22nd January 2021

Blog: Navigating relationships with congregations

Church of England Research Officer Liz Graveling draws on a recent report to unpack the relationship between clergy and congregation

Churches, like other groupings of people, are webs of relationships. Sometimes open and supportive, other times dysfunctional and distrustful, and often a mixture of both; successful negotiation of these relationships is crucial to the health and mission of a church and to the wellbeing of its leader(s).

Birthday parties – and bullying

The Church of England’s Living Ministry research is exploring how relationships within parishes, amongst other things, affect the flourishing of ordained ministers. In our conversations with clergy ordained since 2006, we have heard of the joys and challenges of ministering among congregations, including church members who have listened, advised, supported, thrown birthday parties and provided cars; and of those who have criticised, bullied, refused to pay expenses and demanded excessively. Relationships with parishioners affect wellbeing in all kinds of ways, including physical and mental exhaustion, intrusion into family space and time, neglecting one’s own spiritual wellbeing for the sake of others’, isolation, and guilt about not getting it right.

How to manage the constant demands, the goldfish bowl of scrutiny, the dilemmas over delegation, the fear of overburdening and the ambiguity of friendships?

Be clear

The way clergy navigate relationships in the parish varies according to preference and circumstance but, whatever the situation, expectations and boundaries are key.

First, manage the expectations of congregation members. One Living Ministry participant comments: ‘The difference between what people understand of your role, and the reality, is so stark that it’s funny.’ Whatever our occupation, if we want people to respect our limits, whether to do with working hours, use of space, or responsibilities, we need to know what they are and communicate them. But they don’t have to be set in stone from the beginning: these things often take time to work out and require occasional review, some flexibility and sometimes negotiation in the context of honest conversation—because where one person’s borders end, someone else’s begin, and parishioners also need to manage the expectations of their clergy.

That’s what friends are for

Second, think through relational boundaries. Whether coming into a parish from outside or managing the shifting relationships that accompany pursuing a vocation within one’s home parish or workplace, clergy inevitably face the question of how far they can share their lives with members of their congregations. While there are no right answers here (although clearly some wrong ones), from a wellbeing perspective it can be helpful to think through your own relational needs and motivations: social interaction, practical support, shared experience of particular circumstances, a listening ear or anything else. Where can you best find what you need, and what are the implications for you and for the other people involved? Balancing these with responsibility, privacy and the need to switch off is challenging, especially remembering that collaborative ministry requires mutual trust and vulnerability. What are your sources of spiritual, social, psychological and professional support and do you have some, at least, that are located outside the parish?

To find out more about the Living Ministry research and resources, including the recently published How Clergy Thrive, visit www.churchofengland.org/living-ministry