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Submission on Clergy Stress


During 2001 the Society of Mary and Martha organised a consultation on Clergy Stress. This led to the publication of a report and discussion document entitled "Affirmation and Accountability", copies of which are available from the Society. (For reasons of time the study focused on the Church of England, but many of the issues are relevant to other denominations as well.)

During the consultation period we, along with other interested groups and individuals, were asked for our comments. What follows is a slightly edited version of our submission.

(NB: Although some of the references and links below have been updated, the main part of this document is as written in 2001, and some of the rules and procedures of the Church of England have changed since then.)


Outline of Submission

Finding the Solutions:
       Education and Exploding the Myths
       Practical Suggestions
Diocesan Pastoral Care and Counselling Schemes
Supplementary Questions



"Every normal human being will experience a major nervous system malfunction given sufficient stress. This is because the brain has circuit breaker cells which shut down parts of the cerebral cortex when overloaded and overstimulated."
(From "Understanding the Behaviour of Victimised People" by Dr William Wilkie, MB, BS, DPM.1)

"Stress is not the employee's inability to cope with excessive workload but a consequence of the employer's failure to provide a safe system of work as required by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974."
(Tim Field, UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line/Bully Online.2)

"Bullying remains endemic within the Church of England and can take many forms."
(Revd Andrew de Berry, MSF Clergy & Church Workers Newsletter Dec 1999.)

We believe that the biggest single advance the Church of England could make in tackling the problem of clergy stress would be to bring its understanding and practices into line with secular employment legislation, and to recognise that such stress is caused by problems within the working environment, and is not an indication of inadequacy or deficiency in the clergy who suffer from it.

We also believe that, although the problems within the work environment which lead to clergy stress are many and complex, psychological violence (bullying) towards clergy is now a significant, yet poorly recognised, cause of stress. This belief is borne out not only by our own experiences, but by the experiences of the many damaged clergy and spouses who have contacted us through BALM. Clergy may be bullied by their superiors, or by members of their congregation.

This submission focuses primarily on clergy stress caused by bullying as that is where our experience and expertise lies, but much of it will also apply to stress arising from other problems within the working environment.

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Finding the Solutions

Tackling the problem of clergy stress at a practical level requires a two-fold approach. In the longer term, there needs to be a willingness to take realistic and effective measures to reduce the stress placed on clergy by their working environment. In the shorter term, there needs to be better understanding and support for those clergy who do suffer the effects of too much stress; from our own experience and from the experiences of others as related to us, the problems are all too often compounded by the lack of appropriate and constructive support from dioceses. Moreover, it would appear that sometimes the "support" offered is actually counterproductive, and that this is due largely to ignorance about the nature of bullying and the effects of stress.

So finding solutions has to begin with:

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Education and Exploding the Myths

1. Bullying

Bullying is not

Bullying is a form of abuse or assault (psychological violence), which has serious and devastating consequences not only for those targeted, but also for any organisation within which it is allowed to prevail. Although it can be an overt form of abuse, in the workplace the perpetrators usually act covertly and systematically to undermine, control, and (if they deem it necessary) to "see off" their targets. It has been observed that "elements of psychological abuse in the workplace correspond with elements of torture and the outcome of the torture process .......... outlined in Biderman's Chart of Coercion".3

The perpetrators are often superficially charming and may appear to be an asset to the congregation (particularly if the congregation is small), to the extent that observers may find it hard to believe that they are capable of bullying. Moreover, incidents reported by the person being bullied may sometimes seem quite minor, but it is the sustained and systematic nature of bullying which turns seemingly trivial incidents into seriously damaging abuse.

In the workplace, and similarly in the church, the underlying cause of bullying is usually power abuse, with the perpetrators choosing as their targets anyone whom they perceive as a threat to their assumed power. When those targeted resist the perpetrators' attempts to control and intimidate them, the perpetrators will simply intensify the abuse until the targets either leave or break down under the stress of what is happening.

Anyone may find themselves the target of a bully simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Recent and rather rapid changes within the Church of England have left many clergy particularly vulnerable to this kind of abuse. If, as is often the case, the bullying is perpetrated by volunteers from within a congregation, the clergy can be particularly vulnerable, for whilst the perpetrators have very little to lose by their actions, the clergy stand to lose their ministry, calling, income and home. The needs of various dependants may add to this vulnerability, for example a spouse's career, children's education etc.

References & Further Reading:

2. The Effects of Stress

Being bullied is extremely stressful and may lead to burnout or stress breakdown - which is not the same as nervous or mental breakdown; as stated above, everyone breaks down under stress. The above-mentioned article "Understanding the Behaviour of Victimised People" by Dr William Wilkie, MB, BS, DPM (see Introduction), outlines better than we can do here the effect that stress (from any source) can have on people, as well as the particular problems that arise from psychological violence.

