In 1774 a young parson who had come down from New College Oxford accepted the college living of Weston Longerville in Norfolk he was James Woodforde. He carefully documented his life in the vicarage until his death in 1803 and it was a mixture of handing out arms to the poor and dinning with Bishops and Baronets. It epitomises the bucolic image of life in the vicarage that survives to this day with there being on vicar for every church and two or more services per Sunday that are full.
The reality for the clergy of the 21st century is very different rarely is it about running one church with 200 there on a Sunday and having a staff team. For most clergy it is a case of running a benefice of perhaps 3 or more churches and that means having 6 wardens and three P.C.C’s and three grade 2, 2* or even grade 1 listed buildings. You may have like I do three very different communities, I have one small town of 10,000+ people and two small villages the small town is more working class with challenges both in terms of deprivation of educational attainment. Whereas the two villages are well off and very professional. My life bears no comparison with that of the Revd James Woodforde which many in society believe to be the life of a parson.
Unlike Parson Woodforde we have the dreaded email which leads to three key events:
- Unfettered opportunities to tell the Vicar what is wrong
- To send unneeded and pointless emails.
- Creation of unrealistic expectations of information sharing
The multi-benefice have other impacts in that each parish will say that they realise that the vicar needs to be smart about how he spends his time but each parish expects 50% of his time to be allocated to them, I have 3 churches. So is this as bad as it will get?
The BBC reported in 2019;
So if you’re planning to get married or having a christening soon you may want to check your church availability early on.
That’s because 25% of clergy in the Church of England are retiring in the next five to 10 years and in some parts of the country that number is 40%.
A crisis is looming and we are not looking for real answers we are looking to management methods and recruiting young men and women into the ordained role not making them aware of the reality that will face them. There are around 12,500 parishes in the UK and at the moment there are 7,300 stipendiary clergy and about 3,500 no stipendiary clergy a grand total of about 10,800. Some sources claim that there are 20,000 active clergy in the church that is 1.6 clergy per parish so why am I working alone with no help and no prospect of help in a community of 12,000 people?
The root of the problem was set out by M King and David K Smith in their paper Planning and Deployment of Clergy 1982 where they suggested that the root of the problem was based in decisions made in the 1970’s. At this time there was seen to be a crisis brewing in that there were too few clergy coming through the system and to little money to pay stipends this gave rise in 1975 to the Sheffield Report. At the heart of the report was the premise that in each diocese there would be 1 clergy fo each 6,700 people in the UK and 1 clergy for every 7 churches and one for every 60 square miles and 1 for every 700 on the electoral roll. In short this led to rural diocese being faced with the loss of 1/5 of clergy and it wasn’t until 2015 that this was reviewed as not working. Used on this formula this benefice should have 2 full time clergy. The problem with the Sheffield Report is that it tried a management method of saving the church and it failed to take account of what God might be doing and allowing that.
Where are we now? In short we are in Crisis in the vicarage and it will only get worse and the argument that we should engage the laity in everyday faith is pushing the smaller and middle-sized parishes too hard. So let me get personal about my working week. First of all I work between 45-55 hours a week and am out 3-4 nights a week I have to have by law 12 P.C.C meetings a year plus and Annual general Meeting in each parish once a year that is then added to by 4 Benefice council meetings making 16 meetings a year or 1.3 legally required meetings a month. Then there are 48 staff meetings every year and meetings with Baptism teams, Readers, Home group Leaders, Children and youth workers, wardens, and then add on the running of Life Explored and other training events. How often do I flop into bed having come home at 10.00pm from a meeting? All too often. But study after study has shown that the optimal number of hours you should work is 35. So on a six day a week contract which clergy have they should be working 5.8 hours a day which is from 9am until 3.00pm with no evening meetings. All this is impossible to achieve so what is the impact of clergy health.
In 2007 in Mental Health, Religion and Culture an article was published comprising six empirical articles and five book reviews, is drawn from researchers in Australia, the UK, and the US. Of the six empirical papers, three studies employed the Maslach Burnout Inventory among samples of clergy in Australia (Miner, 2007a, 2007b) and the US (Doolittle, 2007), while the remaining three studies employed a modified form of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (Rutledge & Francis, 2004) especially adapted for use among clergy in the UK (Francis, Turton, & Louden, 2007; Randall, 2007; Turton & Francis, 2007). Consistent findings across all six studies indicated a high level of work-related burnout among the samples of clergy, irrespective of religious denomination or country. And nothing has changed in the last 13 years it has only got worse. If you add to this the fact that clergy often are involved in very stressful pastoral situations which I my self have had experience of recently in the death of a member of the congregation at age 31 for a brain tumour. Then the effects are extreme. Finally add to this the obsession that every church should grow in numbers attending every year, and if it isn’t then the clergy are failing.
Add to this the Clergy Disciplinary Measure and its impacts which is now under review. it is a system that can lead to multiple complaints against clergy that take many months to deal with.
So how do I feel often? my feelings are that I am enjoying the work and in danger of overwork because I enjoy it so much. But all to often I am filled with a sense that I can never be the clergyman I need to be and meet the demands I need to meet to be there to plan, visit, train, and envision the community as well as be at Chapter, attend diocesan training and do all that paperwork.
Let’s take Leicester Diocese and my benefice as an example of unreal working patterns that fail to allow clergy to invest in the right parishes and generate growth. We have an average Sunday worshipping community of 10,800 split between about 320 churches going and average of 33.75 people per church. Now consider that there are a number of large churches in the diocese with congregations of between 250-350 and this means that there are smaller churches like my church at Cossington with an average congregation of 13 and some very much smaller churches.
In my benefice 64.5% of the average Sunday attendance is in one church and yet I spend 74% of my time attending P.C.C and running the affairs of 43% of the average weekly congregations and 26% looking after the church where the majority attend. if you say that I work and average of 47 hours a week and we just look at services and P.C.C meetings take up on average 1.5 hours of clergy time that means that the smaller 43.5% of the benefice get 16 hours (34%) a month as against the largest church only getting 10.5 hours (22%). That means I have 54% of my week left to do other work and if you say that I set aside 5 hours to prepare sermon (11%) that leaves me 43% of my week for other activities then take away 3 hours a week for staff meetings (6%) I am down to 37% left for other ministry. I would argue that a minimum 64% or 15 Hours or 2 working days not counting Sundays, of that time should be spent investing in the larger parish. It is an impossibility to grow all three parishes so the only logical conclusion is we have an unsustainable model of ministry. Non of the above takes into account admin, occasional offices, 1 to 1 sessions, pastoral visiting and all take time.
In 2018 we saw a drop from 2008 of 18% In attendance on Sunday nationally and so many of the smaller churches will in the end have to close and we must think strategically if we are not to destroy the front line clergy. Quite simply at a national level churches need to close churches and we need to centre resources in centres where there will be enough clergy to do the job properly.
Stop asking the impossible of the clergy and start being realistic is the cry from this vicarage. I cannot be effective at so many levels with the expectation that are put on me by the diocese, congregation and community, the danger is that I will do many things badly and few things well. Then the church will not grow and finance will become tighter and in the end I will be ill and the house of cards will collapse. lets stop thinking that there must be a church run every community with a service on Sunday and have the rosey image of the 18th Century parson in mind and lets get real.