13th September 2019

How can a bishop effectively care for clergy?

At St Luke’s recent conference for diocesan clergy wellbeing representatives, the Diocese of Bath and Wells’ Advisor in Counselling and Wellbeing Sally Walters caught attention when she mentioned the impact on individuals that personal kindness from the bishop has generated. But with hundreds of clergy to care for, what else has to come into play? Sally shares her observations …

Say it with flowers?

Leading others with integrity is a huge responsibility. A tangible demonstration of compassion can be a profound model for pastoral care and has the potential to unite across the power differential of working roles. In my own diocese, I have received positive feedback from clergy of thoughtful acts shown by our bishops. This includes sending flowers following a traumatic event, thoughtful gifts, and phone calls or emails sent in a caring, pastoral connection. It is clear to me that this communication helps enormously in the particular circumstance of individuals. Taking advantage of opportunities and making good connections enhances relationship between bishops and clergy.

Being realistic

There are vast amounts of need and not all can be served directly by the bishops themselves. In our diocese, like others, there are 300-plus clergy! Hence it’s a given that a range of resources should be highlighted for clergy to access for their self-care.

Bath and Wells invests in the provision of psychological care by financing a healthy, confidential counselling service of self-employed therapists with an excellent reputation. This provides of 12 sessions for clergy, clergy spouses and their children, if needed. Other resources are available to clergy, including the reparative and preventive resources offered by St Luke’s.

Bishops are human too

Both bishops and church leaders are not immune from life’s struggles. It would be all too easy to ‘scapegoat’ the hierarchy and project an illusion that if they would change, then everything would progress well. The expectation, particularly of the bishops’ spiritual leadership, can be enormous as they attempt to model Christ-like character and a sense of discernment in complex situations. My care in my role is for bishops and clergy alike.

Considering Christian standards in leadership, and also speaking generally, I would suggest that there is an historic deep misunderstanding of Christian expectation when things go wrong, making management of difficulty or conflict extremely hard. In my own understanding, we are invited as Christians to enter a transformative process whereby imperfection is ‘worked with’ for the greater good. The transformative process doesn’t give excuse for repetitive, conscious wrongdoing but it takes the stress out of needing to be permanently guilty and help us recognise we are on a journey. We’re all striving to attain the standards set out in Scripture, in passages such as: ‘Because we belong to the day, we must live for all to see.’ (Romans 13:13), and ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world.’ (Romans 12:2)

In touch

I believe a bishop or member of clergy cannot effectively lead without being in touch with their own sense of vulnerability, as well as being able to communicate this in appropriate ways. Like all clergy, to have a healthy and fulfilling ministry, bishops need to be able to set and maintain boundaries, modelling good wellbeing practices, such as taking one’s annual leave and respecting days off for themselves and their clergy.

Know thyself

The journey needs to start at the beginning in working with ‘self’. The selection process and the training content need to prepare participants for self-reflection. This enables conscious awareness and encourages curiosity about why we respond in the way we do. A desire for personal growth is fundamental for all in leadership, along with an ability to observe how others experience us, especially if we are called to a place of influence.

About Sally: I am employed by the Diocese of Bath and Wells as Advisor in Counselling and Wellbeing. I am an experienced therapist and have worked with clergy and theological students, as well as clients in the NHS and private practice for many years.  I manage a counselling service of 26 self-employed counsellors with various expertise, across the diocese. With my self-employed assistant, I undertake assessments prior to counselling and allocate individuals and couples to suitable therapists. I visit clergy new to post in their homes, with spouse if they have one. I keep a healthy boundary in this role between working as advisor and not directly as a therapist, although my knowledge and skills contribute with necessity to the role.

For more information on Bath and Wells’ wellbeing practice, visit www.bathwells.org.uk/ministry-for-mission/discipleship/counselling-wellbeing