Three posts on clergy life (1) – clergy stress

Two items have caught my attention this week. They have both spoken in different ways about the life of Anglican parish priests. I’ve purposefully avoided speaking too much on this blog about the work-side of my life, partly because I feel that the best aspect to my blogging is that it gets me to focus beyond the role I occupy for much of my working time, and onto things beyond my immediate horizon. But the first item was a fascinating dialogue between two Anglican incumbents (ie. they are vicars), Mad Priest and Rev Sam, both bloggers, contained on Sam’s blog. The second is an article in this week’s Church Times, entitled ‘What price priesthood’ about clergy stress and breakdown, which included a useful summary of recent research on this subject.

Many non-ordained people struggle to believe that being a priest can be stressful. Some even still believe that we work for one day a week, visit a few people and spend the rest of the time reading theology and collecting butterflies. However, in many cases, particularly those who are responsible for one or more churches, a working week well in excess of the legal working time directive is the norm. The other factor behind clergy stress is the lack of the work/life boundaries which most people would take for granted. Two things illustrate this. Despite trying my best to keep my working time within bounds, since the start of November, I have been working roughly 70 hours per week. This is achieved by having four days which begin at 7am with the email and end with the closing of a meeting around 9.30 or 10pm, then a lighter day (8 hours), a day off, then a 12-hour Sunday. I live in my work environment, in the house and outside the house. Every time I go into the supermarket, I meet people I know for whom whom I carry pastoral responsibility. A chance meeting inevitable bridges the boundaries – I ask them how they are, I may be aware of issues that it would be appropriate to ask after. To do otherwise would be churlish and bring something false or unnatural into the relationship. Like most parish priests, I have an office at home and I also use the house for meetings. I am immersed in my work context. I don’t have a place to go ‘home’ to which is outside of those work responsibilities.

Normally this is all fine. I like people. I wouldn’t have gone into this job if I didn’t. But the lack of boundaries and the long hours are inherently dangerous to parish clergy. It’s fine when all is well. It’s far from fine when things are not – there is no place of complete escape from the responsibility. No boundaries of time or space which are safe enough to hide behind when one is feeling wounded, exhausted, or in need of space to recuperate. For married clergy, this lack of boundaries inevitably affects the spouse, and hence bears upon the marriage relationship. Any children are also, to some extent, affected too. Most children don’t see their dad (or mum) at work. My children do. Quite a lot of the time. Including time when most families are spending time together. For some clergy children, this is also quite damaging. (I try my best to minimize the effects of my job on my kids, but I’d be fooling myself if I believed that I was able to shield them completely from being affected by the fact that their dad is the vicar.)

It’s easy to say that such a lifestyle is, in part, the fault of the clergyperson themselves. After all, we are ultimately responsible for our own diaries. We are only ‘timetabled’ on Sunday. The simple answer, surely, is just to carve out more time for ourselves and our family. But there are many things which bring about a 70-hour week. The first factor is that we are normally the only full-time paid person in the outfit. This means that not only do we know more factual stuff about the situation (and therefore are called upon to make decisions more than anyone else), we are also often the only ‘desk’ that work can pass onto or across. Whilst I can delegate predictable, routine things, a good many things in the life of a parish and church are one-offs, requiring a flexible and informed response and the kind of joined-up consistent thinking that only full-time teams can achieve. In addition, Anglican church law places the incumbent in sole responsibility for a good many things – many, many bucks stop at the desk of the vicar, but there are very few other desks to pass across before arriving there. I can quite easily use up a 40-hour week with administrative-related business alone, before even touching the pastoral, liturgical, teaching or missional work. Yet it is these latter areas where my primary gospel responsibilities lie. Like many self-employed people, clergy dread holidays because they know that they will face all the administrative work that they would have done during the holiday period when they get home. It normally takes me about three weeks to shift a week’s backed-up work, to the point where the workload returns to normal, so holidays come at a high personal price. This work isn’t imaginary. If it is ignored, there are consequences. People show up at meetings to find that inadequate preparation has been made. People are discouraged when they send an email to the vicar and nothing is returned. The phone messages are not answered. The letters, forms and references not replied to or completed. Just having pastoral chats with people isn’t enough. Ministerial faithfulness in human relationships involves administrative faithfulness too. Meetings are also necessary. Churches are places which revolve around voluntary activity. People are stakeholders in the life of their church community. They have a right to have a say, and to engage with me in decision-making. Although email has helped establish shared communication in a context other than ‘the meeting’, it also comes at the price of needing further time to read and respond. So the hours are filled.

And what about boundaries? It is possible to set stricter boundaries. Some clergy actually leave their area on their days off. But I like my home – I’ve only got one! I like going around the shops and places in my neighbourhood. I don’t want to wander the land on my time off like Cain. I want to relax in the familiar surroundings of home and locality. So I have to realise that to some extent I am rarely completely ‘off duty’. And when I do go away, there is also the cost of not being there when someone needed me. Guilt. Recently, after Christmas I took a few days’ solitude by going away on my bicycle. Whilst I was away, someone dear to me in one of my parishes called me in great distress. That person had never called me in such a state of need of a pastor before. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there for completely good, if self-motivated, reasons. But it was the one time that person had called me in need. And I wasn’t there for them. However much you rationalise that kind of thing, you still feel guilty of not being the thing you’re called to be, even though you know you’re not really. The whole life of a parish priest is filled with the nagging sense of letting people down. It’s because you cannot be always there, always available, always saying the right thing, being the flawless priest that you, and they, so desperately want you to be.


