6 November 2020

Stronger together

Chris Swain, SIM Chair for the Diocese of St Albans, is passionate about the benefits of clergy wellbeing practitioners working together. He tells us why ...

The care and wellbeing of the clergy is crucial to the health of the Church at worship, in mission, and in pastoral care. Healthy, fulfilled, maturing, joyful clergy who feel valued and supported are an enormous gift to the Church of God. A sense of being cared for and loved will give energy and vigour when they face ministerial or pastoral challenges.

So begins the Covenant for Clergy Care and Wellbeing, adopted by the General Synod in February 2020.  And not before time, you may say.  Until recently, the accepted practice seemed to be that anyone could turn to their vicar for support, but clergy themselves were expected to carry on without much if anything in the way of formal support for their own wellbeing.  Recognising that threats to wellbeing are on the rise, the Covenant continues: ‘At the same time, there has been growing concern at the pressures on today’s clergy which at its most acute can give rise to burnout, with all its associate personal ramifications for the individuals concerned, and financial and practical implications for the mission of God’s Church.’

Learning from each other

And so the wellbeing of clergy and indeed all in ministry is now beginning to get proper attention.  To coincide with the initial consideration of the Covenant at General Synod, St Luke’s brought together representatives from all Anglican dioceses in June 2019 to share their experiences.  Two things stood out for me from that workshop:

  • The challenges faced by clergy, and indeed by those who were trying to help promote their wellbeing, were much the same across the country.
  • There was much good work going on in different places, but few people present were aware of what was being done outside their own diocese.

Neither of these should have been a surprise.  What was encouraging to see was so many people dedicated to improving the provision of care to ministers who are having to cope with ever-increasing demands.

Down with silos

The workshop did, as it was intended to, provide a wonderful opportunity to learn from one another.  Most large organisations suffer from some form of silo mentality – dedicated people working hard to address a particular issue without realising that someone else in the next department or office is working on exactly the same thing – and the Church of England is no different.  Listening to what others were doing, I came away with two specific ideas for my diocese:

  1. A wellbeing forum: several dioceses had already set up a group within their organisation to coordinate and develop their response to the challenge of improving clergy wellbeing. In St Albans, we already had some programmes aimed at supporting clergy, but no person or group was overseeing the effort.  It took no time at all to persuade a few colleagues that this kind of light touch coordination could materially improve our provision of wellbeing services.
  2. Representatives from Oxford Diocese shared with everyone at the workshop a new booklet they had just produced. Entitled ‘Flourishing in Ministry’, it provided helpful tools to allow clergy to assess and improve their own wellbeing, and directories of places to go for further information and support.
Sharing resources

At the first meeting of our new wellbeing forum, I showed my colleagues a copy of this booklet.  One of them, an experienced archdeacon, immediately grabbed it and wanted to have it on his desk for future reference.  Another said that she so wished something like it had been available to her when she started in ministry 15 years previously.

The authors of the Oxford booklet very generously made their material available to give us the best start in producing our own version, and the St Albans ‘Flourishing in Ministry’ was finalised in September 2020.

Working together with St Luke’s

This all highlights the importance of one of the key roles that St Luke’s is aiming to fulfil – that of coordinator and sharer of best practice among all of us working to improve the wellbeing of clergy (sharing good practice was one of the key recommendations of the General Synod Covenant).  A follow-up St Luke’s workshop, held in October 2020 by video, proved equally successful in bringing people together to share their experiences and hear how different dioceses are progressing.

The promotion of wellbeing among clergy has never been more important, but it remains very challenging.  With the straitjacket of the pandemic making life harder for everyone, and financial pressures in some cases leading to a reduction in jobs for clergy and all the added pressure that can bring, threats to wellbeing are ever-present.  All the more important, therefore, that we learn from each other as we work to improve the wellbeing of all in ministry so that they, in turn, can provide the care and support needed by so many.

You can read St Albans Flourishing in Ministry booklet here and the Diocese of Oxford’s original, here