Category Archives: Clergy Self Care

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.

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.

The taboo subject of bullying

Bullying is one of the major stressors for clergy, one Diocesan Counsellor I spoke to commented:

A clergyperson can have their lives turned into a living hell by just two or three dysfunctional people in the congregation who relentlessly bully them. In years gone by these people could have turned their attentions to any number of people in authority living in the community – the doctor, the headmaster, the police officer, but now it is the vicar who has to cope with their dysfunction alone.

In a survey I asked clergy to respond to the statement “I experience bullying”, 22% said they never experience bullying, and 37% experienced it rarely, which left 41% who experience bullying sometimes, most of the time, or always. This is a huge number of clergy who are experiencing bullying in the workplace. The chart is below, it is notable how curates and associates suffer less:

Responses to the question ‘I experience bullying’

In the Scottish Episcopal Church, a similar survey has been conducted, the Church Times reports:

Thirty-nine per cent of respondents to a clergy well-being survey said that they had experienced bullying or harassment during the previous 12 months.

Speaking in the debate, the Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, the Very Revd Kelvin Holdsworth, said: “We must say that this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated. The trouble is, it has been.

I think Kelvin hits the nail on the head, we simply have tolerated our clergy being bullied, the impact is huge for the clergy who have suffered and for the church as a whole, it is genuinely shocking and needs to stop. One solution would be for Diocesan Human Resources Departments to help with protocols around bullying. Often clergy are ashamed when they are experiencing bullying, but silence will not help. I love these words from Bishop Alan’s blog:

One thing’s for sure. Doing nothing will make the problem worse, and you will increasingly internalise it until it becomes business as usual. To paraphrase Jesus, Once the light within you becomes darkness, said Jesus, you are well and truly stuffed. And so are all the rest of us.