By The Rev’d Dr Imelda O’Loughlin:

The notion that clergy need to look after themselves alone is at risk of becoming the dominant narrative if we don’t pause and reflect on the systemic nature of a problem that is the responsibility of all in our Church.

A healthy Church requires healthy clergy and calls us to identify and address issues at the level of the individual, the parish/ministry, and the system as a whole.

Self-care is not sufficient to ensure every aspect of well-being for every person, at every age or every stage of ministry. Living Ministry research conducted by the Church of England has shown that the concept of self-care alone can be an onerous burden in an exceedingly complex area (p.7). This realisation is part of what makes the resource How Clergy Thrive: Insights from Living Ministry  useful for clergy and their family and friends, parishes, colleagues and senior clergy and other Diocesan partners.

The resource recognises that “the responsibility for wellbeing is shared between several parties, including family members, government and the church in all its guises (including local, deanery, diocese, national and theological education institution), as well as the clergyperson themselves, in providing and developing care for those who need it, resilience to handle the challenges of ordained ministry, and structures that help clergy flourish” (p.7).

This particular document deals with five areas of clergy wellbeing and provides discussion points and questions directed toward clergy, senior clergy and Diocesan officers.

If you’re thinking “I’m an Anglican priest working in Australia, what does this have to do with my well-being?” then take a moment to read some of the comments that have come out of this research:

“I sometimes find myself completely knackered and absolutely worn out because I’ve been doing things that I shouldn’t be doing, and then feeling like a failure because I haven’t got anybody to do it” (p.24).

“It’s the shifting gear, that what’s exhausting. It’s the shifting gear between that person who turns up on the doorstep because they desperately need to tell you how flat the earth is, and it’s very urgent that they tell you about it now…and then shifting into “Oh, I’ve got to go and do an assembly,” and then shifting into “I’ve got to go and do a funeral” (p.26).

“I do continually recognise the impossibility of the job and have to keep saying, Okay Lord, I can’t do everything, what do you want me to focus on?” (p.21).

Can you identify yourself or a colleague in these statements?

In exploring a number of interventions and resources, Living Ministry research found that 68 per cent of those clergy who took part in spiritual direction and 71 per cent who went on retreat found these helpful (p.14). This is a sobering outcome given that within our Diocese a 2019 survey of clergy over the age of 65* found that many do not have a spiritual director and that those who worked fewer than 30 hours per week were less likely to go on retreat. What might we find if we surveyed younger members of our Diocesan clergy in 2021?

Healthy rhythms of work, prayer and exercise help our physical and spiritual wellbeing. More than 80 per cent of clergy researched were unable to detach mentally from their tasks at least once a week (p.22). There is a question for senior clergy and Diocesan officers, “Are the clergy in your diocese given explicit permission to take time out for self-care and spiritual development?” and “Are their parishioners aware of this?” (p.27).

Housing arrangements are often an additional source of stress, particularly for those who live in rectories tied to their appointment (p.42) as rectories are located in somewhat ‘public’ spaces.

Almost one third of the research respondents feel lonely in their ministry (p.39). Senior clergy and Diocesan officers are asked to consider “What support is given to help clergy negotiate relationships within the parish?” (p.37) and “How often do you ask how they [your clergy] are?” (p.32).

Alongside this, significant value is placed by clergy on personal recognition from senior clergy, in relation to both their ministry and their personal lives. They need to know they are understood, cared for, supported, affirmed and, above all, valued (p.49).

Clergy greatly appreciate pastoral care, practical assistance and proactive contact from their bishop(s) in particular (p.49).

The Living Ministry research programme is ongoing. Data is collected from respondents who self-select to some extent, so it is not representative of all clergy (p.59). There is, however, an accurate portrayal of lived ministry and I would recommend this document to all who are interested in healthy churches and healthy clergy including individual clergy, deaneries, bishops, parishes and Diocesan partners.

Awareness and interest are vital first steps in addressing this systemic issue. Armed with evidence rather than just anecdote(s), we can work together to build a Diocesan-wide environment in which we all care for our clergy.

While the Living Ministry research focuses on what senior clergy and Diocesan officers can do in the report’s ‘Questions for discussion and reflection’ sections, all of us can work together to help support our clergy.

Here are five practical things the wider Church can do to help our clergy thrive:

  1. Support clergy in prayer and action in their calling to serve.
  2. Express concern for the health and wellbeing of the clergyperson directly to the person, and where appropriate, to those with pastoral oversight of the person (Bishops, Archdeacons, Area/Rural Deans, etc).
  3. Ensure that the clergy have and take opportunities for rest, recreation, training, retreat and study.
  4. Respect the boundaries that the clergyperson and their family/household quite rightly need to place around their home life.
  5. Where a clergyperson has children who are members of your local church, consider the steps that may be taken to protect them from being ‘singled out’ or judged by different standards to other children.

*Our Diocese has 193 active clergy (75 per cent of who are under 65 years of age). There are an additional 283 clergy who exercise a ‘permission to officiate’ (PTO) or ‘retired permission to officiate’. Of the total clergy (431) so defined, 62 per cent are over 65. Many of the PTO clergy support parishes. (Personal communication from Stephen Harrison, Executive Director of PMC)

This Church of England Living Ministry ‘How Clergy Thrive’ research and accompanying resources may be downloaded from The Church of England website.

First published on the anglican focus news site on 15 March 2021.

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