Saturday is links day » The Cartoon Blog by Dave Walker 03/02/07 - 10:26 am

[…] the distance::as far as our eyes can see Paul has three posts on the same aforementioned topics: 1. Clergy stress 2. “If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him” 3. Visiting Paul is always good […]

Rachel 03/02/07 - 3:16 pm

(Found my way here via maggi dawn)

Last year in my Clinical Pastoral Education cohort (where most of my fellows were ordained ministers of one sort or another; our group also included two laypeople, and I am a rabbinic student) we talked about this a lot. For many in my group, our Mondays together came to feel like safe space, like time away from the obligations, like what Sundays might feel like for Christians who aren’t on the pulpit. We found family in one another.

Sounds a little funny to suggest that spending one day a week in a hospital studying pastoral care was our restorative process; certainly at times it was emotionally draining and difficult (not to mention the on-call overnights!) But chaplaincy class was a time away from the responsibilities of our congregations, and we all mourned its passing when the nine months were done.

Thinking Anglicans 03/02/07 - 7:51 pm

clergy life in the CofE today…

Paul Roberts has published a series of articles on his own blog under these headings Three posts on clergy life (1) – clergy stress Three posts on clergy life (2) – “If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill……

Emily Henderson 03/02/07 - 8:28 pm

Thank you for your post. Thank you for speaking a little bit about the impact your “job” has on your family,– your spouse, your children. They are often ignored in the clergy/congregation equation and yet they are often integral parts. One wonders, who comforts the comforter? Who feeds those who feed the flock?

David Hodgson 03/02/07 - 11:02 pm

You have hit the right note here I think. Some descriptions of modern clerical life I have read before are tainted with fantasy or bitterness but what you have writtten is staight and sensible – not dramatising.

Lindsay Dew 04/02/07 - 6:35 pm

I picked up your blog via Thinking Anglicans. What an excellent description of what it’s like being a Vicar/Rector. The first incumbent I worked with (Church Army in those days) said that guilt was the driving factor in his ministry. I have been battling agains that for almost thirty years! Add to the feelings/reactions you describe the uncertainty of retirement life – housing, pension etc and you have a perfect picture of how I feel. I really enjoy the life because I like people BUT the stresses of everything you’ve described sometimes just gets too much for me.

the eighth day 05/02/07 - 1:34 am

The Shape of Church Ministers (and Ministry)…

I’ve been following an interesting conversation sparked by an Anglican priest called Sam reflecting on issues of workload, priorities and vocation. Pressures on clergy are increasing, leading to increased levels of burnout and turnover, which raises i…

dave paisley 06/02/07 - 6:31 am

Just to give a different viewpoint – as a long-time lay leader, I find that clergy often forget that lay people have a day job and expect them to be available for volunteer work round the clock, so there’s often a mutual lack of appreciation for each other’s burdens.

Also, priests tend to suffer a lot from hero(ine) syndrome, where they come to believe they are the only people who can solve or deal with a problem. Sometimes that’s true because that’s how parishioners are programmed (not necessarily the priest’s fault.)

If the church truly valued the ministry of all believers, then priests would be trainers/enablers of others rather than the primary doers. But then, in my experience, not that many people enter the priesthood with the former mindset.


Amanda Fairclough 08/02/07 - 5:00 pm

I’m sorry, Paul, it’s nothing personal, but I have a tendency to prickle when I read comments like yours. As a member of the laity, I haven’t suffered a lack of understanding of my volunteer status in quite the same way as Dave Paisley (I’ve been very fotunate with the support I’ve had) but I do have considerable sympathy with some of his comments.

I’m a self-employed professional (and a trainee NSM as it happens) and whilst I don’t spend 70 hours a week at my desk, the responsibility for other people doesn’t end when I leave the office. My concern for my clients and employees is a constant in my thoughts – a bit like background radiation for the consciousness. And all with the continued imperative of making the business profitable – no security to be found in stipends or parsonages for the self-employed.

Adopting your logic, should I add the time I think about the concerns of these stakeholders in my business whilst I’m doing other things (or lying sleepless at night) to the computation of my working hours? What about church meetings, Morning Prayer, daily bible readings – should I include those things when I measure the time commitment of my ministerial training? And what about the extended human interactions (or simple conversations) that I have when I meet friends in the supermarket, pass the time of day with the office caretaker or just give a stranger directions – do these only assume an intrinsic value as “work” when I eventually put on a clerical collar?

Yes, clergy life is stressful but life in general is stressful. The only thing that I would agree is specifically problematic is living above the shop – but many people share that problem; publicans, the unemployed, retired people even. And there are plenty of people miserably commuting for several hours to work each day who would happily swap for the problems of working from home.

My personal antidote to feelings of stress (apart from the obvious Christian refuge of prayer) consider the good things about my life – the considerable autonomoy I have over the structure of my day and how I do my work; the value I bring to clients, colleagues and the economy at large through the exercise of my skills; and the personal satisfaction I get from such a full and varied life.

Sorry if that last bit sounds preachy but I wanted to say something more constructive than simply “stop whinging, count your blessings and get on with it”…

Fr David Swyer 12/02/07 - 2:08 pm

Dear Amanda,

Your appallingly condescending manner and thoughtless comments would indicate that the Church should take you off the NSM training programme as soon as possible. Is what you wrote your standard approach to people in need? If so, an urgent reevaluation of your role in the Church is required.

Bev Mason 20/05/09 - 4:10 pm

Excuse me – just run this by me one more time? Did somebody really tell the extraordinarily intelligent, totally approachable, articulate, sensitive, self-giving, funny (and best ordained lecturer I’ve come across at theological college),to stop whinging, count your blssings and get on with it …? Ooops! Big mistake!

The Writer


The Time

clockTH clockUH Valve clockTM clockUM Valve clockTS clockUS
  • Category Cloud

  • Meta

  • Make me happy!