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Clergy in Living Ministry study report suffering depression

22 February 2024

The issue requires ‘urgent attention’, the authors say

Public Domain

Melancholy by Edvard Munch (1863 –1944)

Melancholy by Edvard Munch (1863 –1944)

MORE than one third of the incumbents questioned for a survey published this week exhibited signs of clinical depression. The authors of the survey — part of the Church of England’s ongoing Living Ministry study — say that the matter deserves “urgent attention”.

One third of the respondents to the survey (32 per cent) said that they did not trust the diocese to look after their well-being; and nearly one fifth (18 per cent) did not believe that their bishops had their best interests at heart.

‘Is that mountain rescue? I need help with the paperwork’

The fall in church attendance since the pandemic (News, 10 November 2023) and the cost-of-living crisis are among factors influencing the clergy’s well-being, the authors of the survey suggest. And almost half the stipendiary-clergy respondents agreed that their financial situation was causing them anxiety.

The long-term 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 — Holding Things Together: Church of England clergy in changing times — is the fourth “wave” of the study, and draws on a survey conducted in March 2023, to which 521 clergy responded. Just over half (56 per cent) were incumbents, which reflects the progress of the cohort since 2017.

The previous survey, Wave 3, had been carried out in March 2021 during the third national lockdown (News, 7 January 2022). The new report directly compares the responses of the 358 people who completed both Wave 3 and Wave 4 surveys. While they reported an increase in mental, physical, and vocational well-being, they reported a decrease in both relational and financial well-being — the latter dropping by seven per cent.

It reports that stipendiary incumbents “fared particularly badly, seeing no recovery in any aspect of well-being; low rates of mental health; and widespread financial difficulties associated partly with the cost-of-living crisis”. Previous analyses have suggested that the move into incumbency is particularly challenging for clerical well-being (News, 19 October 2018).

More than one in five incumbents (21 per cent) had scores for mental well-being scores which indicated probable clinical depression. For a further 15 per cent, the scores indicated possible or mild depression.

More than two-thirds (69 per cent) of the stipendiary respondents reported requiring assistance during the cost-of-living crisis, and 42 per cent agreed that their financial situation caused them anxiety. Clergy under the age of 40 were significantly more likely than older respondents to report finding things difficult. They also reported higher levels of symptoms associated with burnout.

Among the wider challenges highlighted by the authors are straitened diocesan finances, with some having to “rethink their pastoral organisation, often resulting in parish priests finding themselves directly responsible for greater numbers of churches and parishes; taking on ‘oversight’ roles to enable ministry to continue through others; or deeply anxious about job security”. One respondent wrote: “Since becoming an incumbent of seven rural parishes, I’ve had the worst ill-health of my adult life.”

In 2022, the Bishop of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley, warned that the Church was in serious danger of creating “impossible jobs” (News, 11 February 2022)

The authors conclude that many stipendiary incumbents and younger clergy are “striving to keep going in turbulent circumstances and without adequate recovery from the strains of the Covid-19 pandemic. As they hold together their own lives, clergy seek also to hold together their congregations, often in the face of declined attendance and participation, increased financial pressures, and the need for both change and stability.”

 

Well-being

ON AVERAGE, respondents scored 48.4 on the mental-well-being scale (compared with a national pre-pandemic average of 51.39). High well-being is recorded in a score of 60 or above. ONS figures for 2022 suggest that about 16 per cent of adults had moderate to severe depressive symptoms. Incumbents did not follow a trend seen in other ministry groups, who reported an improvement in mental health since Wave 3.

All respondents reported higher levels of isolation than at any point since the research began in 2017. The authors write: “Many people spoke about the isolation of ministry. Key challenges included: moving around the country taking them far from family and friends; difficulties in balancing family relationships; and differing time off from other people.”

Respondents’ rating of the demands made on them physically, emotionally, and spiritually were higher than at any earlier stage of the study. The authors observe that “much lower mental well-being is associated with low levels of emotional and spiritual demands, suggesting that mental well-being may suffer when clergy are less engaged emotionally and spiritually, or vice versa.” Seventy per cent of the respondents reported taking at least one full day off a week.

