All posts by Sandy Matheson

Liquifraction – How Our World Has Been Shaken By Covid

In a conversation I had recently a friend mentioned an illustration that they used recently that I felt describes incredibly well what I, and I’m sure many others, have experienced over the past 18 months. During that time our whole world has been shaken by something no one expected or predicted. It has impacted every person in every nation across the whole world. The result is that our lives have been changed in multiple ways on multiple levels.

For me it has had a real impact on my mental health. I was already suffering from depression before Covid struck and the impact of Covid has only deepened and broadened that depression. But the pandemic has impacted us in many different ways. Our relationships have changed, for many of us we went months without seeing our children or parents. Some of us have missed out on the early years of our grandchildren. For this with school aged children the pandemic has severely impacted their education. Many have lost jobs or had their income significantly reduced. Where once we would have been happy in mixing with others fairly freely, even in crowded spaces, now we may be nervous and avoid such contact if at all possible. Many of us experienced online grocery shopping for the first time in our lives and still prefer to do so, not because it is better than going to the supermarket but because it minimised the possibility of catching covid.

The illustration comes from the world of geology. During earthquakes the ground can on occasions be so shaken that it loses it’s solid properties and becomes like a liquid. It is called liquefaction. I’m not a geologist or a scientist but this appears to be a real phenomena which you can google and even find a few YouTube videos showing the effects.

That is exactly what some of us have experienced over the past 18 months. The solid ground of things we relied on and trusted, the things we grown up with and haven learn’t to rely on, have all of a sudden trend to jelly or melted away. This is true in our relationships, our work settings and the church.

Team Ministry Model – Where’s The Evidence?

I can clearly remember a question that was asked of our acting Archdeacon at a zoom meeting of local clergy and churchwardens in early May this year. The opening question was simply ‘Why Teams?’ Why did the senior leadership of our diocese believe that Team Ministry was the model for parish organisation that was the best to produce future growth?

A short, and important, diversion about language and the use of technical terms. We all work in teams, whether that is our PCC, ministry team, worship team etc. etc. All clergy today are used to working in teams and for virtually all it is welcomed and the norm for ministry today. However whenever you see the word ‘team’ in any document that Portsmouth Diocese releases today they mean something very specific. A Church of England Team Ministry is where two or more parishes have combined to become a single parish. Clergy are no longer the vicar of a particular church or parish, they are now either the Team Rector (the visionary leader of the team) or they are Team Vicars (licensed to the entire team covering all churches in the new parish).

It is this technical context that the question ‘Why Teams?’ was asked. The question wasn’t answered, instead the response was ‘Why are we still asking that question, I thought we’d moved beyond that because we’ve been discussing this for the past year.’ The reality is that the leadership of our diocese may have been discussing legal Team Ministry for over a year but for the vast majority of clergy, churchwardens, PCCs and laity the conversations were only just starting.

That question ‘Why Teams?’ has never been answered despite multiple opportunities to do so. The question remains, where is the research and evidence that legal Team Ministry is the very best structure for future growth in depth, impact and numbers into the future?

It has been suggested that the new legal Team Ministries in North and South Gosport could be a pattern to be reflected in other parts of our diocese. On the surface this sounds great, and I hope and pray that both of these new Team Ministries grows and prospers and brings many to a living faith in Christ. However there are a number of problems with using this model for other parts of our diocese.

Firstly the parishes and churches that have been combined into these two new Team Ministries weren’t strong thriving parishes. You can’t take a model of church amalgamations where churches that have experienced decline and are struggling and apply that same model to churches that are strong, may be growing and have paid their parish share in full even in the teeth of the pandemic.

It is notable that there has been no overall reduction in stipendiary clergy posts in these two new Team Ministries. We understand that will not be the case elsewhere where there will need to be a reduction in clergy stipends in order to balance the diocesan budget.

It is also notable that in the Gosport Deanery there are two large, effective and strong churches that are not part of these new Team Ministries. Both these churches continue to be led by full time stipendiary ministers. This is interesting against a statement from the diocese that all churches in the diocese would be expected to become part of new legal Team Ministries with only one or two exceptions. Are both those exceptions in Gosport?

If we are embark on the largest change in the structure of Portsmouth Diocese in living memory with almost all churches becoming part of legal Team Ministries we need to see evidence that in other places this has led to sustained growth in depth, impact and numbers over 5-10 years. We also need to see evidence that this growth has continued through periods where there has been a change in both the Team Rector and the Team Vicars. North and South Gosport, the benefice of Newport Minster, St John and Carisbrooke and the Isle of Wight Deanery feasibility study are all too new to provide such evidence for many years to come.

