let the vicar have a day off

I began writing this on Tuesday, my usual day off. Not normally a day when I would be hunched over the keyboard, but this week I had the time because I'm luxuriating in a whole week off. A perfectly usual experience, except in the case of vicars, when the idea of a "week off" becomes quite complex and problematic.

Last week on Twitter I intercepted someone's tweet who had spotted a clergy friend who was enjoying an entertaining day out. His reply was along the lines of "blimey, what it is to be a vicar and live the life of Riley" etc. I have no complaint against this person, who is a good guy and obviously meant no harm. It was just a variant on the age-old witticism that every parish priest hears on a more or less weekly basis, "of course you only work on Sundays, don't you?" There are a few versions of this, my personal favourite being "not another holiday?" if one takes leave at any time within about a year of having previously done so. But in what other walk of life is a person's leisure time so visible to scrutiny, and to such comment? And how many of these jesters, well-meaning though they usually are, would want or expect such comments to be made about their own work/life arrangements? If I was to continually tease my friends at the local Council for taking almost every weekend off, apart being completely unfunny, it would just come across as odd.

The thing is, as you have probably guessed, I don't find the joke very funny, and neither do many of my colleagues in what we call the "stipendiary" (church-speak for "paid") ministry. My reponse to the jokey tweeter generated a flood of messages from other clergy who feel similarly unhumorous about the whole thing. So why the collective sense of humour failure over such an innocent bit of fun?

It's a difficult question, because you will struggle to get a straight answer from a clergyperson. One of the weaknesses of clergy is an unwillingness to admit to anything negative about the job, at least when speaking to their own parishioners. Nobody, after all, really wants to hear their vicar complaining about their lot in life. I must say that I have long hesitated to write a post like this, because of what people might read into it about me. Let me, then, be clear that this is not directed at the good people of the church and parish that I serve. Nor is it a cry for help that my life is out of control. In fact, I think Kea is one of the better parishes in the whole C of E, and I manage my time better than most clergy. But still it's no bed of roses, and I think there is something that needs saying which is true even in my experience and is a critical issue for some of my colleagues.

"Time off" is an issue for the clergy because far too many are mentally, spiritually and physically knackered, all of the time. I say "far too many" because I can't put a figure on it, but I think that "most" would also be accurate. In my years working for the church I have met so many clergy who are simply worn out, whether they know it yet or not. Some who consistently work 12 hour days, some who never take time off, others whose faces are etched with the weariness of carrying a pile of unmet expectations day after day. Most find ways of coping, but some don't, and drop off the edge into early retirement or unemployment. But those who hang on in this state do neither themselves nor their churches any good.

The rest of us are balancing the demands of the role with varying degrees of success. We're not burnt out yet, and we don't particularly want to be. But the sad truth is, we don't get much help in fending off from the abyss. The reason the "one day a week" joke doesn't tickle us is that it is the innocent face of a more unpalatable truth: that most people simply have no idea of the demands placed on the average parish priest. I am still often surprised by otherwise intelligent people who genuinely believe that the vicar's life is one of ease and unalloyed enjoyment. Of course, there's no reason why anyone should be expected to know what we do, other than those bits of it that affect them personally. I've no wish to bore everyone I meet with a recitation of my diary. But unfortunately there are always those few who won't understand that we have other demands on our time than the ones they consider important.

My observation is that, in terms of time, the typical stipendiary clergyperson is now doing the work of two people. In most dioceses this is achieved by giving the priest a painfully high number of parishes to look after. Of course, they are told that they are not expected to do the "traditional" job in these circumstances, but more often than not, nobody has told the people in the parishes. And what that means in practice is notoriously difficult to pin down anyway. Those who are in single parishes, like me, are often perceived as having a cushy number, but I can tell you that this is not so. In such churches there is less travelling and duplication, but larger congregations mean that the pastoral load is just as heavy, and in addition they are expected to act as de facto chief executives of medium sized businesses, being proactive and entrepreneurial, managing staff and creating vision, as well as running the services and looking after the parish.

