This is the second in a series of articles examining the five priorities for the church identified last year by General Synod. The enormous changes in Canadian society over the past several decades have put clergy under more physical and mental stress than ever and the church is seeking ways to improve and support clergy and staff well-being. Women have moved into the working world and into the ranks of the ordained, so two-career couples among clergy are becoming more common, leaving clergy families to deal with child-care and time-management issues. The same trend among parishioners means that the rector’s job isn’t a nine-to-five one, since many parish meetings must be held in the evening, when people are off work. In addition to finances, pastoral care and liturgy and some social work there is now screening of volunteers, consideration of legal issues, and shifting demographics, said Eileen Scully, ministry and worship consultant with General Synod’s faith, worship and ministry committee. “Every profession has its stresses. Ordained ministry comes with particular stresses and there is increased stress on clergy from a variety of angles,” she noted.
Last summer, General Synod identified clergy wellness as a top priority. Bishop Fred Hiltz, of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, is leading a Council of General Synod (COGS) task force that is looking at ways to improve and support clergy and staff well-being. The task force met in March and which will report to COGS at its next meeting this month. It is asking dioceses what programs they have that address clergy and staff well-being, said Ms. Scully, who is working as General Synod staff member to the committee. “We contacted each diocesan synod office and asked two questions: Have you done a study in the last five to 10 years on clergy wellness or health and do you have any programmatic oversight for these concerns?” she said. Programs in this area could include an employee assistance program, which provides paid counselling for employees. She added that some dioceses also address wellness concerns during their regular clergy conferences. Ten of 29 dioceses have responded so far, she added. General Synod’s pension committee has told COGS several times that it is concerned about the number of long-term disability claims received in recent years. The pensions department administers General Synod’s long-term disability plan, which applies to Canadian clergy, some lay diocesan staff and employees at the General Synod office in Toronto. At the November, 2001 COGS meeting, a report from the pension committee said the number of long-term disability claims in force as of Sept. 30, 2001 is 59 and of that number, 37 per cent “are of a psychological nature.” (There are approximately 2,100 active members and 1,900 retired people covered by the pension plan.)
The committee also reported that the plan paid $1,027,800 in claims as of Sept. 30, 2001, up from $756,992 in 1999. Claims in 1998 were $563,489, according to the plan’s 1999 report. The ecclesiastical province of Ontario has identified clergy mental and physical health “as a serious issue,” and is planning a pilot study of wellness issues in Huron, Niagara and Toronto. A national committee can gather information and disseminate it, because “even those dioceses with no program recognize this as an important issue,” she said. However, both the province and the members of the wellness committee realize that this is not necessarily an issue solved at the national level, but “down close to the ground” in parishes and dioceses, she added. Previous studies have shown that the first five years of ordained ministry are a critical time and that new clergy need mentoring and support, said Ms. Scully.