Monday 14 April 2008

Bully pulpit — On baiting of the Clergy

Much interest in the media about clergy being bullied, stimulated by Rachael Maskell of the trade union Unite. Do vicars get bullied? Undoubtedly Yes.

I have been lucky — very blessed, on the whole — about the people I served during 24 years as an urban and suburban parish priest. They trusted me and supported me, way beyond my deserving or the call of duty; coped with my immaturity and uncertainty, my blundering attempts to understand what the job was about, my occasional depressions, fits and starts. These were the people who comforted me when my father died, and left meals on the doorstep when our children were born. But among them were, I reckon, three Prize Bullies. I felt it was somehow my fault that they were so overbearing. I felt trapped by my role in a place where I could do little or nothing about them.

I don’t buy “Pure Church” fantasy, and I believe that Rachael is drawing attention to a serious issue. Every area of human endeavour can become a toxic working environment, including this one, which has its own particular risk factors.
  1. Pretty much all other professionals live far away from their work these days. Not vicars. Everybody knows where to find them.
  2. Most Vicars are at heart altruistic, caring people, and this brings its own vulnerabilities. People have a tremendous longing to believe all is well in Church, sometimes in the face of what they know to be the truth. There are even people who behave in Church much worse than they would in daily work, where some of their antics would simply not be tolerated. Vicars, who often believe sincerely in going the second mile go to tremendous lengths to believe the best of people, some of whom may not have their best interests at heart. Vicars sometimes feel that if everybody is not happy it’s their fault.
  3. For many vicars, their life is their work. Drawing boundaries between the two doesn’t always come easily to them, and in many instances wouldn't be appropriate. Anyway their job is also tied to their home. If they have to be off work, they can’t get away from it in the way that they could from a conventional workplace.
  4. Being a Vicar means radical availability to all comers, and can involve unanticipated bouts of harrowing work — children’s funerals, personal disputes and tragedies. When our Occupational health physicians ask if someone can be given light duties in the post room, as it were, the honest answer is probably not, because there isn't really a vicar job that can be guaranteed not to involve unexpected painful encounter with people in need.
  5. At one time Casualty departments and underground stations didn’t need to be festooned with notices warning the punters off punching the staff. In earlier and kinder times people were more deferential, and this relieved some strain on clergy to establish themselves as leaders. Large numbers of able and articulate people enrich the life of the church, but when things go wrong can make clergy feel desperately anxious and exposed, not always intentionally.
Sadly, like the question, the answer isn’t always as simple as might appear. Incumbent and Complainants sometimes say mirror image things about each other. The fact each says the other is bullying them doesn’t mean bullying isn't going on, but it’s an indication of the complexity of the problem. Both might be right — Clergy may be bullies as well as bullied. Indeed school experience indicates that people do to others what they feel is being done to them. We have to be very suspicious of simple “bloody fool” explanations and seek the truth all round carefully, steadily and openly.