Having had ample opportunities to provide evidence and persuade clergy, churchwardens and PCCs that legal Team Ministry is the way to go, and having very sadly failed to produce such evidence, it was rather galling to read in the latest paper from Portsmouth Diocese that amendments to the model of legal Team Ministries might be considered ‘based on evidence.’ We can only hope that any evidence to support the model proposed by the diocese is shared in the coming weeks and months before any decisions are made. Without this any changes are massive experiments that put at risk the livelihood and ministries of individual clergy and the mission of the churches they serve for many years to come.

Why Are There Upset, Stressed And Angry Clergy In Portsmouth Diocese?

A job for life is something of a bygone era. Many in our society today know the pain and anguish that can come from redundancy. Sadly more paid clergy are discovering that same pain within the Church of England today. Back in October 2020 Portsmouth Diocese started a process that will lead to changes in way that many of the churches in the diocese are led. There are good reasons behind this process that we understand and accept.

  • There is a need to reassess how churches are best structured and led to address a steady and prolonged decline in numbers with many of our churches.
  • We are also well aware of the impact of Covid on our own church finances and the knock on impact on the finances of our diocese as a whole.

Sadly the way this has happened has resulted in many clergy spending the last nine months not knowing whether they would lose their jobs through this process or not? And if their present role is to go will they be offered a new role in the revised structure or not, and what would that role be?

It is really important to bear in mind that when a stipendiary clergy person loses their job it has far more impact than others in our society being made redundant. Yes our job and role will be lost, our whole lives, the entire focus of our time and energy are invested in the parish we serve. We will lose our homes as we are legally required to live in the vicarage. Some of us are fortunate to have our own home to move to, but by no means all clergy have this option. We are also expected to cut all ties and relationships within the parish that we will be asked to leave. For some this will mean leaving and moving away from their entire friendship network.

But the change doesn’t just impact on clergy, it also has a massive impact on their families. Not only will clergy lose their homes and friends but wives and children are massively impacted as well. Some, or maybe many, clergy spouses today work. What will happen to their jobs? How far will they have to move and can they still retain their existing jobs? Children may have to move schools as well as moving homes, so their friendship network will be radically changed.

But there are more reasons why clergy are upset, stressed and angry.

One of the most significant areas of upset is that churches, clergy and laity together, were hoodwinked into thinking that the changes would be locally rooted and plans would be developed from the bottom up. We spent many, many hours in meetings and conversations, some of which were not easy. Through this we started to make progress towards planning for the future shape of churches within our deaneries. We bought in to these plans because we were deeply involved in producing them. However in March this year it emerged that the senior leadership of our diocese had different ideas. They had done their work and research in the background without our involvement, they had also paid an unspecified amount to a consultancy firm to help with their research and planning. The result was a strong recommendation, if not a directive, that, with only one or two exceptions across the whole diocese, all churches are to be reorganised into groups within what the Church of England calls Team Ministries. Now none of us have a problem with teams, indeed many of us are already leading teams. But legal Team Ministries are a different thing altogether and an option that many clergy are strongly opposed to either because they have been part of legal Team Ministries elsewhere that have been dysfunctional, haven’t worked or have led to decline rather than growth. Or they know friends or colleagues who have these experiences.

Whilst there is indeed a general and overall decline in church membership this isn’t true in every church. But the present approach from Portsmouth Diocese is talking about this narrative of decline, even in settings where there is growth, and tarring every church with the same brush of decline. The official statistics that the Church of England produces would show that the church that I lead is in decline because they are based on our main morning service. But these statistics don’t show the growth in our ministry to families which, pre-pandemic, was leading us into overall growth. Churches with visionary leaders, who are bucking the trend will, at present, be expected to undergo significant structural change that may well negatively impact on their future capacity to grow.

Some weeks ago I was a signatory to an open letter addressed to our Commissary Bishop and others in the leadership team in Portsmouth Diocese. This was signed by fourteen people, both clergy and laity. There are many more who would have signed the letter had they not feared for the impact that step might have on their future prospects. It is a really sad situation where Bishops hold such sway over clergy that they cannot speak openly and honestly for fear of the repercussions.

Sadly today Portsmouth Diocese is not a positive place to live and minister as a stipendiary clergy person. My local church community is great, however the wider context is incredibly stressful. Remember that all of this is in the context of one of the most stressful times to be a church leader in living memory.

On a personal basis I have accepted that my role will disappear through this reorganisation process. It hasn’t been easy to accept that likely outcome but I am almost certain it will happen. One of the real stresses for me now is not knowing when. Will I still be the Vicar of St Paul’s Sarisbury Green in six months, twelve months or eighteen months time? I don’t know and the not knowing is really stressful and difficult.

