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Title curacy: where are the rocks, and how do you steer round them?

07 July 2023

There are inbuilt tensions in title curacies. Rick Simpson makes suggestions for resolving them


Training incumbents are among those to lay on hands at the ordination of priests in Peterborough Cathedral, on 24 June

Training incumbents are among those to lay on hands at the ordination of priests in Peterborough Cathedral, on 24 June

A CHURCH of England title curacy can be great. In many other denominations, new ministers are catapulted straight from pre-ordination training into full responsibility for a church; our system of assistant curacies, ordination to a “title” post, usually in a parish, offers a second phase of initial training, in service, with careful mentoring.

Curacies, however, can also go wrong. There is an intensity to this relationship, where often the assistant curate and training incumbent are each other’s only immediate colleagues.

Also, both the curate and incumbent care deeply about what they are doing. If disagreements do happen, they can, therefore, be sharp. Tensions can arise over theological differences, but are more commonly around the dynamic of the working/training relationship itself, often including communication issues and mismatched expectations.

How can problems be resolved? We’ll come to that, but it’s important to say, first, that developing a healthy working relationship is a better plan than hoping to find straightforward cures for an ailing one.

Training incumbents and curates are usually both excited about the prospect of a new curacy, and sometimes find it hard really to hear advice about how to plan and work together well. But these close working relationships, with the imbalance of power inherent in them, often prove to be complicated. The reality is that mutual good intent is not enough: good practice is also vital. Careful planning is essential, as is regular supervision, with a clear focus on the curate’s learning and support, and the ongoing management of the curacy as a whole.

The reality is that most problems in curacies are not about any mysterious failure of deep chemistry between a curate and incumbent; rather, they arise most often because these elements of basic and essential good practice aren’t actually followed.

Let’s look at four specific areas of possible tension:


Levels of support, responsibility, and autonomy

SOME curates feel frustrated if they are not enabled to use skills they already have, or are not allowed to develop new areas of work. Others, however, have felt thrown into the deep end. Neither of these senses, suffocation or drowning, is good!

No one can learn unless they feel safe enough and well supported in what they are doing; equally, no one grows much if there is not some stretch. The balance between autonomy and support which each curate needs is unique. This will also vary for each in relation to different projects or areas of learning: a curate who is already an experienced children’s worker may need real help with budgeting, while another who brings excellent administrative skills may be terrified by the prospect of taking a school assembly.

Curates do not want to be treated as if they know nothing: they bring their own experience and skills. Nor should they be treated simply like staff. This is a training role.

Training incumbents need to understand all this, and adjust the equilibrium between support and stretch appropriately, with a careful appreciation of when higher levels of challenge will be helpful for learning as their colleagues grow. To get this right initially and over time, as a curate develops, is possible only through good ongoing conversation, and an ability on the part of both to adjust how they work appropriately. It’s a bit of a dance, and dance partners need to be really responsive to one another.


Supervision, feedback, and formation

PROBLEMS frequently arise simply because curates do not feel they are getting enough time with their incumbent for their support and learning. This can often be because supervision meetings have not been prioritised by the incumbent. But the perception of how much time is spent together can vary considerably; so this can be more complicated than it seems.

Supervision needs to be regular, and be a safe enough space for both curate and incumbent to raise concerns as soon as they arise. I always advise that “Are we OK?” should be a standing agenda item for supervision meetings: unless it is established that this is a place where both expect to raise and work through problems, curates and incumbents may never feel able to do that.

If supervision is neglected or sporadic, the very mechanism for handling problems has been lost. If the safety-valve is disabled like this, tension mounts until problems finally burst out at high pressure, and are then much harder to resolve.

Supervision can also founder if the incumbent’s experience is that the curate is resistant to learning. Some curates have found receiving constructively critical feedback much harder than they had expected. Most training incumbents are essentially kind, and don’t want to upset their curates. If a well-intentioned incumbent summons up the courage to give some difficult feedback to their colleague, and this is blocked, refused, or met with dismay, it makes it very difficult indeed to establish supervision as a place for learning.

Problems with supervision need working through together. Doing so with a neutral third party (the diocesan IME officer, perhaps) can often help both to achieve more objectivity about where things might be going wrong.


Vocation, professionalism, and life-balance

A THIRD area that I want to explore is around different perceptions of ordained ministry and inhabit it. All agree that this is a vocation, but, for many clergy in the past, this led to a lack of boundaries between work and leisure. Many newly ordained clergy have far clearer expectations about having time for their friends, family, spouse, and self.

There is a shift in culture and sensibility about ordained ministry going on here, and some disagreement. Yes, this is a vocation; but, for many, it’s also a job, and jobs need clear professional boundaries.

Curates and training incumbents may approach these matters differently, but not initially be explicitly aware of that. The careful checking of mutual expectations about these issues — including hours of work, days off, holiday — really is vital. That should be done at the start, while formulating the working agreement. Otherwise, serious unhappiness may arise here.

I know of one situation when the incumbent phoned the curate about a routine work matter during the curate’s holiday. It felt like the last straw, and the curacy broke down.



THIS final area is a little more speculative. I wonder whether tensions around understandings of leadership are growing within curacies. Colleges and courses are placing more emphasis on training for leadership, especially for those who expect to become incumbents (mainly stipendiary assistant curates).

Set against the backdrop of decline in a majority of congregations, there is, inevitably, a critical reflection under way on how clergy exercise missional leadership. So there should be, if we are going to learn and change.

This, however, leads to the possibility that an ordinand — who may have developed a critique of some approaches to clerical leadership, and who has been trained with an expectation of leading very intentionally — arrives in a parish as a curate . . . and then is not yet a leader. He or she they may think that, if they were the vicar, they would do some things differently. . .

I think this potential dynamic needs acknowledging. Curates do need to realise that, although they are being trained to lead, they are still in training, and may need some real patience and humility at this stage.

It is to be hoped that any issues that they are wrestling with here can be discussed openly and respectfully with their incumbent, as grist for the mill of reflection and learning. That would obviously be preferable to an email from a frustrated curate to the archdeacon or bishop to complain of the flaws in their incumbent’s mission strategy.


RESOLVING these tensions and the other problems in curacies can be done only relationally. Dioceses need to have crystal-clear policies for assistant curates and training incumbents on how to address problems between them — and make sure that both agree formally to use these processes.

This is not rocket science. It is about always managing disagreement at the earliest moment and the lowest level, with support as appropriate, and only ever involving senior leaders if tensions cannot be resolved otherwise. If an incumbent or curate goes straight to the bishop before exploring unhappiness with their colleague, this raises the stakes hugely, and can itself undermine trust irretrievably. A last resort should be used last.

We really do know what good practice looks like. If we follow it, problems occur far less frequently, and the main mechanism for handling any tensions that do arise — open and honest discussion in supervision — is established from the start.

The Ven. Rick Simpson is the
Archdeacon of Auckland, in Durham diocese. He was the IME Officer, working with assistant curates and training incumbents, for Durham and Newcastle dioceses for 11 years. The second edition of his booklet Supervising a Curate (P173), was published in March by Grove Books.

Listen to an interview with him on the Church Times podcast here.

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