How could things improve?
  1. Anyone who believes a member of the clergy may either be being bullied or, indeed, be bullying, owes it to themselves and everyone else, including the perpetrator, to draw hard evidence to someone’s attention — bishop, archdeacon, area dean. Ditto gender or racial discrimination. Of course they will have at some stage to give evidence for what they are alleging in a form that can be communicated to the other person involved. I once was bombarded (bullied?) by over 100 emails from an angry person who wanted to complain about a vicar but refused to be accountable by providing evidence in writing I could lay before them at the preliminary stage. Clergy have a right to protection from malicious gossip. I did not give in on this point and would not. Measured natural justice all round is the only conceivable way to protect the human beings involved when feelings are running high.
  2. This is a desperately unfashionable thing to say, but law and due process, sometimes an ass, no doubt, are there to protect everyone from abuse. Ditto working guidelines for clergy. We all, of course, want to live in a low deference informal society. The flip side of this desire is that anger will often out in intimidating and radically disrespectful ways. The advent of emails speeds the process up, discourages reflection, spreads pain and gossip round networks instantaneously, and enables people to say, for good or ill, things they would never dream of saying face to face.
  3. Irresponsibility about hitting the send button sometimes spills over into letter-writing, and I receive letters that are Anonymous or from “a concerned parishioner.” The best way I can help these people is by giving them the opportunity to write a letter to which they could put their name. That means popping their letters straight into the shredder, where they could themselves have popped them the night before, if only they had had their wits about them. After many years of hearing confessions, the contents of their letters are in one ear and out the other, and I look forward to hearing from them in a less shameful way that shows higher character and accountability.
  4. One simple fact is that clergy work in a much more open unsupervised environment than pretty much any other occupational group. On a good day, that gives us enormous historic independence, discretion and liberty about how we work, compared to others. On a bad day it can create an isolated, toxic working environment. In most contexts, most of the time, there is a strong community of loyalty and support for working clergy. We need to think through better ways of helping when that community is divided or non-existent. The involvement of a union is usually a good and positive thing if it brings any church based dispute within the ambit of good working practice in other areas of life. The Church of England is moving towards Common Tenure, for which legislation has gone through and should be implemented by 2010. Bishops and senior staff are receiving active HR training to help this happen well. CT will give licensed clergy access to tribunals and better HR support. With it, however, comes more responsibility about capability. Like everyone else, probably, I'd love to preserve the best of the historic freedom of the clergy, whilst attaching to it the best protection and support from more closely supervised working environments. This is going to be quite a difficult thing to achieve, though, especially in a workforce as “flat” as that of the Church of England.
  5. Most people are better learners than they think. I am often deeply impressed by their grace and ability to reinvent themselves if they don’t feel trapped where they are, or in other contexts that suit them and their gifts better. The Bloody Fool theory is almost always wrong. We need to invest significantly in training and independent career counseling for clergy. In this diocese we have also developed the Developing Servant Leaders programme for all clergy to help them develop positive skills and attitudes that may help. We also have a network of work consultants, and are experimenting with developments in the role of area dean in places, to have more time to support colleagues. I also take professional HR advice in a variety of situations. All these things are moves in a good direction, but I would say we’ve a way to go yet...
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Anonymous said...

And let's not forget curates who are bullied by training rectors and are threatened that they will not be ordained priest if they don't do some things. Few curates will go to their bishop, preferring to keep their heads down and just get through it so that bully keeps on getting curates. Even those who do speak to the bishop don't always get the help needed.

Often this bullying is because of jealousy and lack of pastoral support for clergy to deal with this. The curate comes with new and innovative ideas in creative spirituality and good preaching which the congregation love. This can make an older priest who has not kept up to date with current thinking seem 'old hat'. The curate is often the one doing the visiting and therefore getting to know the people better where the training rector is perhaps busy with more admin tasks. They are often popular and loved and this can be seen as a threat by the training rector, and those insecurities manifest themselves as bullying.

Just my thoughts this morning... Or maybe you touched a raw nerve?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...


Many, many thanks for raising this — it's particularly close to my heart too,because curates are especially vulnerable — and one of the few groups on time-limited contracts under common tenure.

In the 90's I was very involved in developing training incumbents workshops, and writing a supervision model to which we could hold the incumbents accountable. At the time we were moving towards deploying curates not on the basis of status of the incumbent and needs of the parish, but whether they were any good at this vital piece of work. Things have improved a bit, but we've a way to go...

Anonymous said...

I agree that anonymous letters etc are nonconstructive and foolish. Jesus provides the perfect model for complaints against brother (or sister) in Matthew 18: 15 -17.

'If your brother sins against you GO and show him his fault just between the two of you. If he listens yu have won him over. But if he will not listen take one or two others along ... if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church ...'

Bullying and gossip within the church are probably the most destructive things that the enemy can use to his glory!

Noel Heather said...

