Healthy Clergy, Healthy Church
The wellbeing and spiritual growth of our clergy is crucial to the Church of England’s future, but we all know that ministry at times can feel like “grappling with blancmange”. So, what does a flourishing ministry look like? And if you’re not in ministry yourself, how does this apply to you?
When the disciples appointed the deacons to care for the needy widows in Acts they had the best of plans. It was the efficient deployment of resources, prayerfully discerned (Acts 6f). And yet, things changed. The next thing we know, Stephen’s an evangelist sharing the Good News of Jesus. I’m sure the Samaritan woman whose story we hear in John 4 also had plans when she went to the well. Becoming one of the first evangelists sharing the gospel to all her village probably wasn’t in view.
Ministry has a habit of subverting our best laid plans and in fact often involves us sacrificing them. Setting down our plans is not always comfortable and can take its toll on clergy, their families and congregations. So, what do we know about clergy wellbeing and what sustains it?
For the best part of a decade I’ve been asking clergy in England: What does a flourishing ministry look like? Across 2011–17, in collaboration with King’s College London’s Business School, the Experiences of Ministry Project listened to the voices of more than 6,000 clergy across the Church of England through regular national surveys, more than 100 in-depth interviews and series of week-long daily diaries.
We learnt the wellbeing of clergy compared favourably with other occupational groups, a finding that often comes up in other studies too. Despite having highly demanding roles, most priests cope, and even flourish, because they are filled with purpose and derive meaning and fulfilment from their work. Even though they make substantial and frequent sacrifices as part of their role, they mainly do so willingly and see them as worthwhile.
However, due to job demands, there will always be priests who are less able to cope and experience burnout and related ill-health. While for many, this will be due to too many demands and not enough resources, the research identified that other clergy who suffered a high degree of psychological burnout were those who sacrificed the most, felt less clear about their calling and were less able to detach from ministry in their time off. The research suggests clergy need to juggle issues of sacrifice, growth and wellbeing.
As part of the project, a male priest in a single urban parish, said: “Most days I try to balance the needs of people against the administrative needs of getting the job done, things like preparation. It is a very varied week and no day is the same.”
While a female priest with responsibility for multiple rural parishes reflected: “It’s a bit like grappling with blancmange really, that’s how it feels most of the time.”
What doesn’t appear to be significant?
We learnt that several things didn’t appear significant, at least statistically. These included: geography, gender and time.
First, the issue of location. While at times, one location or another was identified in some of the statistical analysis as predicting an outcome, no consistent pattern ever emerged. This is interesting considering the debates regarding rural or more isolated ministry, where one would expect to observe a different clergy experience to other, perhaps more suburban or urban locations.
Secondly, throughout the project, gender wasn’t found to be particularly important in accounting for variation in clergy experiences. This is intriguing considering the gendered nature of the Church’s history and present situation, where one might expect to find important differences of how men and women clergy view their worlds.
Lastly, spending a very large number of hours each week engaged in ministry didn’t seem to pay off, as total weekly hours weren’t found to be an important predictor of spiritual or numerical growth. This is interesting as a perception can exist that working long hours is important for the role.
Does anything account for a flourishing ministry?
The research discovered there were four factors that consistently led to flourishing ministries. These were:
- Maintaining a strong and clear sense of vocation
- Innovation in how one goes about one’s role
- Seeking/receiving feedback on how well one is doing
- Seeking/receiving support from colleagues
The statistical analysis suggested in relation to spiritual growth these four areas were very much interlinked, each reinforced the other and offered the potential for sustained gains over time.
In relation to numerical growth, however, while collegial support, feedback and the strength of an individual’s calling all helped to increase attendance growth, there was no reverse relationship – i.e. greater attendances didn’t have any effect on an individual’s calling strength, feedback or collegial support.
Innovation, however, did seem to work both ways: innovation brings growth and growth leads to further innovation. To explore these findings more deeply, we carried out a series of semi-structured interviews of clergy which all confirmed the research results.
If you’re ordained, it’s essentially true that “this isn’t the church I was ordained into”. Our learning highlights the wisdom of regularly reviewing your ministry, ideally with a supportive friend asking questions such as:
- How secure am I in my vocation?
- What’s the quality of the feedback I receive, i.e. is it any more than warm affirmation?
- When was the last time I tried something new?
- And, if you’re not ordained? We’ve also concluded these four areas aren’t just about ministerial flourishing. They’re about human flourishing – how might these questions apply to you?