Update On The Future Of Ministry At St Paul’s

Back in the autumn of 2020 Portsmouth Diocese embarked on a process of consultations that will eventually lead to the restructuring of many parish churches across the diocese. This started with the diocese asking every deanery to compile a plan for how the churches within the deanery could best be structured to thrive and grow for the future. The background to the plan also included an awareness of financial difficulties in the diocese caused by the pandemic which will mean a reduction in the number of stipendiary clergy in Portsmouth Diocese. Considerable time, effort and energy was expended in collating and drawing up a plan for our deanery.

All the deanery plans were submitted to the Bishop’s Council in March this year, (this is the diocesan committee who have oversight of our diocese). The senior leadership for our diocese then made a presentation to Diocesan Synod. This presentation we were told at the time was an amalgamation of all the deanery plans into an overall plan for the diocese. The main strand of this diocesan plan was to create groupings of amalgamated parishes in legal Team Ministries. This was a surprise to many as it slowly emerged that this was not a main thread of the deanery plans, indeed some had specifically said this was not their preferred structure. It was included in a minority of the deanery plans and only in specific settings where it was felt that this was the best option.

Over 10 years ago the previous deanery plan had included St Paul’s reducing to a half time clergy post. With this in mind our PCC initially indicated our willingness to consider amalgamating with one other parish with a single PCC giving oversight to both churches and with a resource of one and a half stipendiary clergy posts. At our meeting in May this year our PCC passed the following resolution: ‘The PCC of St Paul’s Sarisbury Green affirm our commitment to increasing collaborative working with other churches in the Western Wards of Fareham.  We also affirm our previous agreement to explore further a legal Team Ministry with St John’s Locks Heath. However, we do not believe that a further expansion of that legal Team Ministry would be in the best interest of mission and ministry in the Western Wards.’

What would this mean for St Paul’s? Firstly it does not mean St Paul’s will close, indeed if this plan is accepted it gives the best opportunity for St Paul’s to grow and flourish with a reduction of stipendiary clergy resources. St Paul’s and St John’s would work closely together with a sharing of ministry and other resources between the two churches. I believe this is a good fit for St Paul’s. Both churches serve very similar communities. Both have a similar approach to our style of worship and both have an emphasis on ministry to families as a primary focus for mission and growth. There is a lot of synergy between our church congregations and our parishes. We would also work closely with our neighbouring parishes of Warsash and Titchfield. This could include shared Alpha Courses, Lent courses and other similar opportunities. We could explore sharing of the administration of funerals as well as sharing resources and expertise in other areas of administration. Those who work with families could meet together and again share resources, expertise and ideas. Collaboration could also include ministry to the retired, schools ministry and pastoral care.

But this structure differs from the preferred diocesan model which would amalgamate Locks Heath, Warsash, Titchfield and Sarisbury Green into one single mega-parish with a combined population of over 45,000, a combined average weekly attendance of nearly 500 and a combined parish share of over £300,000. Personally I think this would be a bad option for St Paul’s and more likely to lead to decline in the coming years. What are the reasons for my reticence to consider the diocesan preferred option?

  • Previous diocesan reorganisation plans were in areas with failing parishes. None of our four local parishes are failing. 
  • Whilst there is a lot of synergy between St Paul’s and St John’s this is far less the case with the churches in Warsash and Titchfield. These are are far more village churches with a lot less in common with St Paul’s in the areas of style and ethos.
  • In this mega-parish St Paul’s would be the smallest church and therefore stands the possibility of being squeezed out.
  • To amalgamate the four parishes would take a considerable amount of time, effort and energy. Whilst this could be achieved it will severely detract us from our focus on mission for a significant time.
  • The diocese believes this structure will free clergy from governance and administration, however I believe it will do exactly the opposite with additional levels of governance and meetings being required.
  • There are no examples in Portsmouth Diocese of any legal Team Ministries that have led to sustained growth, indeed the pattern in this diocese is of decline.
  • I personally know of three examples from colleagues who have been involved in legal Team Ministries that have resulted in decline and the eventual breaking up of those Team Ministries back into individual parish churches. Personally I don’t know of any colleagues who have been part of successful legal Team Ministries that have led to sustained growth.
  • There is nothing that I’m aware of within the structure of a legal Team Ministry that cannot equally be achieved within a group pf individual parishes who willingly collaborate together.

