How are you, vicar?

The Ven. Olivia Graham on how the Diocese looks after the wellbeing of its dedicated clergy as the nature of modern life and ministry changes. 

Dawn French as the jolly Geraldine in the Vicar of Dibley. Photo: The BBC.

Dawn French as the jolly Geraldine in the Vicar of Dibley. Photo: The BBC.

In 2014 a national survey found that vicars rank number one compared to different occupations and levels of life satisfaction. Publicans came bottom, ranked 274 and it turns out that a policeman’s lot is a moderately happy one, at 74, according to research carried out by the Office for National Statistics.Almost all clergy gain great satisfaction from a role which is also a vocation – a chance to do something which goes with the grain of who they are, and who God is for them, and we are hugely fortunate in being served by a wonderfully faithful, committed and talented workforce.

All jobs have their stresses, and although a bit of stress in life isn’t a bad thing (without it, we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning), too much can be damaging to health and wellbeing. The wholeness and effectiveness of our ministers depend on many things, primarily of course the extent to which they are “sustaining their sacred centre” – their relationship with God. But psychological wellbeing, which is usually a combination of personal circumstances, individual vulnerabilities and work related pressures, is extremely important for clergy, as for all of us.

There is no doubt that ministry can be a pressured role, however strongly one is called to it. Most ministers have multiple competing demands on their time and energy, and sometimes it can feel as if one is running from pillar to post, spinning many plates, trying hard to keep everyone happy. And whether in parish, sector ministry or chaplaincy, the pressures which are experienced will impact on mental and emotional wellbeing.

In October last year, all the clergy in the Diocese of Oxford were invited to participate in an online survey, organised through St Luke’s Healthcare for the Clergy and their partner, InterHealth. The survey was designed to assess how our clergy are coping with the demands of their roles, and find out whether there are some groups that are more vulnerable to ministry pressures. It was completely confidential, and the aim was to yield good information on which to make decisions about how to support clergy and help them to build long term resilience. Nearly 200 clergy responded.
What were the results? Here are some of the key findings:

What clergy appreciate:

  • The culture of the Diocese – this encompasses encouragement, trust, consultation and communication, respect. Three quarters of the clergy who responded experienced this positively.
  • Relationships – with parishioners, colleagues, family and “line managers” – 85 per cent reported good relationships.
  • Support – including help, guidance, recognition, training – was experienced positively by 70 per cent.

This is really encouraging, because it means that our leadership, our pastoral care and review and our training and support structures are all doing a good job. And of course there is always room for improvement.

What clergy find difficult:

  • More than a third experience pressure from “living on the job” and in tied housing, especially when they have working spouses and children.
  • More than a third are working more than 50 hours a week (some of them, many more).
  • Workload is an issue for 64 per cent, both the amount and speed of it. Twenty per cent of clergy had not taken a day off in the previous five weeks. About half said they were stretched; a further quarter reported feeling strained, and seven per cent reported feeling overwhelmed.
  • More than half are worried about church finances, and these are mostly older clergy.
  • A third are experiencing personal financial pressures.

A couple of further things are worth noting. Much has changed in our church life. Parishes now take on far more responsibility for financing stipends, for safeguarding, for health and safety issues and so on. The clergy find that they are now often looking after more than one church building and congregation; that they are dealing with a largely post-Christian community; that their once automatic entry into community and civic life now needs to be negotiated, and that a ministry which was once seen as largely pastoral is now being viewed as missional and evangelistic.

A number of clergy reported uncertainty about what they were there for, finding they were doing things which they didn’t think were part of their job or doing extra work to compensate for other people. The demands of multi-parish ministry are considerable, and time spent on management and administration is not time spent on mission and ministry, which is frustrating. Change is a feature of church life in a way it never used to be, and a third of clergy find that the amount and rate of change, and the way it is managed, create stress.

What can we do to enable our clergy to flourish?

In response to what we have learned, and because the Diocese is committed to supporting its workforce, the Department of Mission and the Area Teams will be looking at how to provide extra opportunities to help clergy build resilience to stress, manage boundaries more effectively and guard time off. But clearly more needs to be done in spreading the workload, enhancing team working and the sharing of ministry, and providing adequate support for an increasing administrative load. This thinking needs to be done largely at parish and deanery level, and is for all of us. Of course it isn’t just about clergy, although this particular piece of work was focused on them. The bigger question is how we can all support and resource each other in our Christian lives and in the roles and ministries we fill. Lay ministers, churchwardens, PCC officers, those who work with children and young people, in schools and in the community, those who lead and those who enhance our worship through music; those who look after our buildings and finances… we are all a part of the same enterprise, God’s enterprise.

The Ven. Olivia Graham is the Archdeacon of Berkshire.

Staff wellbeing survey

Similarly, in Autumn 2014, the Diocesan Church House Human Resources Department conducted its first staff survey to look at staff wellbeing amongst other things.
It was pleasing to see that staff responded to this new initiative. There was a 55.4 per cent response rate overall and a useful set of data was obtained, which will enable us to take action to address the issues and concerns that were raised by staff.  The results gave us a not very different picture to that of the clergy in terms of work pressures. However, whilst they felt that at times the volume of work or many competing demands created stress that need to be addressed, our staff remain committed to the work of the Diocese.

Poli Shajko is the Diocese’s Director of Human Resources.

This is an older post. Please note that the information may not be accurate anymore.