Christianity Church of England & Ministry Curate's Life Ministry Mum

Challenging clergy work-life balance

The eagle eyed amongst you may have noticed via the medium of social media that I’ve been asking a lot of questions about working hours recently. It started off as part of my own journey to discover what was the right balance for us as a family as we get used to my new role. I am of course writing from the perspective of a ‘Clergy Mum’ but I am sure that much of this applies equally to single parents, those without children, men and indeed to those working in other areas.

We seem to live in a time where many professions have such a huge ‘work culture’, with people expected to work long hours, often under immense pressure, and seemingly with less and less understanding, or support for, family life.

Perhaps you could say that we are trying to have our cake and eat it. We want or need to work and then expect our employers to fit around our own life choices? There is an argument for that, indeed why should businesses potentially loose out when their employee is making life difficult for them or not doing what they have been asked? 

But I would argue two things – firstly, that if we want the best employees, or if we want to get the best out of people, there still needs to be far more flexibility than there is now, and a greater level of understanding.

Secondly, that there is evidence that shows those who work more than 55 hours a week are at far greater risk of medical conditions including stroke & heart disease. Not only that but after 50 hours productivity dips massively.

I wonder, is this current model of work actually doing more harm than good?


So, what’s my point?

Well, since I was ordained I have come across (at many turns) the idea that clergy work 50-60 hours a week. It’s a figure bandied around with little question – apparently that’s just what needs to happen to get the job done. And yes I’ve only been ordained for 5 minutes so you’d be forgiven for telling me to get some more experience before I criticise. Perhaps so, but as I enter this new phase of life I am frankly not prepared to spend the next 3 or 4 years figuring out that 50-60 hours a week will wreck my family life and/or my health. I want to start as I mean to go on, with a healthy balance. The church is very good at talking about the sacrifice of being in ordained ministry and I’m not averse to that in some respects, but it also seems a cover-all excuse for anything that is expected of us.

So I did a little (very scientific, not) survey asking fellow clergy how many hours they worked each week, via social media. Two things stood out:

1) That it’s not just hearsay – over 65% of full time clergy actually work on average more than 50 hours a week, and over 25% of them doing more than 60 hours.

Did you know that The European Working Time Directive requires requires, (amongst other things) that EU countries guarantee the following rights for all workers:

a limit to weekly working hours, which must not exceed 48 hours on average, including any overtime

As I understand it this was brought in as it was recognised that working longer than this contributed to stress, mental health problems and other illnesses.

2) Secondly, there are not that many women in my situation – which is working in Full Time (6 days a week) stipendary ministry with a husband who works full time and school age kids at home.

There are of course a good number of female clergy with families working in the Church of England now, but many seem to either have older children who have left home, or husbands who work part time in order to support them or help at home, or they themselves don’t work full time. In fact in my diocese I think I am one of two women doing this.

All of which makes me think that we, as the church, need to encourage different and healthy models of working, both within ministry and of working life in general. For a start, how will we encourage younger women into ordained ministry with the kind of hours faced by clergy now?

My training incumbent has been really supportive on this and is not expecting me to work all the hours God sends. However I have found it tough being in an environment – in the wider church not just my own church – where the work ethic is so huge and expectations so high.

We could say that it is the responsbility of individual clergy to manage their own hours sensibly and they are quite within their rights to work way more than is recommended in the EU Working Time Directive, but how easy that when there is a ‘norm’ expected and worked out by many? Guilt I am sure, is a huge factor here (see previous post on this).

And actually, after all the church values both marriage and family life enormously, and yet often a healthy balance to family and work life is not modelled by the church leadership or by clergy. As one person noted during my surveys on Social Media: we are called to be counter-cultural within the church, and that being as committed to our families as much as to the church, is a witness in itself. We are called to both.
Which is why I am writing about this now. I, we, haven’t yet got the balance right yet in our family, but I am here saying that I am not going to feel guilty about stopping work at 4pm to pick up the children from school, or not going to an evening meeting because I have booked in a date night with my husband, or protecting my day off fiercely so that I get some time out. As leaders we need to model a healthy balanced way of working, and that might mean saying no sometimes or upsetting people, but I think if we can be honest and open about why, then we are being both true to ourselves and what God has called us to, as well as helping others to see that too…

Coming up tomorrow is a post of top tips of how to balance work/life based on advice from other clergy and clergy Mums, which has been invaluable in helping me feel ok about all of this!

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  • Reply
    Pam Smith
    February 3, 2017 at 9:12 pm

    Interesting! I had to fight really hard in the first year of NSM curacy to establish that I had other calls on my time, and my family were not part of the package (since I didn’t live in the parish). This took quite a lot of effort to get across, and I don’t think I was forgiven by some people.

    • Reply
      February 4, 2017 at 10:21 am

      yeah it’s a tough line to walk and I think we really need to challenge the perceptions and models of ministry. For all in ministry, but I do think that as more women come into ordained ministry with younger children their is more scope and need to do that.

  • Reply
    February 4, 2017 at 7:27 am

    I think that you make some really interesting points here as well as raising some very important questions. Questions which need some really serious reflection throughout the church.

    Do clergy count as ‘workers’? Therefore do we we need to be taking the EU working time directive seriously? And if so what constitutes ‘working time’ in a clergy day?

