Why vicars need a break

In three weeks’ time, on 28 May, I will begin three months of Extended Ministerial Development Leave (which was formerly known as a sabbatical). The very wonderful team at St Mary of Bethany will lead without me over the summer, under Associate Vicar Bekah, Curate Sarah and Youth Minister Dave.

The Church of England has long recognised the value of an extended rest period for full-time, paid ministers every seven years or so. In Guildford Diocese this rolls round seven years after you begin a post of first responsibility (when you become the priest in charge of a church or an Associate Vicar), and, if you move parishes, you lose a year. Working this out needed all my fingers and toes: I was appointed as Vicar of Lightwater in 2012, moved to St Mary of Bethany in 2017, so was due my leave in 2020. It was in the diary and I had just announced it via this blog…and you know what happened next.

So here I am, nine years into incumbency, having piloted the good ship St Mary’s through the choppy waters of Covid. I was in good company in my decision to delay (the Bishop of Guildford did the same and is on leave now; the Archbishop of Canterbury is going on leave this summer), but it’s been an exceptionally tough and costly year for every church leader.

What does a sabbatical look like?
It looks like an extended period of rest; an opportunity to kick back and smell the flowers, to enjoy the things God has given you and wants to give you. For an activist like me, it’s the opportunity to stop. I am trying to resist the temptation to have an ever-lengthening to-do list of household chores or things I want to achieve. I will do some writing: some children’s stories, a novel I started 25 years ago, and I will do some theological thinking about waiting – how I’m in a hurry but God wants me to wait. The Bible tells us many stories of people who waited: Abraham, Moses, Mary, Zechariah…it rarely explores how this must have felt for those people. I will visit friends and family, and go back to places I love. I will invest in good times, shared experiences and making memories. I will take lots of photos. I will let go of many things, the better to take hold of others.

For some clergy, this leave involves extended pilgrimage, retreat or study. It’s an opportunity to spend time in different, inspiring work learning new things.
‘But what is so special about a vicar’s role that you need all this time out?’ I hear you cry. I thought I’d share some of the Things I Kind Of Knew About Pastoring But Didn’t Really Understand The Implications When I Agreed To Do It. 

The six-day week
When I quit my job in book publishing in 2003 to go and work for a church, I didn’t actually realise that paid ministry involves a six-day week until about two weeks before I moved. I certainly didn’t work through all the implications of this.

On the plus side…married clergy can co-ordinate days off with their spouse, to have quality time together with cheap cinema tickets and places to go which aren’t stuffed full of the weekend crowd. Singletons can enjoy long lunches with friends and, if you work the timing well, you can get away for a couple of nights. You can work flexibly over your working week.

On the minus side…you lose any real prospect of a full weekend away. (You’re allowed six Sundays off per year.) You don’t get to worship at other churches or to visit friends in different parts of the country easily. Of the things I’m looking forward to most in my leave, one is to visit a few sets of friends and family in far-flung parts of the country for the weekend – it feels like a real luxury and it’s something I really miss doing. I haven’t spent quality time with some of my closest friends for 15 years or more.

The things you hold and the cost of loving your flock
Someone said a good pastor needs a soft heart and hard feet; you need to be able to love people, to be able to walk through dark and difficult places with them and help them find the way with God. It is a massive privilege to be allowed into some of those spaces, for example to be alongside someone as they die, perhaps as the only person they know who can hold their hand and pray with them as they take their journey home. There is great joy and fulfilment in being God’s Right Person In The Right Place At The Right Time, but it can be costly too.

It is a joy to walk alongside people at all sorts of stages of life, sharing their stories, being asked for advice or prayer; the bread-and-butter work of a pastor. But it’s hard to hold some of those things too. My heart has been broken several times: the morning I stood at the front of All Saints’ Lightwater and realised that I’d lost a whole row of faithful veterans in the last 18 months. The times people have told me in very matter-of-fact terms about the abuse they suffered as children. There have been difficult conversations when I’ve had to call out a situation where someone’s behaviour needed challenging.

It takes a particular set of skills to hold together the complex emotional landscapes involved in funerals, or in other church services in moments of crisis. Some moments will never leave me: a father my age bringing into church a tiny coffin, no larger than a hat-box, containing the remains of his twin daughters, born prematurely; the funeral of a four-year-old boy who died from sepsis after contracting chicken pox; the mother-of-two who died of cancer aged 49, telling her two daughters of her illness just 48 hours before the end. I have learned so much from these people, and at the bedsides of the dying, and it is always a unique privilege to be allowed into a family’s life at such an important and intimate moment.

‘Where do you go with the tough stuff?’ a pastorally-minded parishioner asked me recently. It’s a good question; clergy have to figure this stuff out for themselves, by and large. I was fortunate to be pointed towards a spiritual director at the start of my ordained ministry, whom I have met with regularly ever since, for guidance, gentle wisdom and prayer. I have learned to make time around funerals and challenging pastoral encounters, to give myself space to process them emotionally and spiritually, and I have found safe people to help too, principally my remarkable wife. Some weeks I do very little of this kind of work; others it can be all-consuming. If the reasonable worst-case scenario is very bad, you can’t always just clock off. This work is largely unseen by parishioners until they experience it themselves. You can always ask to see a minister and we will always make the time, whether you want a sounding board, someone to pray with or whatever it is.

