In which Ruth ponders clergy stress

This week I was doing some work with one of my interregnum flocks about their Congregational Profile. They were telling me that in the town there was a very successful ‘Fraternal’. (Picture Ruth doing a silent scream at this point. I hate the continued use of the word ‘fraternal’ for clergy gatherings especially when there are women in them and nobody things this is ironic.) I suggested they put this on the Profile (not the ‘fraternal’ bit!) as any form of clergy support is important and this led on to a conversation about where clergy get their support and supervision from.

“So who checks up that clergy are doing okay?”

“Who do clergy speak to about their problems if they are single and have no partner to yell at?”

“Who provides line management and supervision?”

And it does seem incredible to tell people that once you are ordained and in your first parish it is quite normal to work for three years without anyone asking if you are okay, if things are good, if you are overworking, feeling confident, managing all right. And that is when things are going well. Far worse if things are not going well, and this is where we get to the touchy subject of clergy bullying. Who heals the healer?

One of my colleagues, Malcom Round at Balerno, wrote a blog about this a while ago. it was a very honest, moving and to be honest, shocking article. (I just wish Malcolm allowed comments on his blog so we could dialogue about it.) I mentioned it on Facebook some time ago and now his blog has been seen by thousands and everyone is talking about it. Kelvin mentioned it this morning too over on his blog.

Malcolm wrote:

Many congregations have broken potentially gifted pastors by their attitudes and actions.  Sadly the Christian church is littered with good people who have left the ministry because of the pain, the criticism, and the lack of support they’ve got from congregations.  Some Christians assume they can behave in a church setting in a way they’ve never be allowed to in a work setting.  Minister abuse is much more common than is talked about”.

Isn’t this a shocking thing to read? Unfortunately clergy are not shocked by this statement because we see and hear of it regularly. We all know colleagues who feel unsupported and criticised by their congregations. We know many who have left the church and gone into teaching, chaplaincy, the voluntary sector and that is a horrible waste of good priests. Yes, of course the opposite can be true too – there are abusive clergy out there and we know the stories but mostly they come from an earlier era. But Malcolm reckons that far more common is the broken minister or pastor.

It particularly happens in small churches where the minister is alone and so vulnerable, especially in churches where there is a lot of congregational power, either in the church  business meetings, or in individuals who have held power and influence over many years.

It is most likely to erupt when the minister suggests any change at all.  Even moving the piano 6 inches, or buying new carpets can create rebellion, let alone removing the pews, or changing the worship style.  All change is perceived as bad and hurts our cherished values.

It also occurs when people feel their position of influences is being threatened by the minister or even new people are joining the church changing the dynamics. Often it is a battle for leadership and influence or personality clashes.

We’ve all met those matriarchal and patriarchal figures in church and we may even have smiled at their outbursts when we suggest the flowers are best on the window sill and not in the font. We may even have had run-ins with groups of them at the door who are not happy about the order in which the candles have been extinguished after Mass. (Truly I have seen a young server bullied for such a thing.) We’ve seen them gathering in corners whispering behind their hands, looking over to the victim of their next campaign and it can be amusing at first. But week after week, month after month, year after year, when you know they will never leave although they hate you (yes, ‘hate’ – these Christians can hate just like everyone else) can wear you down. “Clergy come and go, but this is MY church and I’m not leaving.”  And when you know their plot is paid for in the church graveyard you know they are serious. What else can you do but leave? And pass on the problem to the next Rector.

I might add that I have been very fortunate and have managed to deal with any bad behaviour that came my way. When you are an extrovert you know you are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea and I find it best to acknowledge that aloud as quickly as possible. I’ve also never been afraid to say sorry if I think I have done something wrong. But I also know that there have been folk who have strongly disliked me and have spread the hate around the little flock. You only have to hope that there are enough friends who will support you in those cases. I’m not aware of any nasty letters to the Bishop, although who knows? Perhaps I just haven’t been told.

