Your article on clergy dissatisfaction, discontent, almost despair, raises an important issue (Clergy struggling with identity and feelings of loneliness, exhaustion, December Journal). Although I spent only a fraction of my full-time ministry in parish work, I consulted with and observed numerous parishes and clergy over decades, and I believe the survey has missed the main cause of the malaise: multiple and utterly unrealistic expectations of the clergy.
Most clerics are in solo situations, sometimes with more than one congregation to care for. Even in the cases of lay ministry, the cleric is, more often than not, the only person paid to be there full time (and then some).
The solo cleric is expected to be a superb preacher, good with youth and sensitive to the increasing number of elderly; the cleric must be a good counsellor and listener, comfortable in situations ranging from birth to death, marriage to divorce. In addition, the cleric should be a fine enabler of lay people in their ministry, as well as having skills in administration and the inevitable fundraising campaigns (how else does the church make ends meet these days?).
A number of dioceses have taken on human resources officers in the past few years. Are these people there to assist the clergy with their multitudinous responsibilities? Don’t make me laugh. They are in place to protect the institution from any who might think of taking mother church to court, which has been done. General Synod however, has put a stop to such litigation with Canon XVII; as a letter in the Journal (September 1998) attests: “Power corrupts; absolute power is nicer.”
In 2001 the Alban Institute published a study on clergy stress and found that 40 per cent of clergy are “facing burnout or severe burnout.” Nothing has changed with regard to burnout, except an increasing number of Anglican clergy in Canada are getting older and their bodies are wearing out. Parish priests battling their own stresses and living under the wider church’s angst are less able to “pastor” parishioners who in turn feel uncared for, then angry with their priest, and then vote with their feet. This does not commend the church to former members and outsiders.
A few fortunate priests have bishops who have resisted the lure of placing administration and management as top priority and are deeply involved in the pastoral care of their clergy, rather than delegating this vital work to middle management. In my experience, when a bishop is open on a personal level, trusts, validates and cares for his or her clergy and stands with them in congregational battles, these clergy are far less at risk to burn out.
Without this relationship initiated by the bishop, clergy do not trust their bishop.
I challenge – I implore – the staff of General Synod, the national office of the Anglican Church of Canada, to exercise courage! Please survey (in a format designed for anonymous response) all parish clergy by diocese, and ask for responses to three direct questions: 1. How deeply can you trust your bishop to be there for you in times of stress or congregational conflict? 2. What kind of care and validation do you want from your bishop? 3. What kind of care and validation are you actually receiving?
Such a survey will no doubt make some people defensive. Too bad. It is time we identified and affirmed those bishops who are real pastors to their clergy. Health has to flow from the leadership to the staff on the front lines if we ever want the Anglican Church of Canada to flourish.
Rev. David J. Rolfe
Cobble Hill, B.C.