The show must go on
Pastors work hard to be a non-anxious presence in church services every week, to slow down, talk to people and not be in too much of a rush to do whatever job needs doing before or after the service. Some weeks this is easier than others. I remember one week when a colleague took a service after experiencing a terrible personal tragedy the night before. Five minutes before the service they were weeping and in pieces. I offered to take the service for them; they decided to do it, and God honoured what they did in an amazing way. The vast majority of people there were oblivious to what was going on under the surface, which is only right. It’s a great truth of the Christian faith that God honours what you bring him in faith; he uses what you have and, if he calls you to do something, he equips you to do it too. He does not want what you do not have. There are weeks when you have to put aside the maelstrom inside you, put your hand to the pump and do your stuff, because it’s what you do.

An amazing truth about the Holy Spirit is that whenever I think my work is in vain, when I would have liked to spend more time on a sermon or a service, it goes ahead of me and makes sure it all lands in people’s hearts. I have lost count of the times when someone has said, ‘That was just for me today.’ So often I was thinking of someone else when I prepared – I looked around to see they weren’t even there, and God had another plan. If prophecy involves the bringing of God’s word into people’s lives, then the simple act of doing it week in, week out is hugely powerful. It’s immense when someone tells you they’ve never heard a Christian truth or a Bible story explained like that before, and it suddenly makes sense for the first time. At the same time, when God puts someone on your heart, but you just don’t know how to approach them or what to say, he brings the conversation round in his perfect timing.

The public role and the goldfish bowl
Any public leadership role brings with it a degree of expectation from people. In some ways my job is similar to a headteacher or MP: everyone thinks they know what you ought to be doing, and everyone has a view on whether you’re doing it well or not. People project many things on to priests and have all sorts of expectations, both reasonable and unreasonable. Someone said that the art of leadership is disappointing people at a rate they can cope with! I have developed a rhino-thick skin; you have to try very hard indeed to offend me and I am almost impossible to shock. On the other hand, I’ve found that some people take offence at the most extraordinarily trivial things.

In a previous parish, I was sent in the direction of a couple whom I had never met, but who were very cross with me. Apparently they had once said hello, only to have me blank them. Given that I had no recollection of the encounter and I don’t make a habit of being rude, I can’t have heard them speak to me. A short, friendly conversation broke the ice and put things back on track. The man who sent me in their direction, an understanding son of a clergyman himself, said, ‘In your position it’s remarkably easy to cause unintentional umbrage.’

Vicars (and their families, if they have them) have the great privilege of living in a nice house rent-free, with some of our bills paid and basic home maintenance organised for us. The flipside of this is that we live in a goldfish bowl. People know where you live; they observe your comings and goings; they sometimes have a sense of ownership. You meet parishioners at the supermarket. If you have a family, their demeanour is duly noted. Clergy spouses have a role which is unofficial, unwritten and for which they get no formal preparation. Setting up and navigating boundaries around work and family life can feel like trying to hit a moving target. People talk about work/life balance, but that puts the two things in tension. I prefer to talk about a blended life; one where everything has a place and a season.

Parishioners sometimes push at those boundaries. In a previous job, someone cut my front lawn without asking, because they thought it was overgrown and looked a mess. I think it was intended as a kind act; I received it as judgemental and intrusive. If you want to cut my lawn, ask me if that’s something I would like; for all you know, I might be cultivating a wildflower meadow or a hedgehog sanctuary! Another clergyperson told me that they were entertaining people in their home when they found people going upstairs to the bedrooms without asking.
We receive cranky communications, sometimes anonymously. Any anonymous, hostile communication is an aggressive act. Sensible clergy will not respond to anything which does not have a name on it.

The flipside of this is that we receive a lot of kindness, love and prayers from all sorts of people. One of the great privileges of ministry is that people I have never met pray for me. We are loved and looked after in all sorts of ways. Anonymous mail isn’t always negative, but can be appreciative. Sometimes there’s a card or gift to say thank you, a cake on the doorstep or a casserole, just when you need it.

God willing, I will return for a new season on 13 September – who knows where we will all be by then? I am confident that God has plenty for me to do at St Mary’s yet, so rest assured that I will not arrive back and announce that I’m leaving. I leave you in the capable hands of our wonderful team, who will help navigate through the rest of this ‘recovery’ season. We have learned to slow down through the last year; the summer will involve low-key ways to get back to onsite church, and chances to meet face-to-face again for quality time. You’ll be continuing to make decisions about what comes next. We will emerge into what should be a more stable autumn, where our ministry can flourish in new ways and old. God’s got the plan, and he’ll tell us when he’s ready, if we wait for him.