Staying the course
Clergy tell us about feeling isolated and never truly ‘off duty’. Dealing with conflict and working with vulnerable people places significant demands upon clergy wellbeing.
St Luke’s saw requests for psychiatric referral more than triple during Covid, reflecting the extreme stress and exhaustion many clergy were living with.
St Luke’s wellbeing resources – including resilience training and reflective practice groups – teach clergy how to cope with the challenges of ministry life, and flourish in long-term, fulfilling service.
Our Wellbeing Adviser Jan Korris outlines the need for St Luke's work
Clergy mental health: caring for the wearied soul within
Mental ill health is no respecter of persons. Chemical imbalance, hereditary legacy, physical disease, upbringing, life events and environmental and work pressures all can take their toll and as a result there is a greater recognition of the need to better understand and support states of mental wellbeing in society. Both at the level of individual responsibility and of cultural norms thought is being given to how we may ameliorate some of the factors that undermine mental health and therefore promote human flourishing.
The question arises of whether clergy are any more or less prone to suffering from mental ill health than the rest of the populous and where opportunities arise for supporting clergy wellbeing how these may be promoted?
Some personal characteristics and attitudes identified as supportive of general wellbeing – the condition of life in which we thrive rather than just survive – can be see as predominant in those called to ministry, a vocation that sits alongside that of teachers, doctors, nurses and others in the caring professions, work imbued with a powerful sense of meaning and purpose. What is different for those called to the priesthood is their profession of trust in a loving Presence beyond themselves. This leads them to commit to a discipline that underpins their daily lives and a reliance not just upon themselves but upon what may be described as transcending grace.
So the religious calling with its all encompassing desire to commit to a life of love and service may clearly promote mental wellbeing. On the other hand clergy are not immune to external pressures and when these inhibit what is not just a role, but a way of being, the effects can be disabling.
The role and authority of the priest is less respected in society today, religion is at best dismissed as irrelevant by the media, at worst it is condemned. Clergy can no longer expect to be valued and affirmed as they may have been in the past; much of their ministry goes unseen and unacknowledged. Many who are drawn to ministry are introvert in character and all carry a strong sense of responsibility to God and to the community. The work of ministry is unending and both parishioners and the unchurched benefit enormously from the committed service that clergy offer, but there is always more to be done than is ever possible to achieve. With clergy colleagues thin on the ground there are few to share the task and the tendency is for them to carry on unrested and to return from times of illness too soon, not allowing space for full recovery.
As pastoral carers, clergy meet people at times of deepest need and often listen to distressing stories. They share the pain and may experience vicarious trauma, and whilst taken to God in prayer none the less it may feel a heavy burden to bear.
When mental ill health hits it not only reverberates within family, friends and community but it can undermine the priest’s very core of faith and calling. Many describe a sense of shame and failure but burnout is depletion, a loss of inner resources and a sickness of the spirit when it can no longer respond to the demands of the will.
Periods of spiritual dryness are acknowledged to be part of growth in religious life but if in a time of depression or psychological disturbance the priest is daily called upon to profess confidence and joy where none is felt this can prove a challenge to their integrity. At its worst can be felt as moral injury.
So clergy’s mental health may benefit from the gift of their calling but it also can be undermined at a very profound level when subject to the stresses present in church life and 21st century culture.
In a recent article on the relationship between wellbeing and GDP David Robson states that, ‘our fixation on money is distracting us from policies that could actually improve the quality of people’s lives’. This may be true but as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs indicates physiological wellbeing precedes the mental and emotional and parish clergy have modest stipends and their housing is tied to their job. Factors arising that affect clergy’s ability to minister such as sickness, or mental ill health, may lead to resignation or early retirement and will have significant ramifications for family life.
Sustaining the wellbeing of clergy and therefore their mission and ministry is a matter of serious concern for the church. The Covenant for Clergy Care and Wellbeing 2020 is now being taken forward by the National Church Implementation Group and Third Sector organisations bringing the spirit of the Act and necessary resources into being. But in a church that is faced with what has recently been described as the “Four headed beast”, falling attendance, financial deficits, the demands of built heritage and a heavy dependence on an ageing often exhausted, lay volunteer force, the care and wellbeing of clergy still tends to be overlooked.
Clergy are coming forward with stress related ill health and burnout. Those who need medical and therapeutic intervention must be helped but at the same time the wellbeing of those faithfully ministering in difficult times, within an institution that may not always provide the most supportive culture, needs urgent attention.
In an article titled Spending to Help Mental Wellbeing is Wise Investment Kim Morrish writes, “I was ignorant of the severity and risks posed by poor mental health and how we all needed to treat mental wellbeing with the same sensitivity and support that we treated physical health”.
Kim quotes a study by Deloitte, (2020), that cites that for every £1 spent on supporting staff mental health, employers get £5 back in reduced presenteeism, absenteeism and staff turnover. It shows that higher return on investment can be achieved by early interventions, such as organisation-wide culture change and education, than by the more in-depth support that may be needed at a later stage when a person is struggling”.
St Luke’s Healthcare for the Clergy is a charity that focuses on clergy mental health and wellbeing and is engaged in trying to meet the need for in depth support for those who are struggling. But we are also committed to providing wellbeing support and early intervention for clergy to enable them to remain resilient in their ministry and in modelling good practice we hope to have a positive effect upon the culture of the church. Some prevalent church culture that tends to undermine positive wellbeing is described below,
- Isolated working practices that lead to loneliness
- Porous boundaries in time keeping and relationship
- Poor work/life balance with untenable hours
- Sedentary working and failure to exercise
- Limited time for family relationships and maintaining friendships
- Lack of pastoral supervision to offer insight, support and growth in ministry
What can be done from within the Church?
