10th July 2019

Opening up the ‘Big Conversation’

Ahead of Synod's recent vote to adopt the Covenant for Clergy Wellbeing, our reflective practice adviser Jan Korris presented a model 'Big Conversation' between a bishop, a priest and herself as a lay person

Healthy relationships and mutual trust between bishops, laity, clergy, the local and wider Church is central to clergy wellbeing – and this can be advanced with the help of a ‘Big Conversation’. That is a key recommendation of the Covenant for Clergy Care and Wellbeing, voted in overwhelmingly by Synod on 6 July.
A Big Conversation, between all represented in the Church, will enable better support and care for each other and the opportunity to ‘talk about the things that matter’, as Working Group Vice-Chair Jacqueline Stamper put it.
To demonstrate along what lines the Big Conversation could open up frank and constructive debate, Jan Korris, a Working Party member, along with Bishop at Lambeth Tim Thornton and parish priest Canon Simon Butler, took the floor just ahead of Synod’s debate on clergy wellbeing, to ask some honest questions of each other. Here’s what they said …

Jan

As a lay person I want to say to Simon the priest: ‘In ministry there will always be more to be done than is possible to achieve and it is easy for you to feel overwhelmed by the demands. To thrive you need to set healthy boundaries that enhance the quality of your relationships and ensure the longevity of your calling. ‘

In the challenges and complexity of your ministry, what has been noticeably absent, and something the Covenant wishes to address, is a real focus upon preventive measures to underpin positive wellbeing and support best practice. Developing a coherent strategy for this needs to be a shared task between you as clergy, your lay colleagues and the wider Church.

So Simon, I would say: ‘Don’t try and go it alone. Seek out those who have the skills to support and challenge you in your spiritual and psychological growth. Honour your physical needs and prioritise your family and friends. And remember that the greatest gift you can offer us is the inspiration of a flourishing life marked by a capacity to make choices, change and grow. The Covenant for Clergy Care and Wellbeing is here to support you in this.

To Bishop Tim I would say: ‘The flourishing of your diocese will be in direct relation to your own state of wellbeing, modelled and expressed. You need to talk openly about your own boundaries and self-care. You too need to have preventative care in the forefront of your mind. As a bishop, I am particularly aware of the strains upon you when dealing with safeguarding issues and I exhort you to be aware of your needs in advance of the inevitable demands you will experience.

Everything I said to Simon as a priest would apply to you in the role of bishop but in addition your ministry requires a quality of discernment of how, and to whom, to delegate some of your pastoral care commitment. So ensure that your diocese has set up a clearly defined and implemented wellbeing policy for clergy with a named person to hold the key role and with access to resources.

But no amount of strategy and process will be effective without a diocesan culture that reflects its intent. Pastoral relationships flourish where there is timely and meaningful communication within a diocese where the bishop knows their clergy and is demonstratively mindful of them. The Working Group decided to add the word ‘Care’ to its title; we know as bishop you will not be able to resolve the wellbeing issues of all your clergy but you can enable them to feel you care.

To both Simon as priest and you, Bishop Tim,  I would say: ‘Celebrate your humanity, sustained as it is by transcending grace and remember that self-care is not the same as self-interest; it is not just beneficial to you, it is beneficial to others and to God.

Simon

Putting this together, I thought ‘what do I want to say to you Jan and you Tim as colleagues and representatives of partners in ministry and, through you, to my own congregation and bishop?’

I would begin by saying thank you to Jan. I’m an activist in ministry and it’s very easy to rush on by without taking the time to acknowledge the work that others do. So, in the past few months Jan, you and your other non-ordained colleagues in the Working Party, have brought insight and wisdom from you work that has caused me to stop and think about what I’m doing. In that you’ve modelled care of me.

That prompts me to thank those in my own ministry who have shown that care and support, who don’t just treat me as a deliverer of ministry, but as a human being, who have allowed me to be the minister I am (warts and all), but who have helped me to become a better person, a better Christian and a better priest. So, what I think the Covenant is asking of the non-ordained people in my network is to show your love and commitment to me by seeing the “Simon” in my priesthood, and the priesthood in a Christ-like but still Simon-shaped way. That involves challenging me to be better, but helping me to do that too.

I think I want to say to lay people: take time to find out who the people are behind the collar; don’t let us get away with hiding behind the role; do ask us about where we are with God and our vocation from time to time too.