In this situation, the priest's life is a constant series of decisions about what to do and what not to do. Inevitably, this will involve disappointing people on a regular basis (not to mention getting it wrong occasionally). One of the things that many clergy opt not to do is take a day off. They do this because they cannot cope with the guilt, either self-inflicted or from the criticisms of others, that comes with taking time for yourself when there is so much you could be doing for somebody else. To be seen sitting quietly in your garden by somebody who knows that you haven't visited their sick neighbour is a difficult experience for all concerned.

The reason this is worth saying, other than to get it off my chest, is that it is a problem for the whole church, not just the clergy. In a time when full-time priests are increasingly scarce, it may be tempting to work them harder and longer, but it's a bit of a waste of resources when the result is that more and more will burn out and be lost to us. A vicious circle is developing in which the harder the job gets, the fewer people there are who can do it, and the harder it gets. How we go about tackling this is a tricky question, but can we start by doing something very simple? Next time you catch your vicar having some downtime, don't grumble because you think there is something more important for them to do, leave off the hilarious comments, and instead congratulate them on their efforts to keep their ministry sustainable in the long term.


Anonymous said…
You have hit so many nails on the head that I would like you to come round and help me build my shed tomorrow...
Stephen said…
This is spot on. I am self-supporting, but the need for stipendiary clergy not to feel guilty about downtime needs saying and saying often. And you say it eloquently.
Rach said…
I just had a weekend off after six weeks in a new benefice (5 churches)as a first time incumbent. I got quite a few 'weekend off already?' comments and couldn't find a polite way of saying 'I have been working an average of 65 hours a week for six weeks, its all new and I love it but you are exhausting me and I need to be with my husband and children elsewhere otherwise I won't make it through Christmas!' I am however, very strict about my day off and at least one or two evenings a week. I am also trying to suggest to some of our busiest and most active volunteers that they are too busy and they need to find some sabbath time. Thanks for the post.
Claire said…
Thanks so much Charlie. I've had more comments about my one day off a week in the last 18 months as a new stipendary priest than I received in 20 years of 5 day weeks' in industry. I find people's attitude to my "downtime" quite amazing.
I'm lucky - my Training Incumbent ensures I take my day off, and that I take Annual Leave too. But the "jokes" don't always help my peace of mind. I'm very aware of not ringing someone back who will epect me to, even though I am on leave "because it's only me, and I'm different". Great post, thanks.
UKViewer said…
As a lay member of a leadership team of a 5 parish benefice, with another four due to join, I can confirm all that you say. Our Vicar was snowed under literally with nowhere to turn. Fortunately, we now had a just priested Curate, which has allowed the Vicar to actually take two weeks off to do exactly what he needed to do, and get away from all of us for a while.

Not one of us begrudges his time off and we do our utmost to honour his day off as well. He and his spouse sacrifice so much of their family life in our service, the least we can do is be charitable about it when they take desperately needed time out.

We are all going on a quiet day together next week - which we are really looking forward to. Who is organising it? The Vicar - but we are supporting him.

I wouldn't dream of making any such cracks as you describe, now I have seen it for myself, how much goes on, and how difficult it is to manage his diary. Family has often to take second or third place, and it isn't fair, and is isn't good for either the parish or the Vicar and family to be under this enormous pressure, year in, year out.

The Church needs to get its head around self supporting ministry and ensuring that they are deployed to support hard pressed stipendiary clergy, not just deployed according to their own personal preferences.

It seems to me that if SSM are available, it would be simpler to offer them House for Duty terms, within multi-parish benefices providing a team ministry approach and providing the opportunity for their full involvement in parish ministry, living in the parish.
Perpetua said…
Another here who agrees with every word you've written, Charlie. When I was in full-time stipendiary ministry, I fought hard to preserve my day off and mostly managed to do so. To be fair my churchwardens were very supportive and told me off if I missed it too often, but the "jokes" from others wore very thin after a while.