    I do think that what we model is not always healthy and certainly from your Twitter survey results it doesn’t look healthy. How do we change perceptions and then the reality of what we do in a week?

    Many questions to reflect on. Thank you for raising them.

    • Reply
      February 4, 2017 at 10:29 am

      Thanks Sarah. I really hope that some of these questions can be reflected on throughout the church, perhaps more of us need to talk about this.

      On EU WTD, yes as we are stipendiary I am not sure whether it would officially apply, I was just using it as an example. and as you say, there is a lot of flexibility in the clergy day so hours don’t always help – I’ve put that in today’s post coming out this arvo!

  • Reply
    February 4, 2017 at 11:15 am

    Thank you for a very thoughtful reflection and something that needs to be addressed. As a full time SSM with 3 children 17, 15 and 12 and a husband I certainly need some protected and have stopped feeling guilty, easier when not being paid! This needs to be heard

    • Reply
      February 9, 2017 at 1:10 pm

      Thanks Anne, keep going!

  • Reply
    March 1, 2017 at 11:16 am

    Some great thoughts here. Just wanted to contribute something that a friend shared in a sermon recently. They were talking about ‘service’ and spoke about their frustration with the thinking that life is divided into little boxes, with one for family, one for ‘ministry’ etc. Their point was that, if we’re called to serve (as we all are!), that service is across all of life. If we’re married we are called to serve our spouse. We’re called to serve our wider families, our friends, colleagues, churches… We can’t divide and say ‘this is ministry, but making time for our family isn’t’. I think this change in mindset helps when approaching our diaries – it becomes easier to plan in time for family, for rest, for work. The certainty that God has called us to serve more widely that simply our work gives a more holistic picture. And, of course, with Jesus as our model how can we think that non-stop ‘ministry’ is the right way to be? In Him we see the variety of serving crowds, being with his followers, the 12, the 3 and alone with His Father – a challenging example, for sure!

  • Reply
    Iain Osborne
    March 1, 2017 at 5:21 pm

    Thank you – thought-provoking. I read it from the perspective of someone a) who used to do a long commute and challenging job b) who is now training for ordination on the full-time incumbency track and c) whose Dad was a vicar, and whose brother is, so I’ve seen quite a lot of clergy in action.

    Are we discussing here being a vicar/curate (which is a job), or being a priest (which is a life)?

    Regarding being a vicar (and given that the working week is 6 days not 5) an (average) 55 hour week mean a bit over 9 hours a day: 8.30am to 5.30pm. And not much commuting time, and a lot of flexibility. I’m not sure I regard that as “long”, or that most people with jobs would either.

    If there are practical issues, do they relate to flexibility or a lack of?

    Or is the issue “never being able to switch off”? I fully recognise that as a problem, but it is a quite different one, related to living over the job, to the infiniteness of the need, to feeling oneself and not God are responsible. These are not, however, directly about long hours.

    Being a priest is of course a different matter. That is a 168-hour per week role, and to deliver that role, one needs to look at all the aspects laid out in the Ordinal: these include modelling a godly life (which includes self-respect and self-care) and caring for one’s family properly, as well as the deep enablers of ministry like prayer and study. I wonder if this is a much better place to ground one’s thinking, rather than “what is reasonable in a job?”

    I hope that is of some interest or use.

  • Reply
    March 8, 2017 at 10:46 am

    I’m hoping to become ordained in the next few years – I’m right at the very start of this process right now and look forward to reading your blog in more detail. I thought that I would like to be a self-supporting curate, if I ever get that far, as I am self-employed, but am I totally bonkers to think I could run a business (for example in the evenings) and be a curate at the same time, or do you only get time for your family? Perhaps I need to get real and sell the business if I ever get that far. What do you think?

    • Reply
      March 8, 2017 at 1:15 pm

      Hi Amy, thanks for the comment and best wishes for the journey! The beauty of being an SSM is that it can give you a bit more freedom in terms of your hours. So, I know SSMs who work full time or part time in paid employment as well as working or having a family or both. Of course they spend less time in the parish than some, but equally I have a friend who does 6 days a week as an SSM (though her kids are grown up).Part of the process is about helping you work out what is the right path for you and exactly what you feel called to, so I am sure you will be encouraged to explore how it might work for you during discernment. It’s not totally bonkers at all to want to remain self employed but I guess may advice would be to weigh up how many days you might do that and how much time you might devote to a parish (and family). Once you are training the question of curacy will come up alarmingly fast and you will be asked about what you can give so it’s worth having spent some time really thinking about it in advance. And be realistic about how much time your paid work will take – I used to be self employed so I know it can take over if you let it! It might be worth finding out of there are any SSMs near you who work and have a family, and go see them and find out how it works for them. If you get selected for training you can join a Facebook group called ‘Clergy Mummies’ which is hugely helpful and supportive and you can ask questions there too.
      Hope that helps, Jules.

      • Reply
        March 8, 2017 at 1:30 pm

        That’s really helpful and I hadn’t realised that there could be some tolerance given re hours for curate’s who are self-supporting. I’m really trying to cut down my hours right now in preparation so would hope to get it right down to the minimum by the time curacy arrives. Thanks for the link to Clergy Mummies – sounds great!!

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