Monday, January 04, 2010

Clergy Bullying 'rife'?

BBC report today on bullied clergy:

Workplace bullying of the clergy has become "rife", according to the union Unite which says priests are being picked on by bishops and parishioners.

The union has set up a hotline where the clergy can report abuse, and says it deals with up to 150 cases a year.

"Bishops have got a lot nastier", says the Reverend Gerry Barlow, chair of the faith workers branch of Unite. Unite says the bullying frequently comes from superiors within the church who may be under financial pressure.

"A bullying case can go on for a long time", says Terry Young, a former minister who runs the helpline. "They're picked on for everything they do wrong, so in the end the person runs around terrified. You see these people unsupported, driven into depression and a nervous breakdown."

There are roughly 8,000 stipendiary clergy, though I guess Unite covers the non-stipendiaries too. Over the last 10 years, roughly 250 per year have left the CofE payroll - some of this is movement to other posts (e.g. chaplaincies, Diocese of Europe, work with other agencies like CPAS), but without more detail it's impossible to know how many have quit through stress, who might otherwise have stayed with a better working environment.

This is a topic Bishop Alan has regularly covered, and he has plenty of good reflections on the nature of bullying, and what to do about it. It's an issue the CofE as a whole is alive to: the report Dignity At Work, published in June 2008, is a report on bullying and the clergy, with suggested policies and procedures for Dioceses who want to take it seriously. It would be interesting to know how many Dioceses now have such a policy in place.

At present there's nothing about this on the Unite website, and nothing else on the web, so I'm not quite sure where this story has come from. Given that Unite also covers clergy from non-Anglican churches, and from other faiths, so it's not clear if that 150 is just CofE clergy (in which case it's about 2% of clergy, which is pretty high) or of everyone covered by the union.

Back in the dim and distant past, when I worked for Clarks shoes, one or two people I was 'managing' ended up off with stress and physical ailments, mainly because I was so rubbish at my job. At the same time there were others who I found very intimidating, and was glad to get moved to a different placement after 6 months. The nature of power and authority is so muddled in the CofE that pretty much anyone could end up bullied by anyone else, if the personalities and situation conspire in that direction.

I can tick off in my mind several cases which might end up on this hotline, so it's good that it's there, but it would be even better if the support and love was there from the local and Diocesan community. Unfortunately, parishes are such sealed units that it's very difficult to pop 'over the fence' to offer support, and when you're down and being kicked, it's very difficult to ask for support in the first place.

For interest: Church Times online question about whether people were aware of bullying in their church. 80% of respondents (296 at time of writing) voted 'yes'.

And two questions:
1. how does anyone know that Bishops have 'got a lot nastier'? That's quite a brush to tar the men in purple with. Is the number of reported cases going up, or down? And if so, is that because the helpline is now better known, and the CofE itself is giving this issue a higher profile?

2. Financial pressure may mean that there are redundancies in the pipeline. This is probably a new situation for many dioceses. Redundancy is never great (unless you hated the job anyway), but Dioceses need to do some thinking about how they go about this. Voting through a job cut in Diocesan Synod with the post holder present and debating the point doesn't sound ideal. What's the alternative?

Update: interesting piece by Ruth Gledhill, links roundup at Sam Norton.


  1. Unite have been on this one for a while. I suspect this was a pre-Christmas story that got relegated by the BBC.

    I have absolutely no doubt that many clergy are treated absolutely terribly by members of their congregations (and have seen this first hand). But I don't think trade unionism is the answer. Areas and Diocese need to step up and support local clergy more.

  2. And some clergy treat their congregations very badly - power trips, the lot! Still none of us is perfect, and I would be so bad at it. I can preach, but not pastor.

  3. hmm this warrants a more general blog on the topic but I would want to argue that a bollocking doesn't amount to bullying. The flat structure of the C of E means that there is virtually no recourse to a dispute with an incumbent without it becoming very serious and the breadth of job description means that congregations can get immensely frustrated and find it very difficult to bring clergy to book. On the other hand when they succeed it can look a lot like overkill. I love working in business where accountability is usually very clear (and the measures not just financial). Churches by comparison are a nightmare. Give me work with the pagans any day by comparison. They normally treat each other better...

  4. Sadly this is all too familiar. It's not just Bishps and congregations who bully - it's vicars too. For the last few years I've been an assistant ordained member of staff in a reasonably large church, and I'm by no means the first member of staff (lay or ordained) to have a complete breakdown of relationships with the incumbent.
    I've been off work since September with depression, and have now left, before my next job is officially finalised. Since I've been off work the incumbent has sent bullying emails to my perosnal email address; lies were spread about me and wife publicly by him; and gossip for the 'real reason' for my absence was allowed to spread. The diocese started supportive, but they've recently backed away. The Archdeacon was quite open about this - he said to me it was a difficult situation for him because the church is one of the major finanical contributors to the diocese.
    The sad fact is church people - diocesan staff, clergy, congregation - are scared of rocking the boat when you live in a church house and the stipend is your only income; or when the church is outwardly 'successful' and seems to be moving forward; or when the diocese don't want to endanger one of their all too rare success stories.
    In the meantime, people get crushed. This is urgent. One day it will get even messier than my own experience, and one day one of these situations will get vey public and a lot of people will get hurt.

  5. Anonymous - I'm very sorry to hear of what you'e been through, and it sounds like you've been let down badly by the structures which are supposed to support you.

    The instances of bullying/power trips that come to mind do seem to be more concentrated in 'prestige' churches where the Rector (it's often a Rector - dreadful title, means 'ruler') is a bit too precious about the status of their role, and of their church. I know of one large church in the SW which drove two successive curates into a nervous breakdown. But as CM says, it goes the other way too, and you don't have to travel very far from here to find a couple of examples.

  6. As someone who moved to Worcester diocese (where the current allegations are of bullying are being made) from elsewhere, I have to say that my experience of the senior clergy and bishops in this Diocese has been wholly positive.