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.