Sitting in the departure lounge of Perpignan Airport, it seemed odd reading: two academic articles, one a study of clergy working in multi-parish benefices in the Church of England Diocese of Worcester, i.e. those clergy caring for three, four, five, six, or more churches; the other a study of clergy ways of coping with stress. Flying back to Dublin after a week long belated Easter break, there was a temptation to feel, “well, this doesn’t apply to me”, but, of course, it did.
In my days as a curate in Co Down, I was blessed with a rector who taught me to work very hard and to guard carefully my time off; he insisted on a day off every week and six weeks a year holiday, a week after Christmas, a week after Easter and a month on a summer. An abiding memory is being away for twenty-eight days and going to the church for the midweek communion service. “What are you doing here?” He asked. “You are not due back until Sunday. Go away”. I obliged, phoning a friend a two hour drive away and asking if I might come and stay until Saturday. The rector was not so unusual, they were times when the supply of curates was becoming less plentiful and incumbents who had treated colleagues in less than generous ways were finding themselves short of applicants.
I never learned property my rector’s way of coping. I was appointed to a large town parish in Co Antrim ten years after being ordained and lasted just two years and seven months, the stress of being there had taken a toll on my physical health. Nowhere is stress free, but the eleven years I spent in the south Dublin suburbs between 1999 and 2010 were not onerous. Should there be a bad day, a walk on Dun Laoghaire pier would lift the spirits.
I had downloaded the two articles to my laptop computer because they both seemed relevant to my own situation. Ministering for the past five years to a scattered group of six churches, driving thirty thousand miles a year in order to be able to live with my wife, preaching in a community where many people will only attend worship if it is in their “own” church, I could identify with the experiences described in the study of stress in multi-parish benefices. Once there would have been four rectories in the group where I a incumbent, now there is only one, which serves as my office and pied-a-terre. I try to drive the thirty miles back to where my wife is rector each evening, even if it is ten o’clock and I have to be back in the parish first thing the next morning. Even after five years, there is still the odd comment about me not being in the rectory at night, despite the fact that all calls to my rectory number forward directly to my mobile phone and I have never not responded to a call. The greatest source of stress is that there has never been an open conversation at institutional level about the realities of parishes today and about what should reasonably be expected of clergy. My current diocese only adopted diocesan rules last year that provided for time off equivalent to that in Co Down thirty years ago, and has yet to begin a serious discussion of expectations and realities. A study of Church of Ireland clergy in rural parishes would probably find them experiencing similar stresses.
Stress is not necessarily a bad thing, it can motivate, prompt reflection, inspire innovation, for those who cope with it. Being someone who deals badly with stress, severe back problems in Co Antrim and angina more recently, coping with stress is an issue. There are numerous theoretical responses, but none of those suggesting them are in my situation; it feels always like wearing someone else’s shoes. The best I have been able to manage is resigning from all committees and focusing only on parish duties, a decision which in itself brought criticism from colleagues.
The study of clergy ways of coping with stress did not offer answers to my particular questions, but nor did I expect it to do so. Who can be me except me?
The airport announcer, called into service for the second time this afternoon, asked passengers for Dublin to proceed through security, where I was searched for the fifth time in the last seven times I have flown. They must mistake my stressful look for something suspicious.