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.
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 Clergy Terms and Conditions of Service 2009 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.
In the past five years, over 4,000 individual clergy and their families have benefited directly from St Luke’s. Beyond that, our work positively impacts on thousands more people in congregations and communities nationwide.
*The Daily Telegraph 17.12.17