Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Clergy stress and wellbeing at work

The slow days after Christmas are a good time to check back on the basics. After interesting posts and discussions here this year on Clergy bullying and wellbeing at work, I’ve revisited my standard list of stresses bearing on the health of clergy in multiparish benefices that I drew up a few years ago. An Occupational Health Physician asked for a copy of the person’s job description, to help her assess the health impact of the job. None. The parish profile? All it said was that they wanted a perfect vicar — telling, but insufficiently detailed information. This list was an attempt to summarize where the stresses came from, so as to enable a concerned professional to understand and help.

One of my ambitions for 2009 is to find better ways to care better for appointments and colleagues in work. If others know of other similar lists, I’d love to see them. Revisiting my summary, it seems to me to stand up fairly well to the experience I think colleagues are having — but does it? I’d love to know what I’ve missed, or mis-stated.

Factors bearing on the occupational health of incumbents in multi-parish benefices — a generic handlist

Many general facets of being a Vicar in the country are pluses when things are going well relationally, but significant sources of stress when they are not. For example, being housed free of rates rent and maintenance in a four bedroom family house would generally be thought to be a benefit worth several thousands of pounds a year, but the requirement to live in the parsonage house can become a source of significant stress, inducing a feeling of being trapped, if things break down relationally.

This job always requires a higher degree of capacity to manage a work/life balance than would be the case in an occupation which did not require as much working from home.

Particular dimensions and requirements of the job which bear on health include:
  1. Interaction with volunteers and the public
    dealing professionally with strangers, which requires significant discernment and versatility. For example, The partner of a person who greatly dislikes you may die, and then you have to conduct the funeral cheerfully and competently. Relating to people of all ages, positively and fairly, is easier if clean and effective communication has been established with a variety of people and organizations including key volunteers such as churchwardens and treasurers. Many members of the public have real difficulty knowing how to respond to anger in clergy.
  2. Leading public worship —
    including family celebrations and funerals and teaching the Christian faith, by word and example, in a way which is sincere and competent, personally grounded, but outwardly focused.
  3. Administration
    Time and workload management in a basically unsupervised environment, including appropriate record keeping, calls for competent self-management. Work/Life balance needs diligent monitoring and management, and the careful holding of working and relational boundaries in a sustainable way that inspires confidence in others. Hours are mainly flexible and undirected. Clergy aren’t required to, but many of them work longer hours than they should and skimp on holidays.
  4. On-call and occasional emergency availability —
    handling personal and family crises (sometimes acute) with an awareness of the needs of others and ability to manage sensitive and confidential materials professionally.
  5. Acting as a professional representative of the Church —
    with all the complex and personal transference people may have about religion. This means relating to people with differing views, some of which conflict with your own, openly and positively. Sustaining appropriate behaviour in role requires self-discipline, clear thinking, and careful boundary keeping, especially where roles potentially conflict. The job can involve juggling the roles of a parent in the school/ school governor/ chaplain to the school/ Village vicar — all at the same time.
  6. Leading volunteer teams in a voluntary organisation —
    sometimes (especially in a rural multiparish benefice), teams have conflicting and unclear traditions and aims. Local feelings and rivalries can run deep. Your job is to try and provide a focus for unity in the community. Word goes around villages. People are very interested in their vicars — this unlocks high levels of interest and personal support on occasion, especially when the relational infrastructure is there to support the person in their ministry, but can be experienced as oppressive.
Being a rural multiparish incumbent has many dimensions, and that is one of the satisfactions people derive from doing the job. Although no clergy person is perfect, they need to find an approach to their work and the people they serve that is good enough to sustain their sense of personal and professional wellbeing. If this is compromised, the whole structure of deference that used to surround clergy is no longer there, and they can easily find themselves in a lonely, frightening and even dangerous working environment. The occupation requires a high degree of personal self-knowledge, resilience and versatility, or it can turn into a nightmare.
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Judith said...

If I may just comment - one of the stresses for me as a minister of 24yrs is not being able to have a holdiay at home. Sometimes the vicarge or quarters as we say in The SA has been on a main road so all your parishioner pass your home everyday, near to the church, parishioners living in the same road or nearby and even though they know we are holiday! still there is the call at the door 'I Know you're on holiday but....' having said that - here in Barking we haven't encountered that. Maybe we are just older and wiser!!

Anonymous said...

I would add to your list the difficulty you can have with a linked charge when they are very diverse. I remember driving from one church to the other and almost having to change personality to 'fit'. And later realising that I may be the right priest for one charge but was not right for the other.

And also in rural parishes it is very difficult to get cover. Retired or NSM priests just don't want to travel 20 minutes out of the city to cover when it is holiday time. So you end up not taking all your time off. And don't get me started on cover when you are sick.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Judith. I'm sure the feeling of entrapment in your own home (but it isn't) really intensifies difficulties. Some colleagues have holiday cottages and the like. We don't own a house, and I don't suppose ever will however crunched the credit gets! What I do try to carve out is other places I don't own that have a real feeling of sanctuary about them — St Wandrille and Alton for a start. It’s not a family thing, though. With kids at school the best we can say is that we try to get out on days off; that sounds a bit lame, and sometimes it is exactly the problem you describe.

The diversity of mixed charges is a real challenge to anyone's versatility. Some personalities can do it, some just can't. What I do observe is that where colleagues try a "one size fits all" solution it's increasingly difficult to make it stick in this day and age.

I do understand the cover thing. I once had to phone round 33 other clergy to get a weekend away, when I was in Reading. 33! I probably put more time into it than I got free time out of the break. A part of me says this is the sort of problem that ought to be amenable to an administrative solution — doesn't mean it is, though, and there are parts of the country far, far shorter of clergy than round here where this must be a really oppressive load.

Many thanks; all duly noted.

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