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.