I'm an academic researcher who does research used, intra altra, by clergy trainers (eg see Sept 07's SPCK Theology). This is against a background of many years' research at the church coal-face mainly in S.England and also in Scotland. Conclusions re bullying? (1) It would be helpful if pulpit-sniping could be banned. It appears to be not uncommon. (2) There appear to be very deep-structure socio-ecclesio-theological (sorry!) issues here. My (widely-published) research suggests that ultimately churches consist either of (A) believers ('the faithful': cf. symptomatically and typically, references to 'the children and young people', and praying for the 'one of them' **lonely**); or (B) fellow-believers (cf typically, references to (=all 'one of **us**') 'the younger members of the congregation', and praying for the 'one of us' **isolated**). Like the water round a fish famously, it's all in the details of what emerges from the heart: we tend to behave culturally as the tip of the cultural iceberg of the church we attend -- so either (A: bullying more likely) or (B: less likely). The culture of each church tends to ooze either one or other of these cultures in all sorts of observable ways. Bullying is naturally more inevitable in the former (A) than the latter (B). Further, sigh, my (A) S.England vicar has personalised number- plates (his surname) -- no, I'm not making this up. All such things need to be seen together as part of postmodern culture. Is there a theologian in the house, please? Might it also be time to ditch the post-medieval me-Tarzan-you-Jane culture **in reality** ?? I'm afraid the current widely-observable culture of 'apparent democracy' lacks credibility if you go to many (esp. 'A' culture) churches to observe. This 'A' culture lends itself easily to bullying ('you need to see who's really in charge here'). Noel Heather

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Neil, many thanks for setting this issue in a gospel context — Amen, say I! It seems to me we need to be aware of our radical accountability to the Lord through each other within the Body — a lot of the most hurtful behaviour arises from failures in this department...

Tim Chesterton said...

Alan, vis a vis the point about clergy living in vicarages and not being able to escape from their work: when I moved to the Diocese of Edmonton (Canada) just over eight years ago I moved to a jurisdiction which had done away with rectories. Clergy are paid a salary and buy or rent accommodation for themselves like anyone else. I cannot begin to describe to you how much of a relief this is; I can leave my work behind and come home to my sanctuary. And, of course, when I retire (D.V. in about 15 yrs) I'll have some equity to my name to help me find retirement accommodation.

Furthermore, I think I'm much better equipped as a pastor to my people, now that I understand from my own experience what it's like to be dealing with a mortgage, and household repairs and maintenance, out of my own wallet.

Anonymous said...

Bullying within the church congregation is far more common than many have realised, it is true. We've had mention here of bullying of clergy/church leaders and of gender/racial discrimination. We also need to be mindful of bullying within the congregation itself, and also bullying of those with disabilities or who are otherwise vulnerable (e.g. illness, old age, personal tragedy).

There can be great subtleties to it which make it almost impossible for someone to 'unpick' fast, but I think much can be gained by having a strong anti-bullying message from the pulpit, and really clear communication at all levels. We all need to know what bullying is, and what it isn't. Having a safe person for someone to talk to about bullying concerns is also vital: Someone who will not say "What did you do to cause this" or "You just need to be a stronger person" or "If you don't like it here because of the behaviour of x towards you, why not just go somewhere else?".

Perhaps we need to work towards each church/parish having an anti-bullying policy and doing some work to "make it real"?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I'm having to struggle to keep up with the really perceptive and interesting comment flowing in on this one! That in itself is a sign of hope, I reckon, if it gets us talking about something often swept under the carpet.

Noel — I'm fascinated by your approach, diagnosing congregational process by linguistic means. I've wondered about such an approach myself in the past, because of the power of language to exclude and reinforce habits. I am sure we are in a part of the Church's psyche where behaviours and words that would seem incredible in the cold light of day somehow get normalised by our habits and unacknowledged drivers.

I'm drawn to the idea of broader statements about bullying, because I know in schools it has helped to be quite explicit about bullying, both in making them healthier places, and enabling those who feel they are bullied to speak up. I'm also aware how difficult the problem is to define; and I hope we can develop a clearer way of doing this.

Tim, we've scoped possibilities for this kind of deal in England, but the CofE is very committed to national coverage. Without doubling stipends, it's hard to see how we could provide any cover at all in the South at present rates of house price. Your Canadian experience sounds really interesting, though, and shows how important it is to continue rigorous thinking about this issue.

Thanks to all... I'm most grateful, and would like to think such thoughts can be fed into better, more honest thought and praxis.

Anonymous said...

Great article, but how about the Team Vicar who gets bullied by the Bishop as he doesn't believe what is going on in the parish for he knows the Team Rector who happens to be the bully and of course it can't be true. To quote the bishop 'I know your Team Rector but I don't know you! Hurtful or what? Certainly not Godly!!

