The Cliff Face

I’m staring at the cliff face.

After 13 years as a priest, I’m preparing to step out of parish ministry. I’m not resigning my orders and will remain a priest, but I’m leaving this parish and not looking for another role as a minister.

Why this change?

In short: I’m tired. I’m worn out and exhausted by the ministry that I’ve loved over the years. With no hope of a much needed sabbatical because of a peculiar quirk of the rules on such things in my current diocese, I simply have nothing more to give and no chance to spend any serious restorative time with God.

I feel broken and damaged by ministry and that is now infecting all areas of my life. I’m not being the Dad I should be or the husband I should be and it’s damaging my relationship with God. I’m neglecting personal relationships and I’m down and grumpy most of the time. I am no longer robust enough to make it work and remain in my role.

It didn’t used to be this way. I used to love what I’m called to do. I felt the honour and privilege of leading worship and presiding at communion keenly. I loved the pastoral ministry, the visiting and honour of walking with those in times of celebration, grief and loss. But now all I feel is numbness and tiredness.

Because for me ministry has changed.

May be it’s my particular role that has evolved or perhaps the very nature of ministry in the Church of England has changed. But these days I rarely get to leave my desk, and when I do the net result is a huge backlog of pointless paperwork. The administrative load of being a parish priest from the diocesan and national church structures has increased three-fold since I was first ordained, in most parishes this burden fall almost entirely on the shoulders of the incumbent. In my context I’m blessed with a small admin team, who take much of it from me, yet the burden of what’s left is still utterly overwhelming.

The drive from those in authority has become more and more focused on money and numbers. Success is no longer (if it ever really was) based on the people we’re reaching with the gospel, but on whether or not those people have money to give, a successful Church is deemed to be one that is large, whether or not it is growing or disciple-ing it’s members. I want to serve a Church that is interested in ‘the one’, a church that rejoices with earth and heaven when a single person turns to Christ.

Recently I was sent a document detailing that in order to consider a big missional project a success the powers that be expected to see 120 new, giving Christians within three years.
Perhaps it’s just my own lack of faith but this feels like an impossible task, perhaps revival is coming and I can’t see it, but this sort of target driven mission seems doomed to failure, not least because in the face of such expectations I know that I feel a failure. In all of that runs a thread of disquiet of this linking of mission with financial giving. Sure one might be able to see financial giving as a marker of a discipled life, but as a sign of commitment to Christ? NO, I think that is way off.

But it’s not just disquiet with these edicts that concern me, it the very existence of a structure that feels able to make them. Many dioceses and certainly the Church of England as an institution has changed the way it thinks about priest and parish. Many dioceses now see themselves as the boss of the local parish priest, a concerted effort has been made by the CofE to erode the status of priest as an office holder and to make them in all but name more akin to employees of CofE Plc. Ten years ago the phrase ‘The Central Church’ would have meant nothing to anyone in the Church of England. Now there is an entire industry at the centre of the CofE that sees itself as the HQ of a pseudo-corporate entity. From what materials we use to advertise our services at Christmas & Easter, to web platforms, and more this new entity is turning what used to be tools to aid us into sticks to beat us.

Perhaps I’m looking back to a golden age that never existed but I don’t belief it used to be like this. A parish priest, sharing in ministry with colleagues and the officers of the Church used to be vicariously responsible for the ministry on the context in which he or she served. We weren’t told how to do it, but understood that we would get on with it, contextually. It was recognised that the priest would understand the locality in which they served and within the accepted doctrine of the Church and the rules that come with being a legal body would get on with proclaiming the gospel in a contextually sensitive way. Without the burden of targets, the intrusion of a hierarchy or the overbearing of a corporate boss.

Are anyone of these things the reason I’m stepping down? No, they’re not, but taken together along with the pressures of day-today ministry, I simply no longer have the capacity to continue.