But Malcolm’s next paragraph was the one that made me gasp out loud:

Such treatment sadly has become normative in the ordained church life.  Which is one of the reasons I personally will virtually never support anybody going into full-time ‘ordained’ parish ministry.  They really do not know what they’re letting themselves, and more importantly their wives and husbands, and especially their children into.  I just don’t want to be pastorally responsible for the ruined health and damaged families and the loss of faith that inevitably occurs.  Is there any wonder why so many minister’s children become prodigals, when they see the damage that the church has done to their parents?

“I will virtually never support anybody going into full-time ‘ordained’ parish ministry.” Oh my goodness! That is a shocking thing to say and I immediately understood why Malcolm was saying it. I have seen friends leave the church. I’ve heard friends cry, I’ve held them as they wept and I don’t know how many priests are on anti-depressants but I bet its not an inconsiderable amount.

I am also aware of another kind of bullying and bad behaviour going on too and that is with retired clergy, lay readers, non-stipendiary clergy who reside in a parish and are not always supportive towards new clergy. In fact sometimes they can be downright obstructive. But who’s going to believe you if you tell them that lovely old white-haired so-and-so hasn’t told you about the house communion with six members of the congregation he does every Friday morning because he’s frightened you’ll take it away from him? Or that he forgot to tell you about the meeting in town because he wanted to go and was scared you wouldn’t want him? Or doesn’t pass on the news that someone is ill, in hospital, etc etc because they are his friend…

So my foster-flock asked who supported me. My clergy friends are probably first call. They are the ones who get the late night rant and who listen and understand and put their own last-minute sermon on hold to empathise. I also have had good Rector’s Wardens who have kept an eye on me and who listen when necessary. (My current one was my Practice Nurse for a while so even keeps an eye on my physical health too and can tell me when my asthma needs checking! Now that’s good service.) I’ve tried talking to my children on occasions but that doesn’t work. They are not church goers and find the whole system unbelievably bad and uncharitable and at times against the law. Yes, against the law, but of course the Church is exempt from some employment law. My children get angry that ‘so-called Christians’ can behave in such a way and threaten to come and punch their lights out. That never works. Really, darling, that is not going to happen. Mental note = don’t tell children again when you are hurt. So yes, you stop telling your children after a while and I imagine that is true of married clergy too. In time you just stop telling your partner and keep it to yourself.

Malcolm suggests some things you can do if you are a church member and are shocked at this article. You can check that their accommodation is good, are paid well and taking time off. In my first charge I worked at least 12 hours a day for a couple of years before my health really started to suffer and I just couldn’t continue. When I dropped to a more ‘normal’ working day it probably looked as if I was doing next to nothing in comparison.  Offer to babysit for married couples, and Malcolm even suggests paying for them to go on holiday but I’ve never been in a congregation where that was a likelihood! However, I have known some deliciously kind clergy who have helped me in that way and for them I give continued thanks and prayers. (I also know some clergy who have two homes and have offered breaks in their holiday homes.)

Be a supporter, advocate, guardian, watch their backs and bless their families. What lovely advice! Speak up positively when others are being critical and I know that can be hard to do but I’ve done it about others, and I’ve done it about Bishops and I’ve never regretted it. If your priest or bishop has been good to you then please say so. Be courageous. Pray for the strength to speak out if you really are shy and frightened. And express your love for your minister, Malcolm says. Write a wee note, give a smile and a wee hug when they’ve said something you needed to hear. We write magazine articles, we preach sermons and sometimes it feels as if nobody out there hears a single word. It can be like preaching into a void. We don’t need big strokes every day but a kind word now and again goes a long way to helping us feel that somebody out there loves us!  And that one word of love goes a long way to overcome the criticism we’ve just overheard. How can we possibly improve or correct things if we are off the mark if we don’t know? But tell us those things gently please. We may seem confident because we can speak in public but underneath some of us are fragile flowers.

Malcolm finishes with Scripture:

Hebrews 13:17

 The Message (MSG)17 Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel. They are alert to the condition of your lives and work under the strict supervision of God. Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery. Why would you want to make things harder for them?


NIV 17 Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

Amen, I say. Amen.