The survey included questions from the “Maslach Burnout Inventory” on “depersonalisation” and “emotional exhaustion”. Almost one third of the males reported high levels of the former, as well as 46 per cent of the under-40s. Emotional exhaustion was associated with being younger, being female, having children, and being an incumbent. The authors suggest that more research is necessary to investigate the prevalence of burnout among the clergy.

 

Finances

THE percentage of the clergy who found it at least “quite difficult” to manage financially has increased from eight per cent in Wave 1 to 14.8 per cent. More than two-thirds (69 per cent) of the stipendiary clergy said that they needed financial assistance in relation to the cost-of-living crisis. The diocese was the most common source, followed by the Clergy Support Trust. Anxiety about finances was highest among those who were disabled (42 per cent). They made up nine per cent of the cohort.

About one quarter of the clergy said that they were able to save regularly, and there was no difference here between the stipendiary and non-stipendiary categories. But one third (34 per cent) of the stipendiary clergy said that they were not on track to having adequate provision in place for their retirement, compared with 11.7 per cent of self-supporting clergy. Almost 20 per cent expected to need help with housing. The report notes that “those with professional parents were more likely to say that they were not managing well financially. It is possible that this may be due to their expectations of how they ought to be managing.”

 

At home within the C of E?

SINCE the report on the well-being of global-majority-heritage (GMH) clergy (News, 21 October 2022), questions about the extent to which the clergy feel able to be themselves and to trust the institution have been added. Most (80 per cent) of the respondents felt able to be fully themselves. More than one third of the GMH clergy (just three per cent of the cohort) felt that they could not be themselves, in comparison with 11 per cent of the white clergy. The authors noted that “social class and health status were also found to have isolating effects.”.

Just over half the respondents (55 per cent) agreed that they trusted their senior clergy (24 per cent disagreed); and 59 per cent felt that their bishops had their best interests at heart (18 per cent disagreed). When it came to the diocese, 32 per cent said that they did not trust the diocese to look after their well-being, and 22 per cent did not agree that the diocese was a safe place for them to be themselves. Nearly one third (31 per cent) thought that adequate pastoral support was not offered for people like them. Thirty-six per cent said that they would not access diocesan support at a time of vulnerability.

Just 38 per cent felt that they spent adequate time in prayer.

 

Change management

THE latest survey included questions designed to explore the clergy’s relationship to change management. The authors report that respondents “tended to show more awareness and desire for change than knowledge of how to bring change about and ability to implement it, suggesting that interventions should focus more on supporting clergy to act than on promoting awareness of the need for action”.

They acknowledge that it was not possible to attribute causality in analysing the relationship between responses on change-management and respondents’ well-being scores, but suggest that “awareness of the need for change, a desire for it to happen, and even knowledge of how to bring it about, do not contribute to well-being unless it is also possible to implement and sustain the change, and may, of course, lead to frustration if it is not.”

Questions also explored “the qualities of the change-maker themselves: how our ‘being’ affects our management of change”. The authors reported high levels of identification with each of the four positive capacities, such as “curious and intentional responding”. When it came to “external practices”, one defined as “amplifying disturbance” or “naming reality” had the highest level of disagreement (i.e. not identifying with). The authors comment: “In most change environments, creating dissonance is a vital part of moving and changing, but the context of ministry may make this difficult to achieve.”

The “leader-centric” external practice, defined as an “egocentric behaviour . . . being overly controlling, wanting to be seen as the ‘mover and shaker’”, attracted a relatively high level of identification, prompting the observation: “The context of ministry, perhaps specifically dealing with volunteers and the position of an incumbent being seen as one of authority, may draw people into what is framed in this model as an unhelpful practice.”

 

Social class

THE latest survey also explored respondents’ social class. The clergy surveyed had almost double the percentage of parents in “professional” occupations than the national baseline (66 v. 37 per cent), and about half the percentage in “working-class” occupations (21 v. 39 per cent). The 21 per cent is much higher than the 11 per cent indicated in another 2015 study of the clergy (Daniel Laurison and Sam Friedman). They were almost three times likelier than the wider UK population to have attended an independent school (22.3 v. 7.5 per cent).

Those who had attended a state school were more likely to say that they did not feel at home in the parish when compared with those who had attended an independent school (14 v. six per cent).

A further qualitative study is under way to further explore the issues raised in the survey.

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