21 thoughts on “The Cliff Face

  1. This is a very interesting article, raising several important issues. The first point that I notices concerns family life. Notice the following extract:

    “I’m not being the Dad I should be or the husband I should be and it’s damaging my relationship with God.”

    Perhaps the Catholic Church is right and there is merit in a celibate clergy.

    Secondly, the current model for the Church of England is unsustainable in the long run. The following says it all#:

    “the powers that be expected to see 120 new, giving Christians within three years.”

    This reminds me of my local parish. It was announced that the diocesan share would be increased by about £3,000. This was explained to three elderly ladies who were given the job of raising the extre money by holding coffee mornings etc. Two of the three decided to join the local Catholic Church. I presume that they never raised the money. It seems to me that the CofE will be forced to retrench for reasons of finance as much as because of decline in membership. The future is not rosey, and it seems that nothing is being done about it.

    Thirdly, it was noted in the CofE Ministry Statistics a couple of years ago that,I think 25% of clergy leaving ministry were not for reasons of retirement or redeployment, but for unknown or undisclosed. reasons. I suppose that the Paper Priest adds to that statistic.

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  2. I wept on reading this. My 13-year ministry ended with retirement and was marred by the death of a son, but Paper Priest speaks for me. I have written about some of this elsewhere, but in short, and in no particular order:
    • Why do some clergy find getting a sabbatical so difficult when bishops are frequently away on jollies?
    • The demands of institution, parishioners and local community are totally irreconcilable.
    • Are diocesan bishops aware of the demands made in their name that are dumped by their apparatchiks on parish clergy?
    • Do bishops remember what parish ministry was actually like – assuming they did any? Do they have any idea what it’s like to be a lone operator with no administrative help and no critical mass of helpers?
    • Why are parish clergy told that they are office-holders but treated as employees?
    • Why increasingly are parish clergy denied the option of using their own initiative in order to satisfy diocesan targets and advisers’’ notions of how things should be done?
    • Why does being “supported” by diocesan officers feel like being watched?
    It feels like PTSD. I hope you recover and in due course thrive. I would once have prayed for ou, but I doubt you’d thank me for my prayers, such as they now are. Hindu prana maybe.

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  3. This is so true to my experience. It used to be a pastoral ministry. Now it is like selling timeshares, with special rewards and status for successful salesmen, and oblivion for those who don’t see their vocation as one of putting bums on pews and their direct debits in the diocesan current account. It reflects the sort of people who are running the recruitment of senior clergy, who have little or no experience of actual parish ministry, and have vague ideas about “successful management” – of which again they have little direct knowledge or experience. I can’t think of any current bishop I would regard as “inspiring” in any sense. And the failed management culture trickles down from their palaces and their patronage in the dioceses, leaving many at local level wondering what is the point of their service in ordained ministry. The answer appears to be to bump up the finances to pay for ever more fantastical Five Year Plans announced by their bishops, all of which involve substantial and wasted expenditure on ever more personnel disconnected from the main task – the cure of souls.

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    1. Alan, I concur. I occasionally feel a bit sorry for the more intelligent bishops – and there are a few. They must know the game’s up, but they have to toe the Walter Mitty line issued by Pyongyang, Lambeth. Trouble is, they shovel the ordure to the foot soldiers while they carry on in a kind of la-la land, smelling fresh paint and being fawned over. But nothing will change until there’s more variety on the bench, and I can’t see that happening under the present regime, by which time it’ll be too late.

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  4. So sad to read this but understand how a parish priest gets to this point. I am not ‘there’ yet but certainly feel the changing pressures described. I am hoping to fend them off for some time to come.

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  5. It is some days only sheer bloody mindedness that keeps me going. It is the same trait of many of my
    Parishioners and all they have. How long, I don’t know, but the powers that be have much to answer for. For what it is worth, my prayers are with you
    Graeme Buttery

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I don’t recognise that at all. I ignore much of the nonsense (paperwork, “targets”, statistics etc) and all the politics. I just do what I want, on the whole. Been ordained 22 years, served in 4 different dioceses and in current post for 12, so I know whereof I speak. Sounds like this chap needs to be less bothered by the bishops, DBF and national noise. I just potter along, untroubled by anything outside of my parish.