The process of planning the restructuring of parishes and churches across the diocese started as a bottom up process where plans were to be locally rooted and based on the extensive local knowledge of clergy, churchwardens and PCCs. Amongst the clergy there is also a wealth of previous experience from many parts of the Church of England of differing church structures. This local knowledge and experience is a vital part of any restructuring at a time when the senior leadership of the diocese has undergone significant changes of personnel who now know little of the local contexts. Sadly, at present, the process appears to have switched to a top down process where local churches will have little say in the primary ways in which churches are restructured and only an input on how this is implemented locally.

Thankfully the breakneck speed of this process has recently been slowed to allow greater time for conversations and for plans to be developed. However the need for change has not gone away and any outcome is almost certain to include significant change for our church community and for me personally. 

Questions and comments are welcomed. Please either comment here or send me an email at

How risk averse are you?

One of my observations over the past months is that how we respond to the rules and regulations regarding Covid 19 indicates a lot about how much of a risk taker people are, or perhaps how risk averse they are. There is a sliding scale of compliance with the regulations from those who pushing, if not breaking, the boundaries to those who go way beyond them, often for health reasons.

How do we as Christians respond to these rules and regulations? Is it OK to bend or break the rules or should we be careful to obey them?

As a Christian leader I believe that we have a biblical mandate to obey the laws of our land as long as how laws do not contravene core principles of our faith. In the case of Covid 19 I believe the Christians should adhere to the rules and be seen to do so.

It is with deep concern that I have seen Christian leaders and churches openly and brazenly break the rules. Some met during lockdown when all church buildings were legally closed whilst Others have had congregational singing. Whilst I long to be able to sing in our services I won’t do so for two reasons. Firstly it is against the regulations and secondly it puts our congregations at a high risk of passing on the virus.

But what about us individually. We are in Tier 2 and the regulations state:
You must not socialise with anyone you do not live with or who is not in your support bubble in any indoor setting, whether at home or in a public place.
You must not socialise in a group of more than 6 people outside, including in a garden or a public space – this is called the ‘rule of 6’.

How are you at keeping these regulations? Has anyone who is not part of your household been inside your home in the past weeks?

By it’s very nature a church services is a social setting. We are the community of followers of Jesus. And yet we are not to socialise when we gather. I know it’s hard, and I know it goes against our instincts. But socialising brings with it a greater risk of passing on the virus and we wouldn’t want to be the one to do that, would we? So don’t sit with someone who isn’t in your household or support bubble. And when you leave, and I know this is really hard, but keep distanced and follow the rue of six.

Oh – and a thought about support bubbles. These aren’t open and flexible for us to be in more than one and move from one to the next as we want to. They are fixed, and for good reason.

And then we come to Christmas. The regulations will be changing to allow us to meet in groups, or Christmas bubbles, of up to three households. But that bubble is also fixed and you can’t meet one set of family on Christmas Day and a different set of family on Boxing Day etc. It does however mean if you have formed a ‘Christmas bubble’ when you join us in our building on Christmas Day you can sit with that bubble.

Because you can doesn’t mean you have to. So the permission is there for wider gatherings, but please think very carefully before you do. Personally we could have had both our children and their families round for lunch on Christmas Day, but we won’t. Instead we will meet outside in some way. It will be difficult and it will hurt, but as an asthmatic I’m aware how careful I need to be, and the end is in sight now.

Please, please, please do your utmost to obey the regulations. I am incredibly fortunate that I haven’t yet been asked to take the funeral of someone I know who had died of Covid and I really don’t want that day to come. I may be verging on the very risk averse side but I’d rather be there and safe.

What will change in the CofE actually look like?

Over the past decades the Church of England has divested itself already of all of the easy downsizing options. As I look around our area none of the churches are on their last legs (yet). All have active congregations and all are engaging in some ways with mission and outreach. And there comes the rub, some, if not many, of these churches will lose their stipendiary leadership in the near future.

We may need to close some churches entirely! We may need to close some churches as they exist today with the congregations encouraged to move to other local churches. That would then allow the buildings to be used as resources for fresh mission, outreach and evangelism.

As we move into the next season of church life we must be willing to change, because whether we like it or not change is going to happen, and to be honest it needs to happen. If we carry on as we are the church as we know it will cease to exist in the next 10 to 20 years.

That will be painful.

Let me paint an entirely hypothetical scenario.

In the coming reorganisation a large parish of the churches in the Western Wards of Fareham is created. This encompasses St John’s Locks Heath, St Mary’s Warsash, St Paul’s Sarisbury Green and Whiteley Church. Each church no longer has it’s own PCC but each has representation on a joint, new PCC for the new mega parish.

Across that parish there will be two full time stipendiary priests and one half time. The compares with the present situation of two full time, one half time and one three quarter time (yes I know it’s odd the way the CofE has done things!). One of the full time posts will be mainly focussed on growing a new church community in Whiteley. This might be supported by another church in the diocese helping to provide a strong foundation for future growth.