One essential support for wellbeing that is freely available is acknowledgement and affirmation and we would encourage all those in senior roles in the Church to appreciate the value of giving their time and attention to colleagues in this way.
Kim Morrish reflects that, ‘line managers have a key role to play. A good line manager should be close to everyone they manage, even in these hybrid working times, and alert for any signs that someone is beginning to struggle, whether that is due to workload or external factors in their personal life.’ The church tends to use different terminology and shies away from the description line manager but the need for just this form of support is evident on the ground.
What is St Luke’s doing, and what do we wish to do more of with your help?
St Luke’s provides access to mental health services for those in need and provides a menu of preventive resources and services in support of clergy wellbeing. We have joined with colleagues from the charitable sector to pilot a programme of Mental Health First Aid training in the dioceses. We have engaged in a two-year pilot with the British Army to offer pastoral supervision to chaplains and are at the report stage of planning resources for clergy with Long Covid.
St Luke’s offers workshops to ordinands in theological colleagues, curates and incumbent in the parishes and we help set up reflective practice groups for clergy in the dioceses.
Some examples of workshops include,
- Developing resilience in ministry
- Negotiating relationships
- Managing difficult conversations
- Understanding the physical responses to trauma
 The pursuit of happiness New Scientist 22 January 2022
 Spending to help mental wellbeing is wise investment, The Times 8 March 2022
The cost of stress and burnout
Dioceses can face significant financial costs when clergy struggle in post or are sick long-term. Church growth and parish finances suffer when there is ongoing clergy absence.
Just as significant is the impact on church life and the congregation, as church members struggle with the tensions of supporting their priest and finding ways to ‘fill the gap’. Frustration and tension can take a serious toll on the church community.
Adds to suffering
This adds to the personal suffering of priests and their families when they are affected by extreme stress due to issues that have not been effectively addressed earlier.
The report of the Working Group on the Covenant for Clergy Care and Wellbeing proposes to the Church of England ‘that we take the first steps towards establishing a culture where some form of pastoral supervision is the norm across the board, and not the exception’.
What about isolation?
Clergy frequently work alone, with little opportunity for sharing and support from neighbouring colleagues. As a result, clergy often become almost culturally conditioned to operate independently and in isolation. When clergy are together, this can sometimes make them unsure of one another and, at worst, slide into defensiveness and competitiveness.
The hardest work I’ve ever done, and the most stressful, was as a parish priest – mainly because it was isolated, insatiably demanding and I was on the whole working without … close colleagues. Most Revd Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury
Our resources help clergy protect themselves from ‘bad’ stress and ultimately, burnout. Flourishing, healthy clergy can build a flourishing Christian presence in their community.
Our healthcare services complement our wellbeing resources, for clergy and their families who are experiencing physical or mental health challenges.
This report found that the wellbeing of parish priests is significantly less that that of clergy in other roles. Diocese of Salisbury Wellbeing Survey, 2016
Clergy have support in place, don’t they?
St Luke’s recognises the value of existing support for clergy, including cell groups, deanery chapters, mentoring, positive team working and coaching. Whilst some are excellent, others don’t provide a supportive environment to enable clergy to flourish and may not be regularly attended.
One of the main inhibitors to sharing, collegiality and deepening friendship within chapters is the lack of clarity over boundaries of confidentiality. This can leave clergy with such questions as: ‘What can I safely share? Will what I am saying go beyond the group and possibly to my superiors? Will I be judged for what I say?’ Paul Taylor, retired archdeacon
Stress and clergy families
Clergy spouses often speak of the low-level stress and complexity of living in a clergy house – phone calls and visitors at family meal times, lots of evening meetings, making a clerical schedule work with a family schedule.
When clergy struggle or are off sick, clergy families often become a buffer between their clergy spouse, or parent, and the parish. Questions and callers still find their way to the clergy home or spouse. Poor wellbeing and poor boundary setting mean clergy stress impacts on their family.
Even with the experience of 25 years in ministry, I sometimes [came] away from being with a family in grief and [cried] my own tears in private, so I [could] continue to do my job in public.Revd Canon Dr Alan Bartlett, Clergy Development Adviser*
What St Luke’s says
St Luke’s believes that it is normal and best practice for all those who are involved in pastoral care to receive both training and the discipline of frequent and regular, ongoing support. This sustains their work and enables clergy to provide safe and creative ministry.
The Covenant for Clergy Care and Wellbeing places a greater measure of accountability on the clergy but also has an explicit expectation that dioceses will nurture their wellbeing. However, every week, St Luke’s deals with individuals struggling with clergy stress and burnout, fragmented personal relationships, dysfunctional teams and parishes and the failure of healthy boundaries.
The scale of fire-fighting and crisis management would suggest that this is a poor economic model. St Luke’s is convinced from experience that dioceses would benefit enormously by putting their resources upfront and having resilience training and reflective practice groups available to all those involved in pastoral care. These groups are cost-effective in every way.
Over 1,800 clergy have directly benefited from our resilience training and RPGs since 2017. Beyond that, our work positively impacts on thousands more people in congregations and communities nationwide.
*The Daily Telegraph 17.12.17