    “But these days I rarely get to leave my desk, and when I do the net result is a huge backlog of pointless paperwork. The administrative load of being a parish priest from the diocesan and national church structures has increased three-fold since I was first ordained, in most parishes this burden fall almost entirely on the shoulders of the incumbent.”

    What paperwork?? Give concrete examples, please. Faculties are a pain but I can’t think of any regular admin that takes more than a few hours a month.

    “Recently I was sent a document detailing that in order to consider a big missional project a success the powers that be expected to see 120 new, giving Christians within three years.
    Perhaps it’s just my own lack of faith but this feels like an impossible task, perhaps revival is coming and I can’t see it, but this sort of target driven mission seems doomed to failure, not least because in the face of such expectations I know that I feel a failure. In all of that runs a thread of disquiet of this linking of mission with financial giving. Sure one might be able to see financial giving as a marker of a discipled life, but as a sign of commitment to Christ? NO, I think that is way off.”

    Just ignore it then! Who cares? What will happen if you bin it? Nothing

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    1. Bit harsh when you know nothing of the context & circumstances.
      In many dioceses the very real threat of being reorganised out of your post hangs over those who don’t do this stuff. You sound like you don’t believe PP by demanding “evidence”. Prayer abd sympathy would be a better response to an embattled brother priest.

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  7. Really resonated with this, thanks for being vulnerable (in the best way) and allowing comments as well. You are being brave in making the choices you are making. I am deeply saddened that this continues to be an all too familiar story. For clergy types. In my time, though two bouts of depression, last one resulting in 6 weeks off. I realised i needed a change, otherwise there would be a 3rd round of depression, I discovered brene browns book dare to lead, and it saved me. It changed my approach from leading from scarcity to being better resourced for leadership. I wish you well and will remember you before the light of the world.

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  8. Sad to read this but I know how you feel. This resonates with me. For various reasons I resigned from the Benefice I served around fifteen months ago, although I’m not yet in receipt of a pension. I feel for you.

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  9. Just thought of a couple of other things that add paperwork: “policies” (Health & Safety, Safeguarding etc), agm/APCM and PCC stuff. But even so, still not more than a bit — certainly my impression is that clergy get away lightly compared with e.g. teachers or company directors.

    The main grip here seems to be stuff that come down from On High. Well, bin it. I do. Pay no heed to their targets and statistics and parish share stuff. Top tip from 22 years as a priest: IT DOESN’T MATTER. No cares if you ignore and if they do, just ignore them too.

    Don’t let yourself be bullied or beaten-up by their demands that you fill in *this* form or pay *that* money (unless it’s DBF fees) or do the latest and greatest thing or grow your church or whatever. Be faithful to God, your people and yourself. The Diocese (Bishop, Archdeacon, DBF et al.) and Central Church can whistle for it.

    So: “Ten years ago the phrase ‘The Central Church’ would have meant nothing to anyone in the Church of England. Now there is an entire industry at the centre of the CofE that sees itself as the HQ of a pseudo-corporate entity. From what materials we use to advertise our services at Christmas & Easter, to web platforms, and more this new entity is turning what used to be tools to aid us into sticks to beat us.”

    Use ACNY if you want or not if you don’t. Ditto training days and conferences and whatever. If they are helpful, take them. If they are a burden, don’t. You are in control — more so than any teacher or social worker or employee that I know of. And if you do decide that something is good and helpful then use it only far as it remains so.

    One last tip from an old lag: don’t read the Church Times — or anything else. If you do, filet it and pick out whatever is useful or interesting.