That leaves one full time person and one half time person to support ministry in Locks Heath, Warsash and Sarisbury. Sunday ministry will look different. There is no longer a morning service at St Paul’s on any Sunday. Morning services at St John’s and Warsash have also been reorganised with a more traditional form of worship at Warsash each Sunday and a more contemporary form of worship at St John’s.

In Sarisbury the focus is on children and families. There is now a service every Sunday afternoon. This alternates between one focussing on younger children and their families which is similar to our present Tea Service and one that focusses on older children and their families.

So much for Sunday mornings, what about the rest of the week. Across the church communities there is now a joint Open The Book team that leads Collective Worship in all the Church Primary schools on a regular basis. One of the clergy focuses on this ministry and on building links, relationships and connections with all the schools.

There is also a combined ministry for those who are retired. This has a regular lunchtime session at St Mary’s every week which combines a social time over lunch with short times of worship, a thought for the day and sometimes guest speakers on a variety of subjects.

Administration is a headache for all clergy, however as there is only one PCC this burden is significantly lessened. St John’s is the administration centre for the whole mega parish. All baptism, wedding and funeral enquires are funnelled to the admin team at St John’s. There is a pastoral team which works across the whole area which has responsibility for baptism preparation and bereavement visiting. This team also covers many of the pastoral needs across the area.

Finances are now centralised so there is now one treasurer and one set of accounts. There is a clear budget set and each person with responsibility for an area of ministry has an allocated budget to work within.

However these changes have had an impact on the giving across the new parish. Before the changes their joint income was nearly half a million pounds of which a quarter of a million pound was given to the Diocese in Parish Share. Income has dropped by 20% and the new joint parish is no longer able to contribute it’s full parish share each year. It is however hopeful that the new congregations started will within the next 5 years start to give more and help the parish to return to positive balances.

There has also been a reduction in the overall numbers of people attending services. For some the change was simply too much and they have stopped attending any church. For others the time during the pandemic has meant they have developed new patters of life and habit and again no longer attend. Still others are now attending other local churches and for some whilst they do attend it is less often.

Other things have gone. None of the churches produces a church magazine any more. None of the clergy are now ex-officio governors at our schools, that role has been taken by lay people. Whilst each congregation has a clear leader, that person is no longer necessarily ordained. There are significantly less communion services than there were before. Music is now organised across the whole of the area with one choir who has become a festival choir. There are now three music groups who rehearse together and support the services across the different centres.

I could go on …….

This is entirely hypothetical. But how would you react if something like this happened? Would you stay connected? Would you stop attending entirely? Does this excite you with new opportunities and possibilities?

The Church Is Now Irrelevant To Many In Our Society

At a recent meeting of clergy we were asked to think about how we might restructure our group of churches (the Anglican Church calls them a deanery) if we were starting from scratch. That’s a great question, the difficulty is that we aren’t starting from scratch. We have history in our buildings and our church structures that goes back for hundreds of years. We also have traditions in our church communities today that go back 50 or more years. So we can’t start from scratch. But we can’t continue as we have been.

I find this image challenging every time I see it.

It is the Choluteca Bridge in Honduras and was built so that it could withstand the worst of hurricanes. When Hurricane Mitch came in 1998 the bridge survived but the roads disappeared and the river moved. In many ways that is a deeply challenging picture of the state of much of the church in the UK. The storms of cultural change over the past 50 years or more have moved the river of culture and society but the church remains largely where it was. That has to change and maybe with the financial impact of the Coronavirus now is the time for radical, and painful, change to happen.

It is now inevitable that we will have to significantly reduce the number of paid clergy posts in churches. I’ve heard estimates from 15% upwards and in some dioceses I suspect it will be significantly more. What we must avoid al all costs is the solution that the Church of England has run with for the past decades and that is to spread the jam ever more thinly. I am incredibly fortunate in that I am the vicar of a single parish. Many of my colleagues have 5, 10 or even more parishes that they are responsible for leading. The result is that they cannot truly give the time energy and vision to any of the churches to lead to growth. The side effect is stress and burnout of clergy up and down this nation. And the Coronavirus has only exacerbated the situation.

What will change look like?

That’s a tough question but it if is to be effective it must involve pretty significant change for every church, not just a few.

We have a historic structure with historic legal frameworks. Every church has their own organising committee of trustees (which we call the Parochial Church Council or PCC). Each has their own church wardens, treasurer, secretary, Safeguarding officer, gift aid person etc. etc. One of the necessary changes will be to reduce this administrative and legal framework significantly. It must also free the clergy of some of the responsibilities that have today.

