Training Matters: because Ministers need Resilience

Kirsten BirkettTherefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart
(2 Corinthians 4:1).

So writes the Apostle Paul. The trouble is, in ministry it can be only too easy to lose heart. While we may not all have to deal with floggings, beatings with rods or shipwreck as Paul did, we can certainly all resonate with his heartfelt concerns for the people and churches to whom he was ministering.

In ministry it can be only too easy to lose heart.

There are any number of stresses in Christian ministry. Working in ministry will almost always mean dealing with people, and that is in itself stressful, even for ministers who love doing it. In ministry, people do not generally come to you when things are going well or when their lives are wonderful. They come to the minister when they have a problem, when they have a crisis. It is inevitable that ministers will engage with a disproportionate amount of the suffering of the world. Most full-time ministry positions will also involve some level of leadership, and being in charge is stressful. Everyone judges the minister, and everyone has an opinion as to how the job could be done better.

Resilience is not just about survival, but bouncing back more strongly.

The secular world is well aware of the problems of stress. Of recent decades a great deal of attention and research has been devoted to understanding how to cope with stress better. The psychological construct that has been developed to describe what secular researchers are looking for is resilience. Resilience is not just about survival, but bouncing back more strongly. This is of interest to researchers not just as a theoretical effort to understand the human psyche, but is very relevant for those responsible for training people for stressful professions – the military, police, medicine and teaching are in the forefront of applied resilience research.

My job, working in a theological college, is to help people prepare for a lifetime of Christian ministry. I was interested to find out, from the secular research, what would help them survive and thrive in this stressful calling. I expected to find entirely secular answers, perhaps along the lines of cognitive-behavioural therapy. What the literature reveals, however, is that human beings facing stress actually thrive on spiritual values. What fosters resilience, the qualities and strategies that resilient people demonstrate, are things to do with meaning and morality and transcendence and relationships. The literature discusses things like religion and spirituality, altruism and belief in the good. The people who are most resilient, it seems, are Training for resilience 3those who can see higher meaning in suffering. They are people who can forgive, who are thankful, who live for something other than themselves. They are people who can see a reason for hope, even within the reality of a suffering world. In other words, biblical spirituality is precisely the kind of mental framework that secular researchers recommend for becoming a more resilient person.

How, then, do we train Christian ministers for resilience?

It would seem we do so by training them to be Christian. What ordinands need, if they are to cope with the reality of ministry, is to be taught the content of Christianity; to be taught what to believe, not just to have a slew of practical skills. Christian ‘theory’, it seems, even its most highfalutin’ theology, is very practical. We actually always knew this, from what the biblical writers told us; but now the secular psychologists are telling us so as well. Transcendence and spirituality are directly linked to the most practical of skills in coping with the dirty and stressful circumstances of life. Christian ministers, then, need to be taught to make Christian spiritual devotions central to their lives – something that the Church of England canons, after all, already include. This should be a lived reality of a training programme, not an optional personal extra. Staff can model and encourage this in their lectures, in one-to-one interaction, in tutorials, in casual encounters. Students can encourage each other in spiritual living as they discuss the implications of their lectures, share lives over meals, bear one another’s burdens.

In the midst of all the pressures to train clergy, the basic values of their faith emerge as fundamental practical skills for their lifelong calling.

Overall, it is the cumulative effect of genuine deepening theological understanding that would seem to be the greatest benefit a training institution can give its future ministers. Ordinands need to be taught Christian doctrines about God and his purposes; about our place and value within them; about God’s love and salvation and future hope. They need to make this part of a Taught what to believe 1personal devotional life; that is, be taught to pray and read the Bible and meditate upon it. They need, in fact, all the traditional theological values that earlier generations of Christians took for granted – these are exactly what enable people to thrive in difficulty. In the midst of all the pressures to train clergy, the basic values of their faith emerge as fundamental practical skills for their lifelong calling.

Rev Kirsten Birkett is a lecturer in ethics and philosophy at Oak Hill Theological College.
She is the author of Resilience: a Spiritual Project (London: Latimer Trust, 2015).

Read more in our Training Matters series, from Bishop Mark Tanner