    You probably don’t have the freehold or a single parish (they were part of the “golden age” you mention) but for the most part the Diocese and Central Church only have as much power over you as you give them. Let them beat and you will be beaten. Use the bin and press delete frequently. If something REALLY matters (morally or legally) then they’ll get back to you about it. Even then you can usually do the bare minimum or use a template (one you’ve made previously or one nicked from a colleague.)

    Make sure you take you day off and get good at saying “no”. Personally, I aim to “work” (whatever that means) six hours a day, six days a week. Yes, I’m on-call 24/7 but if you imagine 3 x 3 hr “shifts” in the day (notionally morning 9-12, afternoon 2-5 and evening 7-10) then work any two leave the third fallow. Wide margins help, too. Finally, get a hobby that gets you out of the Vicarage / parish.

    Do less. I’d be surprised if anyone even notices, except that you’ll be a better priest and person for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Remember a priest who works 30 hrs a week is better than a priest who doesn’t work at all. And make sure you’ve had a chat with your RD or AD to express these concerns. It’s no good telling us but not them. Maybe (probably) they won’t listen and/or can’t do anything to help but it’s the telling that counts. The outcomes / result are in your hands, though.

    Don’t be killed by a hardening of the “oughteries” as my old friend once said. There are very few “oughts” in parish ministry and you are in charge of 70, 80 or 90% of your diary. Also, the old one: “it’s a marathon not a sprint”. Well, it’s more of a long and mostly gentle walk. Burn bright and fast or long and slow.

    Pax, brother.

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  11. I work in a diocesan office and have pretty good sight of all this, but from a different perspective. I agree with some that’s been said in the original post and the comments, but they miss one important point – the church costs money and it has to come from somewhere.

    So comments such as “Pay no heed to parish share stuff. Top tip from 22 years as a priest: IT DOESN’T MATTER.”

    If we (collectively) want to have a church with stipendiary ministers “leading” the local church then someone has to pay for it. All the signs are of an enterprise that’s running away down a steepening financial slope, in line with numerical decline. The national church and episcopal response to this is to control more, require more, request bigger and bigger financial commitment from a smaller and smaller group of givers. This is a natural response to pressure – the pressure of a declining church and the financial pressures that come with it.

    Any vicar who thinks that they can simply ignore the Parish Share or the financial situation isn’t being clever: rather they’re demonstrating a spectacular arrogance or naivety. If we don’t want to discuss the financial dimension then lets stop spending millions of pounds on the Church – give up your stipend But if we want paid clergy we have to pay for them and the only sustainable way of doing so is through the contributions that come from the local church.

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    1. By all means ask parishes to pay the actual stipend+costs of their priest. Between £42 – £45k depending on location. Don’t charge for living in the Vicarage (which belongs to the priest) or for assorted diocesan projects which have little or no relevance to a parish church. The costs which are running away out of control are by and large diocesan spending, generally at the whim of the bishop. People know that their priest is paid £26k. When you ask for £70k or even £100k in certain places, people are reluctant just to sign blank cheques.

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    2. Da rabbit, allow me to put my remarks in some context. In 2004 I was made Priest in Charge of a church within a large parish (not the parish church). The advert and interview made no mention of the post being temporary. When I was installed I was surprised to see that my licence was for 5 years. After a year in post I queried this as I had a young family and two children in school. “Don’t worry” I was told “this is standard procedure and we have no intention of ending your ministry here!” A year later they told me that they wouldn’t be renewing my licence. (They though they were being good giving me three years’ notice!) In those two years before I got that news I really sweated to pay parish share while others in the Deanery paid less. Obviously my efforts were to no avail.

      My top priority was to get a new job with freehold – and I got one with mere months to go before that blessed status was abolished and replaced with the bollocks of Common Tenure. In terms of parish share we pay what we can (and we send £10k in fees plus an unknown amount of glebe, probably about the same.) But I no long care. And I no longer trust what Bishops and Archdeacons say. The DBF can request money and we do what we can but I don’t try too hard. What are you going to do about it? Call in the bailiffs? Ha ha

      You might think my attitude is selfish and irrespsonsible and so on. I don’t care. My daughter went to five primary schools and my wife had to leave family and friends. I’ve paid in ways you can’t even guess at. (Incidentally, how much are you paid?) Worse, my respect and affection for the Church disappeared.

