Book review

Public People Private Lives

“Public People, Private Lives: Tackling Stress in Clergy Families ”, by Jean and Chris Burton;

This book has strong messages for all churches, as its analysis of research and consultation about Anglican clergy families lifts the lid on many difficult and stressful aspects of life in a clergy household, and also looks at problems that church leaders face in trying to meet their needs. Why does the church, one of whose tasks is to care for others, seem to find it so hard to care for its carers?

It is telling that although the families selected were seen as not having problems, so that any issues were those faced in the general run of clergy life, a couple of years later almost half showed a serious physical or emotional symptom of stress for one or more members and all the other families without exception gave indication of excessive strain.

There are privileges and delights that come with being part of a clergy family, but also both obvious and hidden pressures that can undermine and damage. The fact that these families put up with their situations, mostly without complaint, does not relieve others from their duty of care and the need to realise and be aware of what goes on, and to take some action. There was a strong feeling that issues were dealt with too late – unacknowledged both by those suffering them and by the hierarchy, until crisis point is reached.

There was also consultation with those involved in pastoral care and counselling of clergy families and those in positions of leadership in the church. Those who have responsibility for the care of the clergy are themselves shown to have lives that are very stressful, especially where there are conflicts in their responsibilities as line managers and also pastoral carers.

Congregations also have a role to play. Too often remarks can be made and attitudes demonstrated that reveal a lack of understanding about the ‘goldfish bowl’ existence that clergy families feel they are leading, or the expectations that are laid upon them. Clergy families are largely left to draw on their own spiritual, emotional and practical resources for support in most areas of their ministry and family life. Their isolation and idealism may make them cover up any problems that emerge as they are aware of strong pressure to be exemplary.

The unique and specific context within which clergy live and work raises issues ranging from the practical (moving, children’s education) to the financial (most clergy spouses need to work). By living in tied accommodation clergy forfeit a highly valued security in our home-owning society. Days off were an issue, and the church leaders struggle with this as much if not more so than other clergy. There were also personal and psychological issues raised by being away from extended family and living what should be private lives with the whole world apparently considering that clergy and their family and house are public property. When difficulties coincide in more than one area they can cause serious problems. Families also felt that displaying signs of stress may be considered personal and professional weakness and might damage career advancement.

The clergy appear to suffer from not having clear boundaries or definitions in their life and work situations, and this can lead to lack of motivation, conflict and anxiety within the family. If they are not able to find solutions to issues they felt they would be seen to be inept or lacking motivation or determination. It was suggested that clergy need a secure base with support, consultation, feedback and encouragement.

The leadership group took this seriously, but had few answers despite their obvious deep concern. They suffer from lack of finance, time, experience and the need for damage limitation. Difficulties tended to be dealt with in terms of crisis with the focus on demands made by problem rather than considering the reasons for it.

The problem of stress in clergy families belongs to us all and the whole church needs to work on it together. This book should be read by all those who are concerned with the welfare of the clergy, their families, their parishes, and the leaders of their churches.

The reviewer, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a clergy wife whose family took part in the research for this book.

Pub. Continuum: ISBN 978 082 642 612 3.

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