But let me be honest here, many of us are control freaks! We insist on having oversight and control in most, if not all areas of church life. That must change, and that won’t be easy! Why should the vicar be the editor of the church magazine, dare we ask whether we now need a church magazine at all in these days of social media? Many of the things that clergy cherish as their responsibility will have to be passed on to others, and if no one is there to take them up – then they have to stop altogether!

Many of the regular members of our congregations have been with us for years, if not decades. The clergy have fed, watered and counselled them. In doing so we have created dependance. That also has to change. Most have been with us long enough to feed themselves and not rely on the food from the vicar in her/his weekly sermon. Indeed I would ask if the sermon as we know it is in any way an appropriate way of teaching today, when was the last time you saw a lesson school led like a lecture?

As clergy we have a problem of age. I was looking round the clergy in our deanery during a recent Zoom meeting and the higher proportion were getting on a bit! And I include myself in that description. I have led one church community for 17 years. In that time I believe we have had a significant impact on our local community. We are known, respected and and welcomed by many locally. At Christmas we have over 1500 people (except this year!) through our church building, and yet our main Sunday congregation has on average 50 adults. When I look round those Christmas services I know the majority of the people.

But I am now out of touch and of an entirely different generation from the people we are seeking to reach. What our church needs is me in the middle of my 40s not me as I now am over 60! I was also trained at a time when pioneer ministry had hardly been heard of let alone taught. Sadly, as I look back, I was being trained in a style of ministry that was already leading to the death of the church!

The church today desperately needs fresh vision, energy, enthusiasm and a style of leadership that relates to the missing generations from our churches. The Gospel will never change, but the way it is expressed and communicated has to change with successive generations. We live at a time when the pace of change in out society has been faster than ever before. Sadly to me, as hard as I have tried, I have found it incredibly difficult to understand that change and express the Gospel in a way that is accessible for younger generations.

Maybe now may well be the time for some of us lovingly and graciously to had on the baton of church leadership. That will be hard for many church communities, but every harder for the clergy and their families.

Chronic Pain Is Coming To The CofE

Is this a once in a lifetime opportunity to set the Church of England up differently for mission and growth rather than decline? It may well be but there will be a heavy cost paid by some.

The Church of England is not immune to the financial difficulties that have come from the recent pandemic. My own diocese has taken out multi million pound business continuity loan as well as receiving hundreds of thousands from central church funds. That will however only paper over the gaps for a short time. The bottom line is income to all churches and all dioceses is down significantly. With the second lockdown and no knowledge of when we will return to a semblance of ‘normality’ the institution of the Church of England has to plan now for the future.

Like most other organisations the greatest expenditure is on people. Unlike most other organisations it will not be quick to change that. The process for pastoral reorganisation that will result in redundancies is likely to take between 18 months and 2 years depending on who you speak to. So each diocese needs to look towards budgeting for 2022 and 2023 and estimating what the income will be! Not an easy task.

The bottom line is that many stipendiary clergy across the whole of the Church of England are likely to be made redundant. Think for a moment what that means and the pain that will be felt in every one of those households. It will mean not only losing the income of a stipend, but also the security of housing, as that will go as well. It means cutting themselves off from the community that they have been serving, in my case for 17 years. They will have to find new housing for themselves and their families outside of the parish where they serve. They may well apply for vacant posts, but as many are made redundant the ‘competition’ for these will become difficult. Some will not be able to find another post within the Church of England. That’s a massive ask, but it is now inevitable.

Will the pain be borne primarily be clergy and their families, or are our church communities willing to bear a share of the pain as well? If our church communities still expect their services to continue as before, if they still expect the vicar to be a governor on the board of the local church school and if they expect the same level of leadership and pastoral care as before, if there is an expectation that communion will still be the primary expression of worship then it will all have been in vain.

If we are going to go through the pain barrier it must be worthwhile. And the only way it can be that is if we reset our structures for mission, growth and evangelism rather than the maintenance of long held traditions and how things have always been done.

Are you prepared to share the pain that is coming down the road along with Vicars, Priests-In-Charge and Rectors?

I must also ask will the pain primarily be felt in the parishes? I was speaking to a friend a few weeks ago who said that since the 1950s the graph of Anglican Church attendance has been in a severe downward direction, however, he contended, at the same time the number of Bishops in the Church of England has been on an upwards curve! Will the changes impact on the senior posts in equal measure to parish posts?

I’m an Anglican Vicar and I feel like giving up!