      So, yes, I stand by everything I’ve said.

      This Vicar should put God and his parish first, practise good self-care. Bin the paperwork. Ignore the targets and pressure. And never, ever, give in to bullying (real or perceived) from above or below.

      Which brings me neatly to what you said: “The national church and episcopal response to this is to control more, require more, request bigger and bigger financial commitment”

      Yes, just so. And the only sanity-protecting response from the clergy in the parish is to resist – or rather ignore – attempts at “control” and related “requests”. You know as well I do that short of something moral or legal (i.e. a CDM) the Church has no levers and very few rights to make us comply with their threats and bluster and encouragments and targets and so on. It’s all noise. Weak clergy feel obliged to pay heed (and parish share) and put themselves and their churches under enormous pressure. Wise old lags – with heads and hands already full of parish business – simply shrug and smile.

      And this: “Any vicar who thinks that they can simply ignore the Parish Share or the financial situation isn’t being clever: rather they’re demonstrating a spectacular arrogance or naivety.”

      I’m not (being) clever. And I’m not naive – quite the opposite, I’m cynical. Arrogant? Maybe. I prefer “secure” – in my post and in my self.

      “ If we don’t want to discuss the financial dimension then lets stop spending millions of pounds on the Church – give up your stipend.”

      I’m paid £22k pa plus pension, Council Tax, water rates, on-costs etc. I don’t count housing per se as the church lets me live in a place they own for free and pay me less for the privilege (it’s not actually a benefit; I’d rather have an extra £500 pcm / £6k pa towards rent or, better still, mortgage; we all know it saves the church a huge amount to house their clergy rather than pay them properly.) So let’s say I “cost” £40k pa gross, of which I personally get a package worth £30k. I send £10k in fees + £10k in glebe + £20k in share so I’m breaking even. Even if I wasn’t I wouldn’t care. (Oh, and church’s local costs are about another £10k pa – bills, maintenance, expenses – towards which we don’t expect or get any help from the DBF.)

      And this: “But if we want paid clergy we have to pay for them and the only sustainable way of doing so is through the contributions that come from the local church.”

      Well, there is also central funds (the Commissioners’ money from London) and, besides, are clergy supposed to be generating their own stipends from various income streams? Is that really our responsibility? The problem is that the whole structure and system of the c-of-e is broken and burdensome. (One thing I’d do for a start is abolish parishes and Dicoeses; think of the savings, the economies of scale, if we had a single HQ in, say, Coventry! Also, pay senior staff – I mean Bishops – the same as parish clergy. Curates are paid almost the same as Vicars because it’s a stipend not salary or wages i.e. it’s not related to hours worked, productivity or performance. If that is true why do some people get a bigger one?)

      Pressuring local clergy to fund this stupidity is counterproductive. Root and branch reform is what’s needed. Begin over with a blank sheet of paper and ask what’s needed, wanted and affordable. Until then, don’t demoralise your key, core staff. That’s stupid and short-termist. We, the Vicars, are the “customer-facing” operatives at the grassroots (if rural) or coalface (if urban). We preach the gospel; we show and share Jesus in diverse local contexts; we care for churches and congregations. It’s not our fault that the whole organisation is outdated and unfit for purpose.

