In a project I did on clergy wellbeing I spoke to ten Diocesan Counsellors and a number of them felt angry about how difficult the role is and with so little relevant training and virtually no support, some used the words ‘shocking’ and ‘scandalous’. One commented:
“Senior staff say that we need to train the clergy in resilience, but the job is undoable even the most resilient person would not be able to do the job.”
In a survey I asked clergy to respond to the statement ‘I feel overwhelmed by the workload’ and below are the answers from the incumbents (the most overwhelmed group of which there were 78 responses):
41% said that they always or most of the time felt overwhelmed by the workload. This isn’t something that is only happening to clergy, according to a survey by Qualrics almost half of UK workers (47%) spend the majority of the time feeling overwhelmed by workloads. Sarah Marrs, employee experience specialist at Qualtrics, said:
‘If employees are stressed, tired or overworked, those feelings will rapidly trickle down into the quality of their work and is more likely to result in their choosing to leave the organisation.’
The problem is we don’t know how many clergy are leaving the organisation because of stress or overwhelm – that data isn’t collected. But anecdotally it seems to be high. There is data about how many clergy retire each year (but they may retire because of ill health). The figures are available here and the table for 2017 is below:
65% of stipendiary clergy who are retiring are not active, it is such a high figure that it leads me to feel that most of them are not active in the church because they have had enough, their ministry was too exhausting and some of them will be burnt out.
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?