One of the things that I have learnt through having depression is that so often it is a silent disease. But it’s only when we start talking about it that we discover that we’re not alone and lots of others are going through the same struggles. We are created by God to be unique, but, at the same time, others experience life in a similar way to the way we do. This reflection is very personal, it is about me, my personality, my situation and my struggles. However I strongly suspect there are lots more who experience life in similar ways.

As a church minister we don’t often talk about things that are difficult. Within the Church of England, and probably other denominations, there is a sense of deference to senior diocesan clergy and a fear of saying it as it is. The fear is that we won’t be taken seriously, that we could jeopardise future help and support from within our diocese and that our future prospects will be marred with a black mark against our name. And then there’s the totally wrong perception of competition with other local churches. I daren’t admit that I’m failing or struggling. So often we only hear the good stories and not the difficult ones.

Well I’m 62 in January, about four years off retirement. I’m not likely to move to another clergy post so I’m no longer worried about saying it as it is. Maybe my depression has changed me!

This is personal so a bit of background. In May 2019 I was told by my doctor that I was suffering from work related stress, depression and anxiety and he signed me off work. That came as a real surprise and a shock to me. After about 2 months I slowly began to feel better and started thinking about returning to ministry. However I was then diagnosed with possible cancer and was off until November with two operations under general anaesthetic, but in November was finally told the lump was benign. I returned to ministry in November and worked through Christmas and the start of 2020. By the end of February I was going downhill again and then – yes – the pandemic struck. And yes my depression deepened. I’ve struggled through but as I write this I’m just over a week on from a change in medication and my low moods aren’t as deep or as long which is great.

So yes, this comes from about 18 months of suffering from stress, anxiety and depression.

So why do I feel like giving up?

Firstly you need to understand what virtually no one who hasn’t been a full time church leader understands. That what we do is lonely and isolating. It is tough and difficult even when things are going well. You are aware that whatever you do you will always upset some. You also need to know that being a full time church leader takes a real toll on our spouses and families.

I am an introvert, and so I make few friends and the friendships I make tend to be longer lasting. At least that’s the theory. We moved church communities 3 times in 6 years, moving house twice in that time. Sadly the distance in time has meant those older friendships are hardly there at all for me. I’ve been in my present post for 17 years and, as most people in church leadership know, it’s next to impossible to have true friends within the church where you minister. There are challenges, difficulties and confidences that you simply cannot share with even the closest friends within your church community.

And then Covid struck. Almost overnight it deleted almost every setting of community for most of us. We weren’t allowed to meet, even our church buildings were closed. What had always been difficult but manageable became really, really tough as the feeling of loneliness and isolation deepened. I saw others leaning into their friendships and relationships both within and outside of the church. But for me those simply weren’t there.

Through this it would be amazing if I could say we were loved, cared for and supported. But, if I’m honest, we have only felt that rarely. You might think that we would be well supported and cared for by the senior clergy in the diocese, our Archdeacon and Bishop. You might think that but the reality is sadly different, although my archdeacon may disagree with me! One phone call in March and agreement to pay for more counselling, but nothing more despite them knowing I was depressed and having counselling. That is on top of receiving virtually no pastoral care when I was off sick for six months in 2019 and not even having the most basic of HR support when I returned to parish life. Not even a phone call after returning to parish ministry to ask how I was doing!

I was recently asked what would good pastoral care for church leaders from their institutions look like at the moment in Covid? It’s actually not a straightforward question to answer. I would say regular contact, at least monthly, by phone, card or email always making the open invitation for a conversation. True pastoral concern for who we are rather than what we do. And this needs to come from the senior church leaders. In the Anglican Church Ares Deans can and do offer support which is gratefully received. However it is entirely different to receive support from those in authority. I’m aware that our Archdeacons and Bishops have been impacted by Covid just as much as parish clergy have been. They too are stressed and stretched. However if they don’t have the time, or consider it isn’t in their job description to offer pastoral care and support to parish clergy then something has gone very badly wrong.

My support network has been with local colleagues with whom I’ve been able to share fairly openly as we’ve met, mainly virtually, every fortnight or so. And also a mentor who I’ve met with regularly.

I followed a recent thread in a closed group for vicars recently regarding APCMs. The questions was how often have you been thanked for what you do as the vicar? The overwhelming response has been only rarely, if at all. The impression of most is that while we lead the thanks for others in our church communities it’s rare for anyone to publicly thank the vicar.

Think about yourself, if you are not a church leader. When was the last time you sent a card saying I’m thinking of you, or dropped round a small gift, or phoned them up simply to ask how are you?

So I feel like giving up.

