Love your church minister

No – not me. Well, you can if you like. But more an invitation to head over to Malcolm Round’s blog and read a post that he wrote a couple of weeks ago which has now been read by thousands of people, being copied and referenced all over the web.

Malcolm has really hit a nerve in writing about how congregations treat their clergy – beginning with this:

Sadly the Christian church is littered with good people who have left the ministry because of the pain, the criticism, and the lack of support they’ve got from congregations. Some Christians assume they can behave in a church setting in a way they’ve never be allowed to in a work setting. Minister abuse is much more common than is talked about.

I know exactly what he is talking about and very many clergy will know it all too well.

Malcolm raises a number of very pertinent questions that I think need a lot of talking about. The most striking questions this piece prompts for me are these:

  • What level of discipline should exist in a voluntary organisation like a congregation, particularly when the congregation has an ethos of inclusion and welcome? After all, churches tend to exist for the purpose of adding more to their numbers. How do they manage anti-social and particular anti-clerical behaviour?
  • In my own denomination, what part does the anti-clericalism that is the unfortunate and entirely unnecessary product of so many of our conversations about affirming lay ministry play in this?
  • Who cares for the pastors of the church and how?

The bad behaviour that Malcolm talks about leaves him saying:

Such treatment sadly has become normative in the ordained church life.  Which is one of the reasons I personally will virtually never support anybody going into full-time ‘ordained’ parish ministry.

When a senior church leader says that then the rest of us ought to be paying attention and carrying on a serious conversation about it. This is important and significant stuff.

So, hop on over to Malcolm’s blog and take a read.


  1. Fr Steve says

    As a parish priest for over 30 years I heartily concur.
    The abuse not only hits the clergy but also our families. I look at my own children…they just shrug their shoulders now and say “Well that’s what the church is like…meaning abusive, inconsiderate, and exploitative.
    My eldest daughter who is a warm, intelligent person will probably never darken the door of a church again because she perceives that we are NOT a loving community. While I know it is not quite that straightforward I also know too many clergy children and spouses who have felt that that too have been abused along with their priestly fathers or mothers.
    May God help us!

  2. In fact I was just talking about this with a colleague at the University of St Andrews a couple of days ago. I left full-time parish ministry at Easter 2006 to help set up a new web team at the University. I remember, not even two months into the job, remarking that I had received more affirmation, encouragement and praise in six weeks there than I had in seven years in parish ministry.

    Moving out of parish ministry also gave me the space and time to first recognise and accept that my previous two GPs had been right, that I had been suffering from depression, and second to do something about it in an environment that gave me the space and support to heal. Which is ironic given that my MTh dissertation had been about priesthood as a model for healing.

  3. Robin says

    There is truth in what Malcolm Round and you write. Of course there is. But there is another side to it, that shouldn’t be overlooked.

    As one who has in years past seen huge pain and distress brought to laypeople by unwanted and inappropriate liturgical change imposed on unwilling worshippers by insensitive priests for no good reason that I can see other than a desire to impose their own ‘stamp’ on a congregation, I can’t resist quoting at length an excellent article by C S Lewis:

    “It looks as if they [innovative clergy] believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain — many give up churchgoing altogether — merely endure.

    “Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value. And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best — if you like, it ‘works’ best — when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

    “But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about the worship is a different thing from worshipping. The important question about the Grail was ‘for what does it serve?’ ‘‘Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.’

    “A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the questions ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, ‘I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.’

    “Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. …But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship. You give me no chance to acquire the trained habit — habito dell’arte.”

    • Much as I love C S Lewis, I think he is largely mistaken. Keeping things fixed at a particular point in time leads to a liturgy that is incomprehensible to the congregation except for those who have aged with it and who will go to the grave with it, and it with them. Certainly liturgical changes are unlikely to suddenly have people flocking to the pews, but they can ease the movement into the presence of God for those who are there. That won’t be the case for everyone, and a good priest will try to make small and gradual changes, as far as possible, to support the congregation’s spiritual development rather than chopping and changing constantly. Sometimes though, the only feeding going on is the feeding of a habit, and then the service needs to change.

    • Agatha says

      Well, that’s the first time I’ve heard “innovative” used as an insult! I wonder, then, if CS Lewis would have disapproved of his books being read on Kindles and films of his books being watched on ipads? The only constant in life is change, much much more so than when Lewis wrote. And isn’t there another saying that familiarity breeds contempt?

      Robin seems to be suggesting that one bad turn deserves another. Nothing justifies unpleasant behaviour to another, least of all a dislike of change.

  4. Rosemary Hannah says

    Generally I would say that in the end, the priest is the leader, and one needs to follow, or to leave. I think bringing a concern to a priest is fine. ‘I am seriously concerned about …’ is something that one has to be free to say once. The problem arises when that approach is not balanced. When ‘Dear Rev Bloggs, I am concerned about …’ becomes either ‘As I have been saying for the last ten months …’ or even worse ‘So how can we get together to ensure that the Rev Bloggs …’

    Normal human rules apply at all times. And common sense – sometimes walking away from a situation is the very best thing to do. That study group. or choir, may just do better without you.

    Also techniques for shutting down back-biting need to be ruthlessly applied by by laity to laity. ‘You are talking about somebody I greatly respect.’ works wonders.

    Part of the problem is caused by people who have considerable personal problems and who also make things pretty horrible for laity. Trust me on this.

    And sometimes the clergy, too, do really unhelpful things – and to be honest, one will be really lucky to get through a life as a church member without one of them happening to either oneself or to a close friend.

    Given that this is so, I do wonder how far structures are to blame – too many people working in too much isolation. How to weave things into a sensible coherent whole, where both clergy and laity are supported. How the odd wrong comment (utterly inevitable in any human situation) can be managed and the damage done sorted out before it festers.

  5. Robin says

    > Robin seems to be suggesting that one bad turn deserves another. Nothing justifies unpleasant behaviour to another, least of all a dislike of change.

    What I object to is the not uncommon use of liturgical change as an instrument of control by a new incumbent. In my experience, liturgical change has sometimes been introduced to “show who’s boss” and put the laity in their place. If the result is the alienation of some of the faithful and a fall in attendance and commitment, this doesn’t seem to matter.

    It isn’t just ministers/priests who can be hurt. Laypeople can sometimes be hurt too, and I’m not convinced that it’s always “for their own good”, as ordained church leaders want to have us believe.

  6. I’m pleased to say that the negative experiences recorded above are not the whole picture. After 8 years in my current parish, I can honestly say I have never felt unappreciated, unloved or unaffirmed (though occasionally misunderstood!) – either by my congregations or deanery colleagues.

    We have introduced major liturgical changes too – after extensive teaching and consultation, so that everyone felt they had had a say in it, and understood the reasons for change.

    I realize I am enormously blessed, and this is not everyone’s experience – but it is part of the reality too.

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