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Wellbeing in Ministry: Sharing Wisdom

Elli Wort & Claire Dalpra

Each year, the Church of England holds its Faith in Research conference, sharing the results of pioneering research into mission and ministry. This is an important place for Church Army to present its rEesearch: this year, Claire Dalpra talked about the findings of our Messy Church research.

The Faith in Research conference contains pearls of wisdom which are of value to the wider church. This year, there was a particular focus on wellbeing in ministry. So, whether you are a Commissioned Evangelist, engaged in mission and ministry in another way, or someone who supports others in their ministry, we hope the following will be useful.

Helping congregations in times of tragedy
Professor Christopher Southgate talked about how congregations can be helped in times of tragedies. The tragedies that can shake congregations include those that arise due to malice, accident, or negligence (such as Grenfell), as well as the unexpected death of people in the congregation or community. However, Professor Southgate argues that trauma can lead to growth, drawing communities to the church (if the church responds well), or with communities earning respect for a leader who handles a situation with care. This means the stakes for leaders are high when responding to trauma.

Professor Southgate warned that there is a cycle of dealing with trauma: first, there is a stage of heroism where everyone pulls together, then a stage of disillusionment, and finally, new wisdom. The usual length of time for this cycle for a congregation is two years.  Professor Southgate encouraged leaders to engage with the fullness of scripture in the cycle of tragedy, allowing congregations to understand what has happened in light of creation, the cross, and the promise of life where every tear will be washed away.

Boundaries, wellbeing and abuse
Dr Kathryn Kissell discussed her research on the impact of boundaries in ministry. She acknowledged that putting boundaries in place is hard for leaders: home is often your workplace, and you are often a counsellor, minister, manager and friend to the same people. However, she argues that those leaders who flourish and enjoy a long career in ministry are those who intentionally set boundaries.

The Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, spoke about his research into ministerial sources of clergy support: most of their support comes from spiritual directors, family and friends. Bishop David discovered many did not take all their holiday cover citing their reasons as the expense, not having or being able to borrow a holiday home, and that finding service cover was so stressful that they felt it was not worth taking the holiday.

Professor David Denney talked about abuse of clergy: although his research is on clergy, it might well sound familiar to Church Army Evangelists. Professor Denney said that 70% of clergy reported verbal abuse: his research suggested that clergy wearing identifiable clothing and having an identifiable house contributed to this, as did seldom being off-duty. Interacting with members of the public at tough times of their lives meant abuse is always a risk. Male clergy were more likely to be threatened whilst undertaking pastoral work, whilst women were more likely to be threatened by an active church member or parishioner.

Putting research into practice
So, what are some of the immediate things that Church Army Evangelists and people working in mission can do to increase their wellbeing, and things their friends and family can do to support them?

Strong relationships and networks seem crucial: Professor Southgate says that pre-existing relationships and networks are vital in times of crisis. Bishop David’s research shows the importance of support networks of friends and family for ministerial wellbeing. In a Church Army context, this is where our model of clusters, regional and residential gatherings can provide support.
The Church Army Evangelist Support Scheme can also play a part, providing a strong network of supporters praying for an evangelist in times of trouble. Those in ministry outside of Church Army might have similar support groups. If you’re in ministry yourself but don’t have a prayer or support network like this, perhaps you could establish one?

Setting boundaries is also vital to sustain longevity in mission and ministry: Dr Kissell recognizes that leaders find this hard, but that it does help them flourish. Have you thought about the boundaries you need to set for your own well-being?

It’s crucial to ask for help when you need it too, especially in times of trauma. Professor Southgate notes the importance of getting support to manage press and media in a crisis. He notes that shock events are costly to leaders and may stay with them long after the event. Self-care is vital, so remember to ask for help and even seek counselling, in times of trauma or if you are experiencing abuse from people you minister among.

And remember, it’s not selfish to look after your own wellbeing.

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