You know it’s incredibly tough to see 17 years of hard graft and toil decimated by the pandemic and my depression. What has kept me going for so long has been the opportunity to minister amongst families and children. Weekly Open The Book assemblies, school Christmas, Easter and Leavers services, our Tea Service for families which was growing a new congregation of the generation that are missing from so many churches. Through Covid and my depression all of that has gone for over six months, and most of this looks nearly impossible for at least the next six months as well.

So I feel like giving up.

For the past 17 years I have sought to preach, teach and lead in such a way that Sunday wasn’t seen as the centre and heart of church life. Yes, I probably didn’t do that as well as I could. But what is happening now is that church life revolves, once again, around Sunday. In fact the majority of time, effort and energy in almost every church I know of has gone into making Sunday the heart of church life again. Whilst this meets the desires and wants of most of those who have attended our churches in the past it will never reach the 95 percent who see church as irrelevant.

So I feel like giving up.

On top of all that the financial realities that have impacted so many others are just about to hit the Church of England. Our diocese will have to make massive financial savings and the only real way of doing that is to reduce the number of paid clergy. We are just starting conversations in our deanery (group of churches) that might lead to me being made redundant, or as the Church of England calls it, being pastorally reorganised so there is no longer a post for me. I enter into that process with no trust in the abilities of our senior church structures of being able to run a good process. I shared with our congregation that there may not be a post for me in 12-18 months time and went into more details with our PCC. Did anyone ask how I was, or how my wife was? Did anyone say ‘Are you OK.’ No not a single person.

So I feel like giving up.

But I won’t give up! Why?

Well firstly and formostely because I am absolutely clear that God called me to become the vicar of this church. He has yet to tell me that He has rescinded that calling. That may be me rather than God as my spiritual experience has been that God has been on mute for the past many months. But even If I’m deaf God is big enough to tell me clearly and I haven’t heard that yet!

Secondly because I can’t afford to. I won’t get my state pension until I’m 66 and that is still four and a bit years off. Until then I can’t afford to retire and finding another post for four years that is local to our children would be next to impossible.

Finally, and most importantly, because of the 95 percent. We used to have a notice up in the entrance porch of our church that said; “St Pauls’ is a Church for the Unchurched and a Church for Children.” One day a member of our church community asked me – so where am I in that statement? Good question. I wanted to say, you’ve been part of this church for many years, you’ve received teaching, support and nurture. You should by now be able to care for yourself as a Christian and start teaching, supporting and nurturing others who are not yet part of our church community. Yes it is important to care for those who are already part of our church communities, but what about the 95 percent who think God, Jesus and church are irrelevant to them. Early on in my time at St Paul’s I used to say my vision is to get to heaven and to take as many other people with me as possible, deep down that vision is still the one that drives me.

I still feel like giving up but I won’t because of the 95 percent.

Is this a cry for help – possibly. But it is far more a call for church institutions of all denominations to take seriously the pastoral care of church leaders who have been stressed, and stretched beyond imagination by the pandemic. It is a cry for ordinary Christians also to care for and support their church leaders who have been doing a nearly impossible job over the past six months, and the next six months aren’t looking much easier.

I don’t want to be here!

From time to time I’m sure we’ve all felt we didn’t want to be doing what we were doing, whether that was looking after children, being in a church service or going to work. We all have the times the we feel we’d rather be at the beach, or doing something entirely different. I certainly admit to that on occasional Sunday mornings over the years.

There’s a story of someone saying to their spouse ‘I don’t want to go to church this morning’ and the response comes back ‘You have to. You’re the Vicar!!!’ I can clearly remember the Sunday when I felt I don’t what to be here. Not just as a preference and I’d like to be somewhere else more enjoyable, but I’d rather be anywhere else than here. It happened one Sunday and happened regularly over a period of months before I had my breakdown. There were occasions when I felt like walking out of the back door of the church during a service!

What does a vicar do when they feel like that? You can’t be totally open and tell everyone! I told a very few close friends, some of whom have no connection with St Paul’s. Most were very understanding, supportive and helpful. But I was also told to man up and get over it as we all feel like that at times.

The reality is that most people in our church community never knew what was going on inside me. I still led services and preached. I still celebrated communion. I still was a part of our Open The Book team each week and took services in the community. I still took our Remembrance, Christingle, Christmas and other big services as usual. I was still a governor at two local schools. etc. etc.

There were one or two however who did notice – thank you so much, it really means a lot to me that you knew and you cared.

What would I say to other church leaders who experience the feeling that they’d rather be anywhere else than leading their church service? Get help now. Don’t wait. I waited far too long.

The difficulty is it’s very difficult to get help in the midst of ministry. What I needed was a break and professional counselling but that was only available after I was signed off work due to stress!