Any relationship with a bishop for a priest is complicated, Tim. You carry all sort of projections we place upon you – father-figure, teacher, counsellor, boss, career-advisor, discipliner, pastor – I could go on. But I would say to you, Tim, and through you my bishop: I need to see the “you” behind the role. I need to know your struggles. I need to know how you handle those projections. I need to know that, in all the challenges you face in being a 21st century bishop, that you consider it among your highest priorities to serve and pastor your clergy, not as a strategy for mission and growth, but as a Christlike response to your fellow ordained ministers. That might mean doing the simple things – picking up the phone, dropping in when passing, building in time to waste with us. We’ve not spent our time in the Working Group slagging you off (God knows you get enough of that) but we do, above all, long for you to be seen to look after yourselves better than you appear to do at the moment.

 Tim

As a bishop, I want to say to lay people: ‘We are partners in the Gospel, called to love one another. We flourish when we work together and care for each other. Most clergy I meet love what they are doing and love the communities they serve. However, they have a tough calling today with complex, multi-focal roles, often living in a goldfish-bowl within a society which doesn’t really get what they are about.

I am disappointed by the clericalism and deference that still exists and the hard work we still have to do for which this Covenant I think is one step to help us all treat each other as human beings.

Caring for clergy wellbeing means cherishing them so that they can give of their best. Realistic expectations about their role; respect for personal and household privacy; affirming their need for recreation, helping them to take a weekly rest-day, an annual retreat and regular holidays, praying for them and listening to them especially when things are difficult, make all the difference.

As a bishop, I want to say to the clergy: ‘I reckon the clergy care Bible verse is Acts 20 v28, “Watch over yourselves and over all the flock of God of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers….”. It’s not selfish to care for ourselves because in so doing we are able to care for others.

 Ministry today can be tough and often we feel pulled from pillar to post. So it’s even more important to take regular rest, exercise often, eat good grub, take holidays, go on an annual retreat, have a weekly rest-day and try to keep a hobby or interest going if we are going to give our best. Ministry can feel isolating so having a spiritual director and a support group, reflecting on what’s going on regularly with wise people, nourishing ourselves with CMD and setting realistic targets and boundaries really matters if we are to keep going for the long run.

For myself, I would add that I do think and have thought for a long time we should all be in professional supervision and we should think very hard about why we appear to be so keen to work in isolation and talk about working on our own when there are so many wonderful people in our lives called laity who are also fellow human beings.

 Vice-Chair Jacqueline

We think that this sort of conversation and supportive challenge and dialogue is genuinely possible and potentially enriching for everyone involved.  There’s much more to say of course: we can only highlight a few things that need to be talked through together.

I’d now like to invite Jan, Simon and Tim to offer just one thing to their lay people, priests and bishops that they would like to share, in the light of this document before Synod today.

Jan

To my fellow lay members of the Church I would say: we can be key providers of care and support for clergy. The price does not have to be high, better care does not necessarily mean more care but a different approach, defined by quality rather than quantity. As you will recall, Setting God’s People Free speaks of seeking to affirm and enable the complementary roles and vocations of clergy and lay people. Continuing this theme, the Covenant sets out in its Big Conversation an opportunity for us as lay people to engage at every level with the minister and the wider Church to enhance the wellbeing of our clergy.

Surprisingly some of the requests are really simple such as asking the minister how best to offer our support rather than making assumptions, ensuring that we do not intrude upon their household, respecting their space and offering encouragement for a role where the unending demands seem rarely matched by gratitude or affirmation.

The Covenant offers us a structure and a way forward to change unhelpful patterns and create new ways of being together. It is a great opportunity to support our ministers to flourish and in so doing energising our parishes and the work of the wider Church.

Simon

It’s been ironic that as I’ve been preparing this presentation, I’ve had one of the most demanding period of pastoral ministry I faced for a long time. I’ve conducted four funerals in the past two weeks, three of whom were people I helped prepare for their death. There are two others I’m seeing who will die soon too. Every ordained minister will have times like that. The irony is of course, I have not had a lot of time to look after myself, but I must ensure that, very soon, I take that time. So what I want to say to clergy colleagues is this: before it’s anyone else’s responsibility to care for you, it’s your responsibility and it’s mine. This Covenant won’t make a blind bit of difference if you and I don’t start with ourselves. Let others help you, too. Of course. Some of us aren’t great at that. But begin with you.

Tim

As a bishop I want to say to fellow bishops: hello! In my brief time as a bishop, I have found that most of our clergy colleagues are highly motivated, principled people deeply committed to those they serve yet struggling with unrealistic expectations from within themselves, from the parishes and often from us. In this situation I’ve also learned that episcope with a human face really matters, that trusting and listening to colleagues is life-giving and that providing good reflective support keeps colleagues motivated, energised and healthy.

I want to say we all know we have much work to do and have already been doing much work.  I think this Covenant is to be welcomed – but no words on a piece of paper will make the difference.  The difference will be made by you and me, brothers and sisters, stepping up to the plate, being honest and open with each other, accepting mutual accountability and speaking with each other about our vulnerabilities.

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