Category Archives: Stressors

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

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.

Women Priests are Bullied More than Men

Anecdotally, it is known that women are bullied in the church to a greater extent than men. The data that was used in my previous post on bullying has been analysed by gender. It is noticeable that 11% of women say they are bullied most of the time or always compared with 0% of men, the chart is below.

Proportion of men and women suffering bullying

Women priests are regularly treated as being second class by congregations and even if it stops short of bullying it is simply exhausting; the church still hasn’t worked out what it feels about women and consequently does not adequately support women priests. Jules Middleton describes how guarded she feels in mixed groups of leaders as a result of being a woman in leadership in the church. Emma Percy describes the situation as an ‘ambiguous welcome’. She writes:

“Careful provision has been made at every stage for those who not only will not accept women as priests, but require the service of bishops who have not participated in the ordination of women. The path to acceptance for women bishops has also been lengthy and subject to the same caveats and provisions. [T]here are still profound inequalities in the Church’s treatment of women in leadership.”

Percy, E. (2017) Women, Ordination and the Church of England: An Ambiguous Welcome

This ambiguity and discrimination is bound to cause women to be badly treated in some quarters and this needs to be addressed.

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.

Resilience and Burnout in Clergy

There are many reasons why clergy can experience burn out, some of them are driven by personality, for example: inability to set boundaries, workaholism, low self-esteem. Others are driven by the environment, such as: high workload, lack of positive outcomes, emotionally exhausting challenges. The diagram below shows how either one or the other can cause burnout if it is extreme, or a combination of the two can have the same effect.

The development of burnout is dependent on internal and external factors (Kaschka, 2018)

Counsellors are finding that clergy are increasingly suffering from PTSD symptoms, not from a single event but from the result of cumulative stress and disappointments (similar to environmentalists), which makes the PTSD more difficult to treat. Warning signs can be: feeling less connected to people, frequent upsetting memories of stressful events and struggling to feel happy. The environment for clergy is undoubtedly demanding, one of the counsellors commented:

Clergy are holding a lot of trauma as a result of their caring role, they meet people when they have just lost someone, they hold grief in the congregations when a much loved member dies, they are the person that many speak to when awful things happen, they hold the grief at a funeral. This may lead to ‘vicarious trauma’ which is also known as secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue. This need to be continuously empathetic can lead to burnout.

Having been on sabbatical for the last two months I have had enough time to stop feeling exhausted and start to unpack this for myself. I recognise that I have elements of people-pleasing and also I love to care for people, especially those suffering. These are internal factors for me that drive me to just fit in another visit, answer another email, try harder to please those who are displeased with me. External factors include some really cruel things that people have said and done. I think I have skirted too close to burnout, if I am really honest, and I think really honest is what we need to be.

Image Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Drowning in Admin?

Something you often hear clergy bewailing is the level of administration that they have to cope with. In the Patterns of Priestly Practice report there is a chart that shows how much of a sense of calling and how much competence ministers have in different areas of their work. About admin it says:

Administration and organisation appears towards the lower ends of the list on both calling and competence. Further analysis showed that days when more time was spent engaged in this activity were also those when incumbents reported feelings of lower calling fulfilment, less positive mood, greater work-life conflict.

Sadly, the report also showed that administration and organisation was also the activity that took up the greatest amount of time, dominating every morning with the exception of Sunday. I was interested in how many clergy have competent administrative help and how many feel overwhelmed by administration, and these are two of the questions I asked in the wellbeing survey, of the 119 responses here are the results:

Do you have Competent Administrative Assistance (paid or unpaid)?

51% of clergy said they did have competent administrators, interesting almost all the people who have been in ministry over 30 years said yes to this question. Then below is a question from the survey about whether clergy feel overwhelmed by admin, the results have been further divided between those who have competent admin support (in red) and those who don’t (in blue).

Do you feel overwhelmed by administration (red blocks have competent administrator and blue blocks do not)

The presence of a competent administrator is obviously having a good impact on the clergy, although not completely solving the problem of admin overwhelm. It seems to me that it should be seen as a vital role in all parishes, in the same way as we need Treasurers and Wardens. So why doesn’t every parish have one?

I guess the question is how the post is paid for. Do dioceses take a dim view of parishes that pay an administrator but cannot pay Parish Share? Is it short-sighted to take that approach?

Cup Half Empty?

There have been many reports and surveys about clergy wellbeing over the past few years. I have listed them here. The one I found most interesting is by the Salisbury Diocese who have done a set of three surveys across the time they have been working to improve the wellbeing of their clergy. They are from 2008, 2012 and 2016. In the latest report they find that the overall number of clergy recording positive states has dropped from 62% in 2012 to 52% in 2016 and in particular the wellbeing of parish priests (incumbents, priests-in-charge, team rectors and team vicars) is significantly lower, with only 41% recording positive states. They go on to say:

“The most profound change is that there has been a shift from a dominant correlation of positive factor ratings with positive wellbeing in 2008 and 2012 to a dominant correlation of negative factor ratings with negative wellbeing in 2016. If we assume that the correlation indicates a degree of cause and effect, then it would suggest that there has been a shift amongst the Diocesan clergy from a prevailing positive, optimistic attitude, where positive feelings about various aspects of their life engender a positive feeling of wellbeing, whereas negative feelings have little effect one way or the other, to a prevailing pessimistic attitude, where negative feelings about things engender a sense of lower wellbeing, whereas positive feelings have little effect. In a sense, the glass is no longer half full, but half empty. The reason for this shift is not clear, but it could go some way towards explaining the negative shift in wellbeing noted above.”

I interpret this to mean that whilst there are many sacrifices and difficulties in ministry, on the whole clergy have looked at the amazing privilege of ministry and thought it is all worth it, whereas now that has changed. It set me wondering why this should be so. There is a clue in another report – the Experiences of Ministry Survey 2015, which as some interesting charts:

It is worth focusing on the stipendiary figures as they are most likely to be the parish priests who are feeling their cup is half empty. The sacrifices are being made quite often – a few times a week, but in the chat below it shows that the sacrifices are felt to be ultimately worthwhile less than once a week.

The report goes on to say:

Figure 3 and 4 shows the levels of sacrifice frequency and the sense that sacrifices made have been worthwhile over the two years. Further analysis of the data shows that sacrificial behaviour is positively associated with the measures of clergy engagement in ministry and also in some of the reports of growth. However, high levels of sacrificial behaviour is also found to be related to lower levels of clergy well being, which questions how sustainable high levels of sacrificial behaviour may be over the longer term.

I just wonder whether we are now in the longer term – clergy have been working so hard for so long and it is unsustainable?