Too often reactions which are normal under excessive or prolonged stress are assumed to be signs of abnormality or deficiency within the person affected, which may then be assumed to be the cause of the problem rather than a consequence of it (this is sometimes referred to as the "Mental Health Trap"). (Such assumptions lie behind the myth that only "wimps" get bullied!)

We feel the following points need particular emphasis:

References & Further Reading:

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Practical Suggestions

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Diocesan Pastoral Care and Counselling Schemes

We have not included the provision of counselling under the list of practical solutions that should be considered for tackling the problem of stress amongst clergy. Whilst we would generally want to applaud the intentions of those dioceses which have provided counselling schemes for the benefit of clergy, and believe that counselling can be of benefit in cases of mild stress, and/or where the clergy have personal problems which are affecting their ministry, we feel that there can be significant drawbacks and disadvantages in referring stressed clergy to work-based counselling schemes in the expectation that it will resolve the problem. For example:

(See also Supplementary Questions below)

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In the current climate, it is highly desirable that clergy and those who support them should have a good understanding of how to deal with the effects of stress, but this is only a "sticking-plaster" solution. The problem of clergy stress can only be reduced if the church becomes a psychologically safe and supportive environment in which to work, where clergy feel truly valued and genuinely supported by both their congregations and their superiors. This may well require a wholesale change of culture and attitude, involving steps to eradicate bullying and abusive behaviour at all levels, so as to create an atmosphere which promotes the well-being not only of the clergy, but of all church members, of the church itself, and ultimately of the world it is called to serve.

Revd Arthur Kennedy, MA (Oxon.)
Mrs Pauline A. Kennedy, MA (Oxon.)
(Founders of BALM)

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  1. Chapter 1 of "Bullying: from Backyard to Boardroom" (1st Edition) edited by Paul McCarthy, Michael Sheehan & William Wilkie (Beyond Bullying Association). This book can be read online at (Return to text)
  2. Bully Online can be found at (Return to text)
  3. From "Psychological Abuse in the Workplace" by Robyn Mann, Chapter 7 of "Bullying: from Backyard to Boardroom" (1st Edition) (see Note 1 above). (Biderman's Chart of Coercion can be found in Amnesty International (1975) "Report on Torture" p53) (Return to text)
  4. "I Can't Get Over It - A Handbook for Trauma Survivors" by Aphrodite Matsakis, PhD, (New Harbinger Publications Inc., Oakland, California, 2nd Edition 1996), pages 2-3 (Return to text)
  5. Now part of Unite - see (Return to text)
  6. "Understanding Stress Breakdown" by Dr William Wilkie, MB, BS, DPM (Newleaf, Dublin 1999), pages 63-4 (Return to text)

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Supplementary Questions

After submission of the above we were asked to comment further on the following points:

Do you have ideas as to what might constitute appropriate and effective sanctions against lay officers, how would they work, who would implement them, and what safeguards would be needed?
Do you have ideas for a suitable mechanism for making Bishops accountable for their provision of a safe working environment, and how such provision might be evaluated?

We are not suggesting that Bishops should be held personally accountable for providing a safe working environment. The responsibility for providing a safe working environment for all clergy, including Bishops, rests with the Church as a whole, though obviously Bishops play a vital role in this. If clergy were to become employees, then employment legislation would place the responsibility with whoever, or whichever body within the Church, was to be defined as employer.

What we do believe is that accountability at all levels within the Church of England, including amongst volunteers, is an essential part of creating a psychologically safe working environment and ensuring dignity for all. Accountability provides an incentive to good practice; unfortunately, it is not sufficient to assume that everyone in the Church will behave decently and properly, because experience shows that this is not the case.

Exactly how Bishops and lay officers should be made accountable, and what safeguards there should be, is a matter for General Synod and/or its legal advisers; we ourselves are a little out of touch with the legal minutiae of the Church of England.

Sanctions which could be taken against lay officers might range from a formal verbal warning/rebuke through to debarring from office for a period of years. That lay officers are volunteers is not in itself a barrier to accountability.

The psychological safety of the working environment can be evaluated in terms of the number of clergy who suffer stress in ministry.

If you were advising a counselling service ............ what advice would you give?

In addition to the points we have already raised in relation to supporting stressed and bullied clergy, and about counselling in particular, we would advise the following:

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Where next?

BALM Home Page
Introducing the Founders of BALM
How to Support a Bullied Minister
What Not to Say to a Bullied Minister
How Bullying has Affected Me
Bullying and Spirituality
Group Dynamics
Links to Other Websites and Organisations
Book List
Counselling with Care
Bullied in Ministry
Bullying in the Church
Bullying and Burnout
Submission on Clergy Stress
Media Requests
Additional Resources on Church Abuse