For the last three years before retirement I moved to a House-for-Duty post as Assistant Priest in a large multi-parish benefice and loved it. Even here, however, I found myself working longer and longer hours, far more than the Sundays and 2 weekdays I was contracted for. There was just so much to do and if I hadn't anything else in the diary it was far too easy to fill the day with more work.

The root cause is of course the completely unrealistic expectations of parishioners who still hark back to the one priest, one parish model they may have known in their youth. With the big bulge in clerical retirement over the next few years, the problem is only going to get worse....
Charlie said…
Fantastic, thanks for all your comments so far, I thought this would touch a nerve.

Steve: I'd better stick to blogging, my efforts at banging real nails never seem to go as well!

Rach: glad you are loving it, as a new incumbent you ought to be. My worry is can you (or can I) keep it up at that pace for x years until retirement? Probably not, I'd say.
Also take the point about volunteers needing rest.

UKViewer: you give me hope that with the support of people like you, we might yet be able to sort this out.
Unknown said…
Amen Amen. I can't think of anything to add!
Anonymous said…
Such an important topic - not just for stipendiary clergy but for recognising the way other people overwork and how we all need a sustainable way of living and working. Thanks for your words.
Simon Martin said…
Charlie, this is excellent. Honest & very hard-hitting. I re-posted the link to this blog on my FB page, and have been getting alot of very similar comments to those you have received here. Follow these at http://www.facebook.com/mwalimurural/posts/254323281286305.
Simon Martin
Arthur Rank Centre
Eric Kyte said…
Charlie - thanks for stating it all so well.
I was until recently Vicar of two parishes in the North of England. My perception is that the Church is broken and that Priesthood being a representative ministry is the focus of that brokenness.

Your comment about being seen resting by parishioners when there is work waiting to be done, or dare one say it'expectations that we are refusing to meet because perhaps that isn't what the work of a Priest is'?? - Is Very telling

It's interesting that what starts out as a vocation often loses that sense - in that sometimes we have little sense of what we are Called to do, or allow ourselves time to ask and wait for an answer - so it becomes Job and Grind. At the end of the day, who is telling us to work 65 hours a week for week after week?

Rach - I know the feeling well - as do many clergy, but perhaps we need to be honest with everyone and say there is a limit to how much anyone can do to paper over the cracks, or indeed should we??

Before leaving my last post, I'd worked ten years in two parishes 6 miles apart up the most statistically dangerous road in Britain. In one of them I deliberately set out not to meet the expectations in, but just try and be responsive to what I was called to do. At times this was Challenging, shall we say :-) By the end of my tenure though, there was far more running of the church and pastoral care being done by the folk of the parish and in many ways things were a lot healthier.

I haven't thrown it all in by the way - I'm now Priest to a congregation in New Zealand, where similar issues are being faced especially in my sparsely populated Diocese.

I Do think that Clergy isolation is perhaps one of our biggest enemies in this regard. 'Expectations' are Tough to face down on your own.

Also well worth a read - and take time out to do it :-) is the book "If you meet George Herbert on the road - Kill Him!"

Above all, keep talking!
AndrewSillis said…
Also recommend the 'If you see George Herbert on the road, Kill Him!' book (Justin Lewis-Anthony).

Can I add a further area in which clergy can lose out because of busyness. I've been reflecting for a while now on those areas of my professional life as a priest which I want to do, and am expected to do, more thoroughly than Church members, but are normal aspects of Christian life.

Our parishioners expect us to have full and fulfilling prayer lives, but that takes time - time during which we appear to be doing nothing.

A priest colleague and friend once asked his PCC what they thought his top ten most important tasks should be, and they reported back with 'prayer' as number one. As a result he set aside a half day a week to pray.

It is what is expected of us, doesn't appear to be work, enriches and sustains our ministry, and often gets pushed out of the diary. It seems to me that many clergy take the good practice of an annual retreat, simply as a good excuse for a long lie down.

