Tag Archives: Clergy Wellbeing

What on Earth is WellBeing Anyway?

A question that first needs to be addressed is the definition of wellbeing. It is more than happiness or life satisfaction and is actually very difficult to define. Dodge et al (2012) write:

In essence, stable wellbeing is when individuals have the psychological, social and physical resources they need to meet a particular psychological, social and/or physical challenge. When individuals have more challenges than resources, the see-saw dips, along with their wellbeing, and vice-versa.

This is represented by a see-saw with our resources on one side and the challenges on the other:

Representation of Wellbeing (Dodge et al, 2012)

It is interesting, the idea that to have a good level of wellbeing we need resources or support but we also need challenge. The problem with clergy is more often the challenges outweigh the resources. Also, times of transition are particularly difficult because the challenges increase and the support reduces. For example at the end of curacy a priest may move to a new area, losing many of the relationships that have been built and at the same time finding they are shouldering more responsibility and encountering unfamiliar situations.

Martin Seligman, developed a model of psychological wellbeing in his book Flourish (Seligman, 2011). He believes that the below five elements can help people work towards a life of fulfilment, happiness, and meaning. The elements are:

P – Positive Emotion

This is the pleasant life – warmth, good food, comforts, luxury items, travel. They make you happy while you are experiencing them but don’t have any long term impact on happiness.

E – Engagement

This is when we are absorbed in something and time disappears or ‘flies by’. Athletes refer to this as ‘flow’. It occurs when our highest strengths are matched with highest challenges in that moment. Consequently, it is really important that we find our greatest strengths and use them. We are so in the moment that only afterwards do we say ‘that was fun’ or ‘that was wonderful’.

R – Relationships

Relationships and social connections are crucial to meaningful lives. It is not very often that we value things alone – we want to share a sunset with someone else. We long for intimacy and love, we feel pain when we experience isolation. Strong relationships provide support in difficult times that require resilience.

M – Meaning

Belonging to and serving something that is bigger than ourselves gives us meaning. Religion and spirituality provide many people with meaning, as can working for a good company, raising children, volunteering for a greater cause, and expressing ourselves creatively. 

A – Accomplishments

Having goals and ambition in life can help us to achieve things that can give us a sense of accomplishment. Having accomplishments in life is important to push ourselves to thrive and flourish.

Appointing the Archangel Gabriel

There is a common saying in the Church of England that parishes are looking to appoint the Archangel Gabriel to posts. In other words, the parishes are looking for some incredible super-human that does not exist. Dioceses are aware of this and archdeacons and other diocesan staff work to encourage more realistic parish profiles and job adverts. However, the expectation that the incoming minister will be able to fulfil a huge range of often contradictory requirements persists. Clergy sometimes collude with this, and the minister who comes closest to promising to fulfil all the requirements at interview is appointed, however unrealistic that is. It is also commonly reported that parishes are looking to recruit a man with a wife who does not work and with young children. This leads to very difficult conversations during the recruitment process, and is very stressful for candidates. A doctoral thesis reported on interviews with 31 clergy about preparing to move jobs, it states:

“Clergy are at best conditional in their acceptance of the changes and at worst resisting them. This is because the decision to adopt secular-style recruitment systems has disrupted a process of delegated authority to bishops which is rooted in an almost unassailable body of history, tradition, custom and practice by shifting the authority for a transition to clergy themselves.” There is a feeling that the relationship with the bishop has been weakened through this – leading to further isolation, previously the bishop appointed and could be sought for guidance and support for the role that the bishop had chosen the cleric to do. The whole thing has become a source of cognitive dissonance, one priest says: “So I think it’s not what it seems and it’s neither one thing nor the other, it’s neither the open recruitment process that it presents itself as being, nor is it the old system of, you know, bishop knows best and will tell you where to go. But it seems to be somewhere in between but never quite acknowledging all that.”

This is considered in part in the Covenant for the Care and Wellbeing of Clergy:

“Parish Profiles and Role/Job Descriptions often reveal an over-challenging set of expectations, ranging from large numbers of churches to serve, unrealistic and competing sets of tasks, and the absence in them of any evidence of commitment to clergy care and wellbeing.”

The recommendations of the Covenant are to:

  • Acknowledge in the licensing service the importance of clergy wellbeing
  • Ensure parish profiles talk about clergy wellbeing
  • Have realistic expectations in the parish profile and in the job description about what the clergyperson can do

There is a further issue which is the gulf between what the clergy expect of the parish and what the parish expects of the clergy. At theological college the emphasis can often be on mission and evangelism, whereas in the parish the emphasis can often be on keeping the building upright, pastoral visiting and things staying the way they have always been. When there is a vacancy in a parish it would be very helpful if there were attempts to ensure the expectations of the parish and the expectations of the incoming minister were aligned. For example, questions around approximately what percentage of the minister’s time will be spent do the following:

  • Praying
  • Liturgical duties
  • Intentional outreach
  • Preaching and Teaching
  • Working with children and young people
  • Studying
  • Using social media
  • Attending various meetings
  • Preparing for and taking Occasional Offices
  • Fixing the building
  • Visiting elderly parishioners
  • Doing work in the local school
  • Setting up new services
  • Working with the community
  • Managing others
  • Doing administration
  • Fundraising
  • Attending events

Obviously being overly prescriptive would not be helpful, as the incoming priest will need to follow the vocation they feel God has given them, but setting some priorities and expectations will inform the recruitment process and may make the parish more realistic about what can and cannot be done by the priest. It will also allow clergy who are looking for posts to know whether this particular role is for them or not.

Caring for the clergy

In general, there are lots of incredibly kind, loving and supportive people who go to church. In a survey I did recently, clergy found that they receive more support from the parish than the diocese or the senior staff, the results are below, of course it isn’t true for everyone, but for most clergy.

I wonder how open we are to receiving the ministry of support from our parishioners. Of course, there are difficulties, I can’t remember where I read it – possibly in The Cracked Pot – about a vicar who was good friends with a member of the church and then one day at a study group expressed some doubts about an aspect of faith. He was told by his friend that as a vicar he was not meant to have any doubts and if he did have any that he should keep them to himself. After that the friend no longer spoke to him. The expectations of clergy being not human somehow can get in the way of clergy feeling they are allowed to be vulnerable. I think that can be true at times for me… I watched this video and it really touched me:

In the video Emma says the following things:

For all the suffering I would choose the illness because my illness taught me how to receive ministry from other people. It was just a gift.

There is a culture of hiding – folk don’t want to be labelled, “Oh so-and-so’s lovely, but they’re *not coping*.”

The church in which we work is not the church for which we were trained or that we thought we were going into.

Pressures we have as clergy are different to what we thought it was all about and it is so easy to get hemmed in by the fear of the day, of someone turning around to us and saying “Where were you when my Granny was dying, you never visited her.” And you can start functioning out of that fear of shame and guilt.

Watching the video I was struck by how easy it is, after we have been hurt a parishioner’s comments, to stop being vulnerable, stop being in a place to receive the love and support of parishioners and to start functioning out of the fear of shame and guilt.

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.