Tom Allen said...

What is really interesting about the Trumpington case is that both "parties" accuse the other of bullying - if I have understood what Noel is trying to say (not easy to a non academic unfamiliar with the language and models) then particular parishes are likely to cultivate a bullying culture - which might mean that they would "select" an incumbent with a bullying mode of ministry or that a non bullying vicar would really suffer.

What will be interesting to see is what the Bishop/Diocese ( who seem to be quite culpable for the outcome) now do with the Parish - do they just stick the next person on the role putting all the blame on the former Vicar or will there be a genuine attempt to understand what has been going on here and respond accordingly?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Interesting discussion of stress factors for clergy, and amplification from Noel of points he's made above pon Bishop David's blog:

Anonymous said...

sometimes vicars are bullied by curates...

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Trumpington —— immensely sad, really. It's a bit like watching a car crash in slow motion, or a divorce.

TV's who don't know bishops as well as TR, and are bullied as a result. Ditto, immensely sad. Relationships between bishops and colleagues shouldn't be driven by who knows and likes who. I work closely with colleagues (PDA and archdeacon) partly to check the tendency to anecdotal knowledge and prejudice. best way to deal with people is directly. Bit of a gospel principle, that.

Anonymous said...

I am a curate, currently being bullied by an insecure incumbent. As a result I've become ill and the future of my ministry is in doubt. Why do some Bishops find it so hard to believe that this does go on and is quite common? A curate can feel like a very small voice in a large diocese and, when they are brave enough to speak up, to, what is after all, a Christian institution, need to feel they've been heard. I did some work with rape victims some years ago and for them, the biggest fear was not being believed if they reported it and, for me, this feels along a similar vein? Thank you for addressing this and making me realise that I'm not alone in this.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Jan, thank you for sharing your experience. I suppose all of us find it hard to believe that things go on we don't want to believe go on. I'm also aware how each instance reported is unique, albeit within a pattern of behaviours and attitudes.

(1) the use of hard evidence based reporting and protected feedback is vital to establish the truth behind any report; the same principles apply to child protection.

(2) Real bullies almost always, I find, have a (technically) psychopathic personality, compounded often by personal or spiritual insecurity. This can almost always be evidenced in the alleged perpetrator regardless of anything the victim might allege, and is a vital part of diagnosing the problem and triangualting allegations to get at the truth.

(3) recovering from the car crash is very often evidenced as the victim manages again to assume responsibility for their feelings, and process the trauma

(4) The big and very depressing fact, perhaps, is that even with such an obvious and immoral form of bullying as rape, conviction rates remain stubbornly low (8%?) in spite of everything that has been done by way of victim empowerment in the past ten years.

paul jennings said...

The "select vestry" in our church behave like a small dysfunctional family. They work in quangos, each seemingly with their own agenda. I have witnessed verbal abuse between members. Some speak with posh plummy voices and some with more guttural rough dialects. Ireland is a terrible country for snobbery, religio-political intolerance, obsession with land, drinking and depression. I was unlucky enough to be born the son of a anglican cleric in this catholic blackwater (sic) But the real problem is with our own "faith." I call it same-religion sectarianism. The big problem is that those who call themselves "agents of the church" then use these titles to hide behind when behaving in a bullying or intimidating way. "We are just doing the church's work, looking at the bigger picture and struggling to create the greater good.." they rationalise. Something needs to be done SOON about bullying WITHIN the church.

Unknown said...

This is a splendid post. I suspect my somewhat anticlerical perspective enters the discussion at an angle but whatever our views on church polity zero tolerance of bullying - whether or Christian leaders or anyone else - seems like a good place to start.

In my view so-called 'lay workers' find ourselves in a more vulnerable position than clergy vis a vis bullying. Short-term contracts, low status, poor remuneration and inappropriate expectations are sadly, common. I speak from painful experience. As a member of Unite I sometimes feel that our perspective is ignored in a section dominated by clergy.

As a Mennonite I have good reason to speak highly of 'Bridgebuilders', the mediation service of the London Mennonite Centre. Bullying is a crucial issue for all of us.

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