Category Archives: Curacy

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

The Impact of Selection and Training

According to positive psychology, part of gaining a sense of well being is achievement and being “in the zone“. One of the things that can affect this how people are selected and trained for a role. If square pegs are placed in round holes, and then asked to do things that do not come naturally to them then neither are likely to be achieved and hence well being will not be enhanced (and potentially the opposite).

The current selection criteria for ordained ministry are:

A. Christian faith, tradition and life
B. Mission, evangelism and discipleship
C. Spirituality and worship
D. Relationships
E. Personality and character
F. Leadership, collaboration and community
G. Vocation and ministry within the Church of England

About 50% of the requirements listed in adverts in the Church Times for incumbency roles fall into the ” Leadership, collaboration and community” criteria – is sufficient emphasis placed on this during selection, and in subsequent training?

I don’t know – but I do know that I have met plenty of clergy who say something like: “I was called to be a priest, not a manager” – well, yes, but incumbency requires both. In “If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him” Justin Lewis-Anthony suggests that the days of clergy ministering in the way of George Herbert did, doing lots of pastoral visiting, is past – parishes are bigger (Herbert’s parish had fewer than 200 people, and he ministered with the assistance of two other clergy) and the amount of administration associated with governance (safeguarding, GDPR, faculties…) was almost non existent. And that is before we talk about mission and working in circumstances where the vast majority of the parish no longer have faith. If I wanted to talk to everyone in my parish they would each get 15 minutes a year, and nothing else would get done. If clergy do not want to be managers, then perhaps their calling isn’t to incumbency – there are roles which don’t require less of this (eg Associate Ministers) and it might be that the church should create more of these.

Then there is also the question of when Management/Leadership is best trained. Two recent blog posts contributed to my thinking on this:
is it time to scrap the curacy
speaking of liturgy and theological formation
the first suggests scrapping the curacy, and the second that too much time is spent on management during pre-ordination training, and not enough on liturgy.

The most effective training I received on Management/Leadership when I was in industry was that given on the job by some form of mentoring or other. In a similar vein, I would suggest that new incumbents (and arguably all incumbents) should have a mentor to work through the practical issues that they encounter in their ministry – much as they have spiritual directors and counsellors available. Some dioceses will provide some form of work consultancy, but this isn’t always widely taken up.

Rethinking Theological Training?

I have spoken to a number of Diocesan Counsellors about what causes stress in clergy and normally the first thing that they say is a single word “Isolation”. It is similarly cited as the greatest cause of psychological health problems for clergy in the literature, connected to the unique demands and occupational hazards associated with full time ministry, for example this paper.

However, I interviewed one Diocesan Counsellor who didn’t mention it at all. She asked me whether she had identified the same stressors as the other counsellors and so I asked her about isolation, this was her response:

“Our clergy don’t suffer from isolation in general. We have a very good local training scheme that they all seem to go on. They stay in their communities with their friends and family, then they all get curacies in the Diocese, then they tend to stay after that. They have cell groups on the local training scheme and so they continue to meet in their cells groups even when they are incumbents, as well as being near their families and friends are close by.

I was staggered. It is genius – why doesn’t that happen in all dioceses? I know there is some anxiety about colleges versus courses. The belief has been that there is a better ‘priestly formation’ in colleges because people have to go and live with each other for three years and so all the sharp edges get knocked off them. However, I did hear of some research that contradicted this, it found that training courses actually gave better formation. It is because married clergy at colleges live off campus in a house with their family and don’t have much time informally interacting with their fellow students. However, those on courses come from all traditions and all have to go away together on residentials throughout the year, where they stay up late in the bar debating. (Maybe that last bit was just me!)

Psephizo asks the question “Is it time to scrap the curacy?” (Read the article to see all the issues he identifies). There are significant impacts on families of curates that could be alleviated by them staying close to home for training, curacy and incumbency. There are also power issues between the curate and the training incumbent. These power issues are similar to problems in Universities between the doctoral student and their supervisor, this has been mitigated by providing two supervisors at universities and that seems to work.

If it was up to me I would run the training and the curacy in tandem, with the ordinand/curate living in their own home and doing placements in various local parishes to learn from several different incumbents in the diocese. They would also have a training incumbent who oversaw all this. They would need to be provided with a stipend and housing expenses. The period of training could be flexible depending upon the life experience of the ordinand.