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      1. Your strengths, Oliver (if I may, from just up the road in Burton), are (a) a personality that seems to enjoy a good scrap with bureaucrats, and (b) your old fashioned freehold. For interim ministers, Ps in C, and even these days CT incumbents, every idea coming from an apparatchik in HQ can easily feel like harrassment – “do this, or else”. I’m coming to the view that ‘they’ wouldn’t be sad to see all incumbents replaced by HfD ministers, salaries paid only to admin bureaucrats. This is creeping in anyway. It will fail because (1) people willing to be HfD ministers will dry uo as the present generation of 50/60 yr olds retires or dies off, and as pensions become more inadequate; and (2) the burden that then falls on wardens and treasurers will mean that those jobs go unfilled. That is already happening. You’re lucky to have freehold. I just missed it. I said at my interview for the job I’ve just retired from that I wasn’t an entrepreneur or a fundraiser and I would take no part in either activity. When we in an increasingly Muslim inner urban UPA parish were visited by members of the finance team to tell us how to raise money, all they could think up were things that might once have worked in a prosperous village in Shropshire.

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  12. With respect to you (Rambling Rector) I do have the benefit of freehold but I’m not sure how much actual de facto difference that makes. It might, perhaps, embolden me but I suspect CT clergy can and do ignore the reams of rubbish that drop from on high like satanic manna. enjoy a good scrap with bureaucrats. As for me enjoying a good scrap with bureaucrats; no, that’s exactly my point. A policy of non-engagement is precisely that. And (unless they check and treat me differently) none of the Central Church officers know or care that I have the Freehold. And I can’t imagine that my Bishop or Archdeacon could or do let me get away with things on that account. In my über-cynical moments I wonder whether senior staff are waiting for the last of the Freeholders to leave or move to CT before unleashing the full force of their powers and/or changing the terms to be more like employees and less like office holders. Are we an ever-diminishing remnant holding back the flood? Either way, I believe that Paper Priest (on CT) could and should do as I do.

    As I said before: “the only sanity-protecting response from the clergy in the parish is to resist – or rather ignore – attempts at “control” and related “requests”. You know as well I do that short of something moral or legal (i.e. a CDM) the Church has no levers and very few rights to make us comply with their threats and bluster and encouragments and targets and so on. It’s all noise. Weak clergy feel obliged to pay heed (and parish share) and put themselves and their churches under enormous pressure. Wise old lags – with heads and hands already full of parish business – simply shrug and smile.”

    Paper Priest said: “these days I rarely get to leave my desk, and when I do the net result is a huge backlog of pointless paperwork. The administrative load of being a parish priest from the diocesan and national church structures has increased three-fold since I was first ordained, in most parishes this burden fall almost entirely on the shoulders of the incumbent. In my context I’m blessed with a small admin team, who take much of it from me, yet the burden of what’s left is still utterly overwhelming”

    Yet he gave NO examples of the admin and paperwork that he finds so overwhelming. Compared with e..g teachers or social workers we get very, very little. As for what we do get: if it’s really important (i.e. legally) they will chase you for it and explain that it is necessary. (In reality that means a very few things: MDR, remitting DBF fees, quinquennials, Safeguarding / DBS, PCC / agm/APCM. Some of these are only annual anyway.) For the rest, bin it — unless it’s helpful or interesting.

    Paper Priest did cite some stuff he’s had about “targets” (“Recently I was sent a document detailing that in order to consider a big missional project a success the powers that be expected to see 120 new, giving Christians within three years.”) So ****ing what?

    Also this: “But it’s not just disquiet with these edicts that concern me, it the very existence of a structure that feels able to make them. Many dioceses and certainly the Church of England as an institution has changed the way it thinks about priest and parish. Many dioceses now see themselves as the boss of the local parish priest, a concerted effort has been made by the CofE to erode the status of priest as an office holder and to make them in all but name more akin to employees of CofE Plc. Ten years ago the phrase ‘The Central Church’ would have meant nothing to anyone in the Church of England. Now there is an entire industry at the centre of the CofE that sees itself as the HQ of a pseudo-corporate entity.”

    Agreed, 100%. But again, JUST IGNORE IT. It’s the only way to remain sane. It only gets to you if you let it. And if you let it, it will affect you and possibly kill you (at least a priest).

    You can refuse and reject “the burden of targets, the intrusion of a hierarchy or the overbearing of a corporate boss.” I do and you can too.

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