St Luke’s CEO Claire Walker talks about our findings on clergy stress – and how St Luke’s can help.
What was the scope of St Luke’s research?
We surveyed nearly 500 ordained clergy to find out how they were coping with life and ministry in terms of their health and stress indicators, and what resources they would take up to build their emotional resilience. We covered a wide range of age, marital status and household composition, length of service, and situation eg rural or urban.
What were your findings?
Well, the headlines showed that, thankfully, many clergy are doing well, with nearly 40% describing themselves as “positive and energised”. But a significant minority – around 12% – say they are struggling or barely coping. Two-thirds of those said they frequently considered giving up their role in the Church because of stress. We also found that more than half of those surveyed, 53%, had received no training at all in understanding or managing stress, at theological college or during their ministry.
Were you surprised by any of the results?
We expected that those more recently ordained might have received more training in understanding the pressures of clergy life, and indeed 47% of those aged 35-54 received some training at theological college, compared with only 25% of clergy aged 55-74. But this figure slides for ‘on the job’ training, with 26% of the 55-64s receiving training in their current job – and this drops to only 18% for the younger 35-54 age-band.
What does this mean for emotional wellbeing resources offered by St Luke’s?
Clergy strongly indicated that they would want to take up two of the core resources we offer to dioceses – Reflective Practice Groups (RPGs), and Resilience Training. Nearly half said they would opt for the ongoing confidential groupwork offered by RPGs (49%) and nearly as many (47%) were interested in our emotional resilience training.
And for individuals and dioceses?
We are convinced these tools make a real difference to the health of clergy and their families, and St Luke’s offers meaningful financial support to dioceses to help them get these resources up and running. Clergy who have tried and tested this kind of support tell us what a difference it makes, and we’re looking forward to seeing more lives and ministries changed.
Christian Research carried out this research on behalf of St Luke’s in 2013
Read our two-minute Q&As on clergy emotional wellbeing with specialists Dr Gary Bell and Jan Korris.
Consultant psychiatrist Dr Gary Bell, a St Luke’s trustee, is mental health lead for St Luke’s Healthcare for the Clergy, specialising in addictions, stress and depressive disorders.
St Luke’s research has found that 85% of dioceses surveyed rely on clergy to come forward themselves with any emotional problems. How would you respond to that?
When you’re in a caring profession, your focus is on other people, often to the detriment of your own physical and mental health. You’re thinking about others and that, combined with a general view of any stress-related problem as a sign of weakness, means that clergy, like other caring professions, can be very reluctant to admit they are struggling.
What can be done?
Senior clergy need to have their antennae up and to be prepared to have that difficult conversation with clergy about getting some help. Clergy could start by seeing their GP or talking to St Luke’s. Early intervention is associated with better outcome, and mental health treatments do work. Engaging your clergy in that treatment process sooner rather than later will help the organisation, not just the individual, with shorter periods of absence from work.
What’s the problem?
Clergy need to be supported by their dioceses to recognise the consequences of a very long-standing issue, namely the 24/7 availability which they have taken as part and parcel of the job. For the clergy, it’s traditionally been phone calls and the knock on the door, but now it’s email and text 24/7 as well, and there’s no escape. Of course when people take on a clergy role, they might know this goes with the territory, but what they don’t know is the consequence this is going to have for their physical and mental health over many years. And it’s that lack of knowledge, of what this will lead to, that is significant.
But it’s a calling, not a job – shouldn’t clergy always be available?
We know now how much constant availability contributes to work-related stress. Clergy are human beings and need time for work, recreation, socialising, exercise – each one balances the other. If your life lacks this, and there are major imbalances, then it’s going to manifest itself in either physiological problems or as a mental health problem like anxiety, stress, fatigue or depression. Saying it’s your vocation – well yes, that’s true, but it also implies that you’re slightly superhuman.
Psychotherapist and St Luke’s trustee Jan Korris has worked extensively with clergy, using Reflective Practice Groups (RPGs) to build emotional resilience and develop best practice.
What is reflective practice?
A regular, confidential session led by a trained facilitator, where clergy can discuss their work, develop insight and strategy and grow in their ministry.
Why would clergy need this kind of support?
Isolation, poor boundary setting and lack of self-awareness are significant factors in creating stress in clergy resulting in less effective ministry. Solitary self-reflection is valuable but only partially effective; we need others to help us develop ‘new eyes to see, new ears to hear’. It is well understood in secular organisations that those working in the field of pastoral care require ongoing reflection with an experienced colleague to remain safe and to grow in the work.
Isn’t spiritual direction or support through Chapters sufficient?
Whilst all clergy are encouraged to have a spiritual director, not all take it up and some meet very infrequently. Some spiritual directors focus solely on the spiritual development of the individual, with no crossover with work-related issues. Chapters are rarely able to provide an environment for confidential sharing.
What does a diocese gain from reflective practice?
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 .
I both personally observe, and hear about from senior staff in the Church, clergy stress and burn-out, 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 and dioceses would benefit enormously by putting their resources upfront and having reflective practice groups available to all those involved in pastoral care. These groups are cost effective in every way!
How much time does it involve?
In a session of around two hours a month practice is enhanced by sharing with colleagues, allowing vulnerability, compassion and challenge in a safe and confidential setting. Much of parish life takes place in groups, so experiencing a healthy model and gaining an understanding of group dynamics is an excellent learning experience.