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Church in Wales Governing Body: Bishop Cameron responds to claim for more time off for Welsh clergy

26 April 2024

The Governing Body of the Church in Wales met in Newport last week. Pat Ashworth reports

Church in Wales

The Revd Kate O’Sullivan addresses the Governing Body

The Revd Kate O’Sullivan addresses the Governing Body

THE Church should be modelling a better way of being in the light of the levels of stress, burnout, and depression suffered by clergy, the Revd Kate O’Sullivan (Monmouth) told the Governing Body on Thursday of last week.

She brought a private member’s motion (PMM) around clergy well-being. A Church of England study, Living in Ministry, had highlighted that one third of incumbents were exhibiting signs of clinical depression, and she believed that it would be reasonable to assume that the findings would be similar in Wales.

Current patterns of ministry were unsustainable if clergy were to maintain good physical and mental health, she suggested in a briefing paper for the meeting. Two actions — at no additional cost — would contribute to an improvement: the first offering clergy an additional day off a month to be taken alongside the existing day off, but not a Sunday.

“This would give clergy the opportunity to fully relax over two days, as other people do,” she said in a briefing note. “It would mean that visiting family who live away would be more realistic. Many single clergy, in particular, who live a long way from friends and family, often find the lack of time can increase their sense of isolation.

“I believe this measure would improve work/life balance. It is often said that clergy have flexible diaries, but many of us feel guilty at stretching flexibility to an extra day off, even when we have already worked many hours. Sometimes, we need ‘official’ permission to take that time. Also, clergy in more junior roles do not always have that flexibility, and it is too reliant on the generosity of the incumbent.”

Clergy currently had four weeks’ annual leave, and the inside of a week at Christmas and Easter. A second action, increasing that to a full week after Christmas and Easter, would be beneficial, she said, again giving a good opportunity to recharge after a very busy time. “Now that we are in ministry areas, it should be possible to cover services, with the sharing of resources,” she said.

“It seems to me that in our increasingly busy world, and the increasing pressure on parish clergy, that we should be modelling a better way of being, with so many clergy suffering from stress, burnout, and depression.” These small measures would build resilience and perspective in busy ministries.

It was also important for the Church to recognise that many laity also committed a huge amount of their time to church, feeling high levels of responsibility for the positions that they undertook — often as much as if it were a paid post.

“I believe that we need to build a culture in church that taking time to rest and being with our loved ones is a good thing, and that overwork and subsequent burnout is very unhealthy for both clear laity and clergy,” she said. “As a Church, we need to be much more mindful of those who commit their time.”

As someone formerly married to a priest, she knew the cost of parish ministry to a marriage, she said. “God is our life, but, if ministry becomes our entire life, it becomes difficult work; spilling over into private life is not good for us.” Ministry had changed: everything was faster, with “a bit of us feeling we must respond in 24 hours [to texts and emails]. More is demanded of us — a growing expectation of clergy which cannot be met. I am told by many that the motion doesn’t go far enough, and I agree.

“Two days off in succession will help well-being. Some won’t take it, but that is not a reason not to vote in favour. Junior colleagues, in particular, have no control over their diaries.

“The aim is to begin a change in culture and create a ministry that is long term and sustainable.”

Ian Loynd (Monmouth), seconding the motion, said that demand was increasing and resources were dwindling. “Three-quarters of UK adults felt so stressed in the last year that they felt unable to cope. I wonder what the figure would be for clergy,” he said. “We need to be a better example to those who serve those we serve. Much of this practice already exists in the diocese of Monmouth. The motion opens up new possibilities for new ways of living. The practical implications are not insuperable.”

In the debate on the main motion, Paul Murray (Swansea & Brecon) was firmly against. He took clergy well-being seriously, but felt that the motion would do little to improve their lot. He wondered how many actually took their days off. He suggested more imaginative ways of dealing with the problem.

Christopher Cotterill (Monmouth) was 100 per cent in favour of clergy welfare. But this motion didn’t go far enough: a thorough overhaul was needed of all the terms and conditions of clergy: “We need them to be well cared for and well remunerated.”

Canon Adam Pawley (St Asaph) supported the motion and the spirit of the motion. His diocese had introduced joint mission-area services after Christmas and Easter for its 19 churches. It could be an opportunity for them to affirm the laity to step up and lead worship, he said. It was in line with some Church of England dioceses, and he argued that “as clergy, we are not superhuman: we are pastoral people. That’s why we’re here.”

Canon Andrew Lightbown (Monmouth) also supported the motion. “It may not go far enough, it may. But I believe looking at an overall package and making this modest step now are not mutually exclusive. We do struggle to take time off on a Sunday. We all need to be pragmatic in caring for each other. This seems to be an incredibly modest, bite-sized step we can take now while the bishops give it further consideration.”

Cathryn Brooker (Monmouth) was incensed at the casual suggestion that laity should “step up and lead worship. I can show you laity who work their socks off. I care also about the well-being of our laity.”

Hannah Rowan (co-opted), as a member of a clergy family, said that it was not easy managing time off. Husbands were unavailable “when people expect you to be available. Things would not fall apart if a person was away for a few days.”

Canon Trish Owens (St Asaph) said that, if the Governing Body approved the changes, it raised the issue of clerical cover. The terms of service for SSMs differed, and their welfare was equally important. She brought an amendment that sought the equivalent right for SSMs to be equally heard, and to have six Sundays off.

The Bishop of St Asaph, the Rt Revd Gregory Cameron, intervened with notice that he was about to move a procedural motion. The Bench of Bishops was basically in favour of what was being suggested in the substantive motion and the amendments, but he had “a deep concern that if we make a decision this afternoon, we are in danger of acting in haste with unintended consequences.

“It is advisable for us to take some time to consider the ideas and motion before the Governing Body discusses it more fully,” he said. The Bishop hosts the portfolio for HR issues for the Church in Wales. He promised: “I will offer you my assurance that I will work hard as a member of the Bench, the Standing Committee, and the HR Committee to see this matter is prosecuted fully and quickly.”

He asked under SO11 for a move to next business.

The Governing Body voted for his motion, 63 to 31.

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