs the Church of England Ministry Development Team’s “Living Ministry” research project, which follows four cohorts of clergy through their ministry over a period of ten years, to understand what helps them to flourish.



Good practice for the transition to first incumbency

Curate/ new incumbent

  • Consider changes and continuities in support structures: which to continue (e.g. contact with IME 1 or 2 peers; spiritual direction; support from family, friends, and colleagues); which new ones to start (e.g. new colleagues, community groups, local church networks, mentoring, coaching, diocesan groups); which to protect and nurture (e.g. time with family and friends); and which to let go of.
  • Take time to prepare family, emotionally as well as practically, for a move.
  • Consider how to access preferred ways of worshipping, if these differ from the new ministry context.
  • Pace yourself during the first year instead of trying to address every issue immediately.



  • Consider what kinds of support the person moving is likely to need, and how this can be provided (e.g. facilitated groups; buddying; mentoring; coaching; counselling, and ongoing accompanied vocational discernment). Increased workload and responsibility both impact strongly on well-being; so structures such as mentoring that support in these areas without aggravating them are key.
  • Ensure clergy receive pro-active, periodic contact to check how they are doing, especially during the first weeks and months of their post.
  • Consider the situations and needs of families during transition periods, including schooling, encouraging family time, and connecting clergy spouses as appropriate.
  • Invite (but don’t pressure) clergy to connect and participate in the diocese early on following a move (e.g. through clergy conferences, bishops’ social or study invitations, and discussions with CMD or well-being officers).
  • Consider well-being issues during recruitment processes.


Parishes and patrons

  • Consider well-being issues during recruitment processes.
  • Ensure housing is adequate and ready in time for moving day.
  • Consider the situations and needs of families during transition periods, including regarding privacy, expectations, and family time.

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