Living in the goldfish bowl

Diocesan Counsellors are there for both clergy and their families and many of the counsellors talked about the stresses of ministry life on those living in the Vicarage. One issue is trying to coordinate days off – I wrote about that here. Yesterday Jules Middleton wrote about the issues she faced when she first was ordained:

My first two years of ordained life were strained as I tried to suss out a good pattern of life for us as a family in this new season.

Read on to see how she resolved this. I think sharing struggles and ideas in this area is important, every family will be different, but there must me some common strategies that work. Below are some of the issues that the counsellors highlighted:

Clergy inhabit a role – being the ‘vicar’ – and in general people de-role before they get home. However, living in the vicarage makes it more difficult to de-role, making clergy marriages difficult. In addition, clergy are effectively married both to the church and to their partners, this is complex and needs to be managed well.

In the conservative wing of the church some clergy wives can be desperately depressed – intelligent, capable women being told their place is at the kitchen sink.

Vicar’s children are often casualties and can end up with very serious mental health problems, these are some of the causes:

  • They haven’t had their own emotional needs met because the needs of the parish are so demanding
  • The parent is absent because the office is at home – quite acceptable for the parent to pop back into the office at 7:30pm after dinner and remain there for the rest of the evening (it wouldn’t be acceptable if they had a regular job)
  • Teased at school, treated differently to other children, expected to be either very good or very bad
  • They don’t feel like they belong
  • The parent may not have the language to speak to their children about these things and the child will not volunteer it, after all it is to do with the parent’s job, their only source of income and their home
  • The parent coming to the child’s school to do assemblies is embarrassing
  • They are forced to go to church, the parent is putting up a front of being a perfect Christian with a perfect family and the child is used as a pawn. This leads to them feeling angry and resentful and feeling they have to perform
  • Moving around (eg theological college, curacy, incumbency) leads to difficulty with attachment and friends
  • People in the congregation may be being horrible to the parent and the child knows this as it is discussed at the dinner table, leads to a difficult relationship with the church
  • A lot of unacknowledged trauma in the priests gets manifested in the children, the children are exhibiting what is not being said

There is hidden harm being inflicted on clergy children and it seems that no one is talking about it.

I haven’t found much material in this area, perhaps I have just failed to find it. Assuming it hasn’t been done the impacts of ministry on clergy kids really needs to be researched, alongside the impacts on clergy marriages.

Photo attributions: KoiQuestion and Mad Ball

On not being a mug

This is a guest post from Jules Middleton.

This week, eminent classicist Professor Mary Beard tweeted:

Can I ask academics of any level of seniority how many hours a week they reckon they work. My current estimate is over 100. I am a mug. But what is the norm in real life?

As you might imagine, the antagonistic joy that is Twitter produced starkly mixed responses – there is no norm in academia and there is no norm for clergy either. Add into that abnormality, being a wife and mum as well as a full time minister and you got yourself a seemingly unsolvable equation and perhaps the biggest stressor in this clergy woman’s life.

My first two years of ordained life were strained as I tried to suss out a good pattern of life for us as a family in this new season. I still get it wrong quite regularly but in those early days I realised for me there were two key areas to delve into – the first being my own passion for my calling, leading me to want to do more and go further than was realistically sensible. I wonder if this is where Mary Beard is coming from, clearly someone who is passionate about her work, and I know many clergy who work hours approaching hers out of their passion for what God has called them to.

I never want to lose the passion for what God has called me to but I have realised that I have to be reasonable in my estimations of myself. God has not called any of us to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of The Church and I feel as much called to be a wife and mum as a minister. Christopher Ash writes in his book ‘Zeal without Burnout’ about sustainable sacrifice, suggesting that we are called to go on giving to God throughout our lives and we can’t do that if we burn out. I’ve found that really helpful as a concept, especially as there can be an element of The Church that wants to sanctify the sacrifice of excess hours and I genuinely don’t think God is calling any of us to do that.

The second area that was important for me was recognising my lack of role models – it’s hard to know what is best when you can’t see anyone in a similar situation to you. My clergy colleagues were generally male, older, with wives who did most of the house stuff and there was only one other woman in my diocese in the same position as I was. What I saw was those around me working very long hours, because they could, and because the pressures on their time were far more limited than on mine. I could not keep up with that but I also didn’t know how to work out my own model of working. A few years in I’m so grateful for conversations with other ministry mums who have offered advice and suggestions, and for a husband who encourages me but also gently pulls me up when my sacrifice is becoming unsustainable.