But from the pulpit I then find myself urging the congregation to spend more time in Bible study and prayer - expected for Christians of course, but it is in addition to their weekly work schedule, which in commuter belt London can also be 60 or more hours away from home each week.

I am about to start ministry in a new Church and the Statement of Particulars specifies '40 hours a week, plus Sunday duty'. Seems ideal, but I wonder if it is really what they mean, and do I include prayer time in that?
Anonymous said…
The shed is well under way now, thanks :-) That's because I'm having a sort-of week off (i.e. only working 2-and-a-bit days) To respond a little more fully...
(please note: none of this is looking for sympathy. I'm an adult and make my own life choices. Though they are heavily constrained, it's often by my _own_ expectations!)
I look after 6 parishes, as part of a team of 13, most of which have small (or tiny) congregations. Naturally, none of them see me very much, and even though individuals are supportive and understand the situation intellectually, I get a general sense of disappointment that I'm not 'around' more.
I end up working 12+ hour days pretty regularly, and although I guard my day off quite hard, it doesn't stop the feeling of guilt at saying no when, even after 2.5 years, I get asked to do something on it. Sometimes I give in.
Even worse is trying to carve out longer chunks of time for holidays.
At no point I can recall have any of the church wardens expressed any interest in my time off - I admit I didn't even know that they might until people started mentioning that theirs did!
Any of that kind of monitoring comes from my ministry colleagues (who, of course, are under the same pressures).
I live with the constant internal litany of things I should be doing, people I should be visiting, time (not) spent in prayer, futures (not) being envisioned, etc. etc. This is dispiriting!
I'm not entirely sure whether this would be better with a lighter workload, but I do know that after 3 14-hour days in a row (i.e. a week's work for some!) if a light day comes along, I haven't got the mental or spiritual energy to make much progress on the list of "thing I have left undone".
With 11 small rural parishes under my "care" and a total population of about 1800, the administration demands are heavy, whilst the pastoral side is relatively small. There are 10 PCC's and a Joint Benefice Council, plus the Chapter and Deanery Synod (and its Standing Committee). Thankfully there is no church school, but I do go into the one village Primary on a regular basis - to help with reading rather than taking the obligatory Assembly.

I am just coming to the end of a fortnight "off-duty", though in reality quite a bit of work has had to be carried out since as the Rector I am the only priest and have no secretarial support.

I get the same old comments about weekend work and "another holiday", but in the main the people here respect my "away time." But one lady from a PCC who called this last week was surprised to find I was on holiday, and didn't apologise for disturbing me. In fact she turned up the next day as well with something that could well have waited until next week. Ho hum.

My ordaining Bishop gave me some sound advice - "take your holiday entitlement however you can, and divide the day into three parts, morning, afternoon and evening, and if you work two of those don't work the third." As a rule of thumb that has served me well over the past 27 years.
Nebuly said…
'Day off' - Why only one? Most people have two and they are at weekends.
MisterDavid said…
Quick thought:
As someone who is expected to be modelling what God is like, should a priest not ESPECIALLY seek to emphasise the Godly activity of rest?
If it was looked at in that light - not as a break from 'the work of God' but as a fundamental part of it - might that help to allay the guilt?
Kathryn said…
Thank you...great post, splendid responses & I'll just have to say Amen, I think...though I might also indulge in a quick post of my own. It's my day off, so I'm sure I can find the time :)
Anonymous said…
Great post Charlie, well done. Much that I agree with here in the post and the comments. One other thing that I believe will make life harder in the future is the new contracts.

Although we put too much pressure on ourselves there was real flexibility under the way that we policed ourselves. With the new common-tenure agreements they are, on paper, horrific. One day max off a week, more days than that need permission of archdeacon etc etc.

When you do the maths. We get 52 days off (one day a week) + 36 days off hols (6 weeks x 6 days) + 8 days bank hols. The total is 96 days off a year. If you just had 2 days + bank hols you get 112 days. With six weeks hols you get 142 days.

