We Need to Look After the Welfare of our Clergy 5 May 2015
If you’re not Christian, what comes to your mind when you hear of a “clergyman” or “priest”? Do you imagine a white-haired, gentle old man, exchanging pleasantries with parishioners, as they leave the church at the end of a service on a Sunday morning? Perhaps that same man in a pulpit, gently telling parishioners to be nice, his message interspersed with the odd over-rehearsed bad joke?
Suffice to say, this default image of a priest (which I have presumptuously imposed upon you) is riddled with inaccurate stereotypes – except, perhaps, the over-rehearsed bad jokes part. As any regular churchgoer will tell you, ministers come in all shapes and sizes: female, male, old, young, black, Asian, white, gay, straight, married, celibate, puritanical, liberal.
The stereotype of the gentle old man is problematic – but there’s an equally universal misconception about our clergy: that they lead carefree, relatively unproblematic lives, working hard on Sunday mornings but free for the rest of the week. They get their free houses in many cases, and their biggest worry is writing their sermon (a ten minute ramble on a Bible passage – how hard can it be?)
Based on my own experience of multiple clergypersons, this stereotype could not be further from the truth. Priests and ministers are some of the most overworked people I know.
Imagine working a six-day week, with early starts and late finishes – indeed, you could receive a call at any time of day or night. Imagine having to greet a couple with joy to rehearse for their wedding, having just sat with someone who was dying. Or comforting the parents of the young man who committed suicide, whose funeral you are about to perform. Or trying to tell a homeless person of God’s love whilst they label you a hypocrite for failing to give them any money, on your way to your third trip to the hospital that day, as you’ve just heard of another parishioner being admitted with illness.
In between all this, you have to scrape together some time to put together a message of good news for the expectant congregation you’ll face on Sunday morning (the size of which is nowhere near sufficient to keep your superiors satisfied) You’ve also got the constant battle that, with dwindling numbers, your church isn’t bringing enough funds in to sustain the thirteenth century building in which it meets. You’re facing criticism from above and below for these things. Meanwhile, you’ve probably got friends and neighbours who pour scorn on you for failing to do a “proper job” and spending your time with your head in the clouds.
Sounds like a great job, doesn’t it?
Christian congregations are often no better, either. We expect our clergy to be superhuman, and we’re often very quick to notice the omission in their sermon, or their errors in handling the finances – but how often do we take time to tell them how appreciated or loved they are, or how much stability their loving, faithful ministry provides in our otherwise chaotic lives?
But it’s all very well my writing a small paragraph about how great clergy are. They’re human, and they need more than that. It’s about time we started to recognise clergy’s needs – that our expectation of them being superhuman doesn’t make them so, and that, even with their strong faith and disciplined spirituality, they still have many of the physical, emotional and social needs as the rest of us.
In several respects, church hierarchies, members of congregations, and wider society, have failed to recognise this.
Consider, for instance, the issue of clergy pay. Stipends are around £20,000 in many cases – maybe up to £22,000 for a rector or priest-in-charge. To most fresh graduates, that would be a disappointing starting salary, so one wonders how adequate it is for people entering the ministry in their forties and fifties? And of course, many (though not all) of those receiving this stipend (not “wage”) get free accommodation – but, as many graduates living at home rent-free will testify, that’s still just about enough to cover transport costs and a modest diet. What about clergy with partners and families? As one vicar’s wife rightly pointed out in an article for the Telegraph, the Church of England is (to its credit) declaring the importance of the Living Wage – but it needs to pay its clergy enough to live on, too.
And what about deeper issues, like the need to protect our clergy from crime? Over 200 clergy have been attacked in the UK in the past five years, and stories of vicarages and rectories being burgled are now becoming so commonplace that they no longer shock those who hear of them. I knew one vicar whose home was burgled four times in less than a decade.
In addition to this, clergy illness levels are often, unsurprisingly, worryingly high. Again, drawing on my own experience, well over half of the ministers I’ve known have had to be signed off for extended periods of sick leave.
It’s about time church authorities, parishioners, and society as a whole started to recognise clergy as human beings with real needs, and to properly respect them – in practice, not just in principle.
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