Clergy well being is not just about us doing what is right for us – sure we bear some of the responsibility – but if we want to be better as a church then we need to look out for each other, modelling to each other sensible, and sustainable ways of doing ministry. We’re all in this together for the glory of God’s kingdom.

Revd. Jules Middleton

I carry an inhaler everywhere, I take an antidepressant every morning. Big deal. . . says Justin Welby

The Church Times reports that at the mental health workshop at Lambeth Archbishop Welby recently said:

“I carry an inhaler everywhere, I take an antidepressant every morning. Big deal. . . They are two sides of the same coin.”

I like very much that Justin is modelling openness and showing that there is no shame in acknowledging depression and that help should be sought. I struggle with the analogy with an inhaler though. I too carry an inhaler everywhere, I have a respiratory disease that is only getting worse, and there are some forms of depression that are perhaps similar – caused by brain disease or injury or chemical problems. But most depression is caused by the environment we find ourselves in and the stuff we are carrying.

I worry that it is us Anglicans that have made Justin’s work so toxic that he has been overloaded with stress. If that is the case then the inhaler can stay but the antidepressants should be temporary as we amend our ways and repent of what we have done to our archbishop.

I am reading a book by Paul Swann called “Sustaining Leadership.” and he has a lovely analogy of the place of pain becoming a place of healing:

It’s as if we each carry a weighty rucksack that we fail to notice, because we have enough strength to carry it and enough busyness to be distracted from it. Then circumstances bring it to our attention and force us to begin to deal with what we have been carrying.

The circumstances may be physical or mental breakdown and suddenly we can’t carry on in the same way – we have to perhaps spend hours in therapy to unpack the rucksack and from that point on we have to take seriously the reality of self care.

Self care alone isn’t enough though. Paul Swann was broken by his strenous ministry. Peter Selby was Paul’s bishop at the time and writes:

Looking at my former ministry, I ask myself, in gladly appointing some of our strongest people to the hardest tasks, are we as aware as we need to be of the particular support and resourcing needs that such colleagues have? Or do we just hope that the talented and the committed will find their own way of avoiding burnout? That goes along with a more searching question: how well are we ourselves modelling self-care?

I think he is right – bishops do need to model self care. In addition, we as an institution need to review the environment we are putting our clergy in, from the archbishop to the brand new curate, to work out how we can better love one another as God loves us.

Why do vicars burn out? (Part 2)

This post about burn out follows on from yesterday’s post. The three dimensions of burnout are:

  • feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job
  • a sense of ineffectiveness
  • lack of accomplishment

The risk factors that contribute to burn out are:

  • workload
  • control
  • reward
  • community
  • fairness
  • values

Yesterday I looked at the first three of these in the context of parish ministry, here I will consider the remaining three. Quotes that I use are from here:

The area of community has to do with the ongoing relationships that employees have with other people on the job. When these relationships are characterized by a lack of support and trust, and by unresolved conflict, then there is a greater risk of burnout. On the contrary, when these job‐related relationships are working well, there is a great deal of social support, employees have effective means of working out disagreements, and they are more likely to experience job engagement.

Vicars experience a great deal of conflict and bullying. I’ve written about the latter here and here. There are difficulties with resolving conflicts as sometimes dysfunctional people exist in congregations who are toxic and their behaviour would not be tolerated in the workforce or any other organisation.

Fairness is the extent to which decisions at work are perceived as being fair and equitable. Cynicism, anger and hostility are likely to arise when people feel they are not being treated with the appropriate respect.

There are areas, especially around finances where clergy feel badly treated. Realistically, clergy need some form or income other than the stipend to afford a house to live in after they retire, and it is their partners who mostly provide this. At the same time clergy work very long hours and are weary most of the time such that they aren’t as active in the family as they might want to be. Other areas of unfairness are when clergy are trying their best to serve their parishes – living very sacrificial lives as a result of their vocation – and they are met with gossip and slander.

Values are the ideals and motivations that originally attracted people to their job, and thus they are the motivating connection between the worker and the workplace, which goes beyond the utilitarian exchange of time for money or advancement. When there is a values conflict on the job, and thus a gap between individual and organizational values, employees will find themselves making a trade‐off between work they want to do and work they have to do, and this can lead to greater burnout.