On thing that is actually bad about all of this is that if we are expected to be role models - what are we modelling???!!!
Charlie said…
Will, I completely agree and have thought the same all along. Common Tenure is a great idea in principle, but when you look at what has been written it is a complete nightmare.

The good news is that the detail you are talking about is on the "statement of particulars" which can actually be re-written, if any Diocese has the courage to do so.
Stephan van Os said…
A first rate article that deserves wider recognition. I got around the whole "Padre only works one day a week" when I was with my first infantry battalion by telling a rather snarky clerk in our Families Office "that's one day more than some people around here work!"

On a more serious note I think one of the biggest challenges I faced in my last civilian ministry was trying to have a "holiday at home" and getting people to take it seriously without having them ring me up and say "I know it's your holidays but..."
I have had over 500 clergy come through my workshop process on multi-church ministry in recent years. I recognise all that has been said and that the frustration of unfulfilled expectations is common. Clergy might be helped to make it clearer to their congregations about what they actually do do. This needs to include the less frenetic activities such as reading, thinking, praying. It is important for the wider public too to come to see that one contribution the church can make to our mad world is to be the haven of peace. To achieve that congregations need to ensure that their clergy have that haven of peace inside them. The administration of the "business" that is also essential should be in the hands of competent administrators - probably shared across a deanery in the case of more sparcely populated rural areas. Church authorities must recognise what is happening and allocated the scarce resources in such a way that the work of the paid clergy is do-able.
Pete said…
Brilliant article. As the son of a vicar, I reckon one could probably add the impact on family life: the best efforts of my father weren't enough to prevent the pressures of his job, and the goldfish bowl that came with it, causing two of my siblings serious mental trouble. A common problem wasn't my father's willingness to take a day off, but rather some parishioners refusal to recognise a (publicised) day off that caused the real harm.
Thanks, Charlie. It's a very enlightening read for me, as a lay person.
chaplain.cz said…
Charlie - I came across your blog by searching via Google, for more about the National Secular Society which threw up your earlier inciteful post about them. I left a comment there which has appeared as coming from 'c' which is not my usual pseudonym. I clearly hit the comment button too soon :-)

But like the numerous clergy & others who have left comments here, this post very much resonated with me. People do place unrealistic expectations upon us & do not have a clue about what we as clergy have to do, unless it directly affects them personally.

One of the real problems is the legal framework which governs the Church of England, which still assumes one priest looking after one parish which has long ceased to be the case, especially in rural areas. I note the comment by 'Saintly Ramblings' earlier, of having 10 PCCs. In my previous post which I held for over 15 years, I had 10 Churches & 8 PCCs + a Benefice Council. Yet my Diocesan Bishop for most of that time would write in his Ad Clerums, "In your Church" or "In your parish" always in the singular, which used to grate with me no end. Incidently, I note with interest that my House-for-Duty colleague for part of my time there is one of your earlier commenters on this post!

However, I don't know all the answers to the issues you raise. I'm aware that my own time management isn't always as good as it could be. And I do appreciate the freedom to be able to do something for myself or my wife in the middle of the day sometimes which is usually not possible for someone in a Mon-Fri 9-5 job. But at the end of each day I am always left feeling very aware that there are so many other things that I could have done and have not been able to. And that does leave a sense of guilt and of failure to achieve.
Charlie said…
Hi Chaplain, thanks for your comments today, good to have you aboard.

This is easily the most commented post ever at AH. I knew I was speaking up for my tired colleagues when I was writing it, but I know that the level of response has surprised a lot of readers - I see this as a good thing, helping to educate people about the nature of the problem.

I do wish the Dioceses or the National structures of the C of E would grasp this nettle and do some serious thinking about how to address the issue. I feel as though we are wasting our precious human resources by working the parish clergy into oblivion. :(
I am so glad I have found this blog, being new to Christianity and to my church or any church for that matter I didn't really know what to expect. And had no idea really how busy the Vicar is. Thank you.
Charlie said…
Hi, you are most welcome here, I hope you're enjoying your journey round the Christian blogs and finding encouragement from them :)

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