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Clergy well-being falling, study shows

13 January 2023

Lockdowns exacerbated pre-existing pressures and stress, Living Ministry research finds

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THE overall well-being of the clergy has declined since 2019, but could be improved through stronger relationships of accountability, the third wave of the ten-year study Living Ministry suggests.

Most well-being issues existed before the pandemic, and are found to have been exacerbated by the national lockdowns, which increased workloads, pressure, stress, and physical and emotional toil for individual clergy.

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, Covenant, Calling and Crisis: Autonomy, accountability and wellbeing among Church of England clergy, published on Friday, draws on data from individual and group interviews on Zoom with 63 people, in October and November 2021, as well as on survey data from March 2021, the full findings of which are set out in the report Clergy in a Time of Covid (News, 7 January 2022).

These surveys are carried out every two years.

Calling and Crisis is so named, its author explains, because “the timing of the data collection, covering the two years since the Wave 2 interviews in Autumn 2019, meant that the Wave 3 narratives were situated in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, including all three periods of national lockdown. The pandemic, then, while not the explicit focus of this research, acts as the lens through which both aspects of the analysis are viewed.”

Incumbents who were not yet looking to retire struggled with the demands of ministry during and after the lockdowns of 2021 — more than assistant curates, who had less responsibility and were therefore able to recover more easily, the study found.

“The third, winter lockdown was the hardest due to cumulative exhaustion and responsibility for decisions regarding public safety,” the report says. “For similar reasons, along with increased workload, many clergy found the Autumn 2021, post-lockdown period even more difficult.”

One cleric told the study: “The pandemic was incredibly hard work. It was non-stop work, either work in the business or work in the parish, from dawn ’til dusk, and, actually, in those days, when we were putting together YouTube videos, sometimes [we were] working through until 5:00 am to put together the video to be uploaded before 10:00 am the next day.”

Another said of the demands of online provision: “It was just really busy. It was very invigorating initially, and very exciting. Then after a while it’s like, this is quite relentless. . . Draining.”

This was a common term for incumbents, who struggled to manage their own physical and mental health, especially when covering services for other clerics who were unwell. The toll was also felt on their families, and curates in particular worried about the repercussions of their next posting on their spouse and children, who would have to change schools.

Isolation and loneliness also increased in this time, owing to absent or smaller congregations. One cleric said: “You find yourself wasting for lack of fellowship because, especially during the first lockdown, you weren’t allowed to meet anybody.”

Spiritual well-being was challenged by this disrupted ministry, but the slower pace and space for prayer during lockdowns offered spiritual repletion for some.

In terms of professional relationships, the report found: “Colleagues, including deanery chapter, local clergy, staff teams and other groups and networks were variously deeply supportive, non-supportive, or absent. Some chaplains struggled to find support in local churches.”

Breakdowns in trust under “diocesan uncertainty and toil” were also reported. “Several participants reported feeling a lack of voice in established structures and suspicion regarding decision-making processes.”

One cleric said: “People say they’re consulting by meeting, but . . . it seems to be the decision-making is all taken elsewhere, so it doesn’t feel fantastically participative.”

Personal vocation and the perceived state of the Church were often in conflict. Uncertainty about the future generally increased during the pandemic. One cleric said: “When I went into this, I just naïvely assumed that the Church was in a good financial state and this is a secure thing, that you would have a stipendiary job for the rest of your life. But that is feeling less and less certain at the moment.”

Another said that they had to wait for restructuring conversations and processes to take place before looking for a new position. “There’s no movement on any of these things because we are, as a Church of England, bust in terms of our finances and we just don’t know how to cope with it. . . I’m seriously looking at the Church trying to decide: should I walk to another diocese?”

Clergy were also found to have struggled to measure their own performance.

Three areas of accountability identified in the report were: formal and structural (e.g. legal, finance, attendance, etc.), for which clerics reported having high accountability, but low vocational engagement; felt (e.g. vocation to God and parishioners, theological reflection, and ministry), which were “highly vocational”, but for which accountability was unclear; and chosen (e.g. spiritual direction, pastoral supervision, mentors, and coaches), which were found to have “often unclear expectations and consequences and often squeezed out under time pressure”.

One cleric said that accountability depended on their relationship to their bishop: “I do feel accountable to my bishop, but I have a good relationship with my bishop. I didn’t with the previous two bishops . . . at all, and I didn’t feel any accountability.”

The author of the report, Dr Liz Graveling, said on Friday: “Supportive frameworks of autonomy and accountability are crucial, and the stories contained within this report illuminate how these two things can be held together in the context of covenantal relationships.”

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