In some ways this should be an area that helps clergy and I think it often does – the church is broadly aligned with their values, at least on the surface. But often parishes and vicars are working on different models of what the vicar is and should do. One comment from the clergy survey explains this:

Parish opportunities with those unchurched are enormous but our structures / patterns and traditions of Sunday worship / church expectations of what a vicar does are crippling and demoralising. I trained to show and give the love of God to the people of this parish, not support outdated models of ministry that support church goers.

What can be done about all this? Probably quite a lot if we start talking about it. I will share my ideas on this blog – please share your too.

Why do vicars burn out? (Part 1)

First of all we need to define burnout, whilst it has a rather hazy definition in common parlance, amongst psychiatrists there are three distinct factors:

The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

The risk factors that contribute to burn out are also well researched and known. They are workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. I will explain each of these in turn and how vicars might be vulnerable to them. Quotes that I use are from here :

Work overload contributes to burnout by depleting the capacity of people to meet the demands of the job. When this kind of overload is a chronic job condition, there is little opportunity to rest, recover, and restore balance. A sustainable and manageable workload, in contrast, provides opportunities to use and refine existing skills as well as to become effective in new areas of activity.

I have already written about the problem of work overload here. 41% of clergy I surveyed said that they always or most of the time felt overwhelmed by the workload.

A clear link has been found between a lack of control and burnout. On the contrary, when employees have the perceived capacity to influence decisions that affect their work, to exercise professional autonomy, and to gain access to the resources necessary to do an effective job, they are more likely to experience job engagement

On the face of it this should be an area where clergy thrive because there is so much autonomy. However, it is being eroded by diocesan pressures to do various missional initiatives and sort out the finances. Then there are legal requirements to comply with measures to do with the buildings, employee regulations, safeguarding procedures and data protection imperatives. Insurance, PATesting, other electrical checks, asbestos surveys, gas checks, requirements to ensure hall bookings are meeting best practice, various policies, quinquennial inspections, safe recruiting requirements, Charity Commission requirements, PCC meetings, AGMs, appraisals… I could go on… I’m not sure that when all these are done there really is much autonomy.

Insufficient recognition and reward (whether financial, institutional, or social) increases people’s vulnerability to burnout, because it devalues both the work and the workers, and is closely associated with feelings of inefficacy.

Recognition and reward is very low for vicars – obviously the financial reward is low, and in the current climate the social reward is also low – vicars are regularly mocked and religion is considered to be at best daft and at worst immoral or evil. In terms of institutional reward there is very little – senior staff try their best but they are very stretched and diocesan staff are often making demands, not giving rewards. Parishes can also be tough – vicars are likely to hear when things are going even slightly wrong and there are precious few souls who are encouragers. I was really struck by this comment on my clergy survey:

It is extremely difficult to manage parishioners’ expectations.  Their sense of a glass half empty rather than half full is a constant preoccupation.  I frequently feel inadequate to their standards and there is little comeback. I now have some exceptional people who are turning back the tide of slander and negativism but some minds are very set in judgement.  In the midst of this I’m loved by some but it is hard to get the balance.

Are Bishops Still the Pastors of the Clergy?

Most priests look to the bishop as their pastor. The bishop ordains and licenses clergy and these moments are profoundly meaningful. Each year most bishops ask their clergy to come to the Maundy Thursday service and renew their vows together, there is a sense of shared vocation and mutual respect. The clergy know that the Bishop sees their work as an extension of his or her work, because at the licensing service they are told “Receive this cure of souls, which is both mine and yours”. The Bishop has a staff as his symbol of pastoral ministry. The expectations are set up in all these highly symbolic moments.

However, the pastoral care of clergy is delegated to the archdeacons and the diocesan counsellor and in some dioceses it is also delegated to the Area Deans. Yvonne Warren, in her paper for general synod writes:

This sense of working in partnership with the Diocesan can then be totally lost. There needs to be a real in-depth rethink about whether the primary role of a Bishop of a diocese is still to oversee and care for their clergy or whether this role is obsolete. If it is then there needs to be real thought as to who within The Church has that care and oversight. It is because of this lack of clarity that so many clergy feel dislocated and displaced by The Church they seek to serve and trust in.

There is a sense that bishops would like to spend more time working with their clergy but the other duties preclude it. Could some of these duties be removed? Could we make all suffragen bishops area bishops, so that within that area that bishop does ordain, license and pastor their clergy, restoring the sense of pastoring and partnership? The area bishops could be cover the same area as the archdeaconries, giving good continuity between archdeacon and bishop.

I Desire Mercy, Not Masochism

In the Experiences of Ministry Project one of the indicators of clergy burnout was that it was more likely in those who sacrificed the most. Clergy reported how often they made sacrifices and how often those sacrifices were significant. The data can be seen below, if you zoom in…

I was mulling this over while I was on a course last week and we ended with a worship service that sent us out with the words of St Brendan:

Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home?
Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?

Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy,
without silver, without a horse,
without fame, without honour?
Shall I throw myself wholly upon You,
without sword and shield, without food and drink,
without a bed to lie on?
Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?

Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness,
tears streaming down my cheeks?
Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach,
a record of my final prayer in my native land?

Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict?
Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean?
O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea?

O Christ, will You help me on the wild waves?

The poetry is beautiful, but I am instantly worried about St Brendan – will he be terribly isolated? Is he sacrificing too much? Will he have a breakdown or burnout?

Reading the story about St Brendan he goes on his journey with 14 monks, (so not isolated), he believes he is on a voyage to discover paradise (so has a strong sense of vocation) and he is a skilled navigator (so his greatest skills were meeting the highest challenge). His journey is actually likely to increase his wellbeing (see the definition of wellbeing here).

For me, that journey would be awful – I would be sick, I can’t navigate my way out of a cardboard box and anyway I don’t believe paradise is a sea journey away. It is too easy to read the prayer above and think that our calling or vocation will be a sacrifice and that will diminish our wellbeing somehow, we will suffer and become spent. But I think the opposite should be true. I love the way Nadia Bolt-Weber puts it:

“Jesus says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” He says, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and infuriating things like “if you seek to find your life you will lose it but those who lose their life will find it.” And every single time I die to something—my notions of my own specialness, my plans and desires for something to be a very particular way—every single time I fight it and yet every single time I discover more life and more freedom than if I had gotten what I wanted.”

Jesus says “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13), he tells the Pharisees to learn what that means. I’ve been wondering about this. Of course there is the literal meaning of going out and being kind rather than going and doing an animal sacrifice and then feeling self-righteous. But on a deeper level I think it means that when we are taking up our cross (not anyone else’s cross) it will be because we are showing mercy, we are loving someone, we are being kind, we are building relationships… and yes the reality is that it will be a sacrifice but perhaps our sense of vocation will be such that we don’t see it that way, because we end up with more, not less… we end up more human, a better version of ourselves.

Of course that is easy in theory, but what does the reality look like? Next time that I am aware that I am sacrificing things I am going to ask myself a few questions:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • Do I have to do this?
  • Do I need to have a new strategy so that I don’t do this in the future?
  • Am I doing this because it is a mercy?
  • Or am I simply a masochist?

Do you manage to relax on your day off?

The Experiences in Ministry Project concluded that clergy are more likely to burn out if they have too many demands and nor enough resources. I have touched on this a bit in the post about overwork. However, the research also identified other indicators for burnout which are:

– those who sacrificed the most,

– felt less clear about their calling and

– were less able to detach from ministry in their time off

I’d like to look at the third of these indicators. During my sabbatical my husband (also ordained) and I have been home to the Rectory occasionally, but mostly have been staying at a property we bought about three years ago. I quite like our fleeting visits to the Rectory, there are many things about it that feel like home. However, when we were there my husband is like a cat on a hot tin roof – he couldn’t settle, he looked stressed. It was so obvious it was spooky. It begs the question about whether it is difficult to relax properly on a day off.

I remember one of my bishops telling me that it is important to have a house within an hour’s drive so that you can stay there the evening before your day off and the evening of your day off. I understand more what he meant now. Of course most clergy probably can’t manage to own a house within an hour’s drive.

When my mum and dad died one of the differences that I noticed was there was no longer anywhere where I could go and stay for free outside the parish, and this felt like a loss, of course we then had some inheritance and we could have paid to stay elsewhere but we never seemed to make it a priority.

In the Oxford Diocese’s Flourishing in Ministry booklet there are suggestions that deal with this problem:

– Spend time in a place where you can relax (such as your garden)

– Take a quiet day once a month and spend it somewhere out of the parish

– Take time (including occasional weekends) away from the Benefice to visit friends/family living in different parts of the country

I would be really interested in the views of other clergy on this – do you manage to relax on your day off?

Photo Accreditation: Ajith Kumar

Lots of Interest in Clergy Wellbeing

Something that I am really grateful for is the interest that there is currently in the wellbeing of clergy. Below is a summary of some of the reports that have been made available:

The Church of England has commissioned a ten-year ‘Living Ministry’ research project, directed by the Ministry Council and informing the national programme of Renewal and Reform by exploring how ordained ministers can flourish in ministry. In June 2017, the first report was published entitled ‘Living Ministry – Mapping the Wellbeing of Church of England Clergy and Ordinands’. The overarching question addressed by the research is: ‘What enables ordained ministers to flourish in ministry?’. ‘Flourishing in ministry’ is understood to consist of the two interrelated aspects of:

  • Wellbeing (flourishing of the person) and
  • Ministerial outcomes (flourishing of ministry).

The main findings include a finding that living accommodation tied to one’s post or training is reported as less adequate and more stressful than non-tied accommodation. Single people reported higher levels of isolation than married people. Barriers to vocational fulfilment included expectations or demands of others (particularly where gifts and skills were not recognised or utilised), an overload of day-to-day ministry tasks and churchmanship differences between the ordained minister and their context of ministry.

In September 2018 the second Living Ministry report was published, entitled ‘Negotiating Wellbeing: Experiences of Ordinands and Clergy in the Church of England’. The findings include: times of transition are particularly stressful for clergy; clergy struggle to establish boundaries around their work in terms of time, space, thought, activity, relationships and finances; it is important for clergy to feel valued by the Church, particularly in the context of financial and attendance pressures combined with high profile national growth investment.

In 2017 a General Synod paper on clergy wellbeing – GS2072 highlighted the need for a Clergy Covenant for Wellbeing to address some of the issues that clergy are facing. Some of the issues that formed the scope of the research include: self-management, preventative education and training, supervision, coaching and reflective practice, stress, counselling and mental health, anti-clericalism and bullying, clergy housing, Ministerial Development Reviews, pensions, the increasing perception of “doing more with less, the Clergy Discipline Measure, safeguarding and capability.

In 2019, the Covenant for Clergy Care and Wellbeing – GS2133, was presented to synod and passed, the document recommends including non-managerial pastoral supervision, IME training and realistic role descriptions and expectations.

Of course all these reports will be of no value unless things change. I believe things have to change both from the top down and from the bottom up… We need dioceses and the Church of England to take all this seriously and through policies, culture change and training make differences. We also need clergy to take this seriously, and through self-care and speaking about it openly we can make a difference too

Day off Juggling

One of the Diocesan Counsellors that I interviewed said this:

There is a great deal of stress on the families, the priest has a vocation but did their spouse and children sign up to this life? Ministers will in all likeliness have a working spouse in order to make ends meet. Juggling becomes a particular issue as their days off are unlikely to align

I haven’t experienced this particular problem myself as my husband and I have the same day off. However I do sometimes have to juggle my day off for a funeral or special event. One clergyperson said this, which I completely agree with:

A six day week is brutal. I barely get time to catch up on rest and maybe do something creative occasionally. I am very, very tired and just don’t catch up with just one day a week. That day off often has to move because there is only me who is ordained and no admin help. If the diocese puts a training day or a funeral comes in on my day off, I move the day off which means I can do 9 or 10 days without a break.

A related issue that I struggle with how out-of-kilter I am with the rest of society – I dislike my twitter feed on a Saturday evening because others are watching Strictly or going out and hanging out with their friends and I’m worrying about my sermon. Sunday lunchtime I’m wibbling while others are spending time with their family. Christmas Day, after the services, I’m in a coma; Mothering Sunday is not lying in bed being pampered… Easter Day I have no interest in chocolate eggs. Of course these times are very special to me in a different way, but I feel like an observer of society rather than part of it. And that hurts, somehow, I feel like an alien.

I understand this difficulty better having read this brilliant article in the Guardian by Judith Shulevitz (it is well worth a read). She writes about Stalin who introduced a form of shift working so that people worked four days then had a day off. In the factories, the teams were divided into five groups and so on any given day four of the teams were working and one had a day off, meaning the factories could run seven days a week. Shulevitz writes:

It proved massively unpopular, though, not least because it made communal life impossible: families and friends with different rest days couldn’t coordinate social time together. (“That’s no holiday, if you have to celebrate by yourself,” one worker complained.) Stalin didn’t mind – undermining the centrality of the family was part of his plan, after all – but the new week didn’t boost production as planned, either, so it was phased out.

Of course it is not just clergy that suffer from this juggling of the day off, many people do, but with clergy we miss every Christmas, Easter, Mothering Sunday and almost every Saturday Night or Sunday Lunchtime, the traditional dates and times of our communal lives together.