The Myth of Episcopal Oversight in the UK church

I have served with and under some of the most extraordinary Bishops of our era. The last of the great prince Bishops, the Dame who could fill his shoes, the leadership guru, the church planting specialist who got purpled, the international theological president. Around the country I’ve seen other examples. The one old before their time, the young one with promise who never quite delivered. The nice one stuck under a Diocesan with other ideas, the sports captain who just wanted to be back in the trenches with their clergy. At Synod I saw the drunken ideological one, willing to take his Diocese off a cliff age as long as he took some of his hated ‘opponents’ down with him. The point: Some inspire exceptionally; some you just feel a bit sad for; some you wish were elsewhere;

Of course that is exactly how many church goers feel about us – the parish clergy – at any one time. And so the question is: Are we setting all of these leaders up for a fool? The even more important question: Are we setting the church up for a fall? Do we load too much expectation onto the purple classes?

I’m writing as a leader on that cusp GenX-GenY divide, with at least an average amount of psychological baggage that can be easily transferred onto my leaders – and an acute sense, despite myself, of need for affirmation, oversight and approval. The thing is, I am not alone in this. Over the past 14 years of ordained ministry I have had oversight of over 30 Millennials (born in the 1980s and 1990s) and however much affirmation, oversight and approval I may think I need, I can only say that as a trend that is going up! About half of these are now ordained or heading to ordination. Some of them will be comfortably cuddled in a  college/curacy, but then they will be splatted out via the jobs page of the church times, a short interview and an archaic ceremonial investiture, into a clerical role where the buck stops with them, and the myth of episcopal oversight will prove to be exactly that – a myth.

That is not to denigrate the character, capacity or competence of our Bishops at all, just a hands up – our system is broken. As a pioneer minister, living very much hand to mouth in a tough church planting gig, I remember a young bishop getting alongside me, saying “let’s meet regularly”. But this was as they started their role. Committees, crises and who knows what else took over. Those meetings stopped. A friend tells the story of how he was walking head-on into a breakdown. He had his once every three years ministry development review with his Bishop, but in the allotted hour couldn’t make the journey to bare his whole soul. Another friend’s spouse was gravely ill. All their bishop had time for was an unsigned one line email. Again, it reminds me of my failings in parish life. When there is a lot of people to look after how do you care for them right?

And that is exactly where the problem lies – the stats. If you read blogs/books on effective line management you’ll find headings like: Be consistent. Set regular goals. Focus on accuracy and clarity in communication. Publicly recognise and reward hard work. Be the example. And you’ll find a host of management consultants making a living out of telling you why their tweak on the above will be transformationally transformative. The suggestion is that these managerial characteristics create the environment we naturally need to ‘succeed in the workplace.’

Even if you react to the parody that clergy are cogs in a church machine to be honed into increasingly effective shape by a managerial class, it’s still hard – even foolhardy – to try and escape the need for pastoral supervision. APSE is the professional body who try and promote good practice in this. Here’s their definition of ‘good practice‘.

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Imagine the effort and time it would take to even fulfil those first two criterion. A regular, planned, intentional, boundaried relationship. One area bishop in the Midlands has 200 clergy to look after. Many bishops are doing a ‘job share’ with a national role. And those roles can be hugely important. You can be part-time Bishop, part-time national safeguarding lead; part-time president of an expanding theological college; part-time national spokesmen on climate change, education, asylum seekers, leadership development, inter-faith relations etc etc etc… all of which are incredibly important and probably highly fulfilling jobs. Where are you going to find time to mentor your millennials, or save your boomers from busting…?

The answer is you’re not. Unless you have an incredibly high intentionality, personal capacity and advanced strategy for delivering on this core objective through a variety of people that you train and release to do this for you and with you. I would imagine there are maybe one or two serving Bishops with this sort of priority and ability. But these are so exceptional, and probably overworking that they can hardly be an advertised model for everyone else ministry. Even then there is a danger of over promise and underdelivering… what happens when they move on, add another page to their portfolio, or when you move from their ‘priority intervention’ page to their ‘let them go’ zone?

But do clergy not need pastoral supervision / line management? Older readers might rotate their foot in the grave and grimace at the idea of episcopal interference in their plot. One of my predecessors in the Midlands spent a very positive ministry happily ignoring the Diocese entirely. He preached, pastored and prayed and a church flourished without any sense of being part of a bigger whole. For his generation the independent office holder was a self-employed safety net. He neither wanted nor sought interference, or affirmation from the hierarchy.

Times change however. The world has changed, expectations on professionals have changed, other organisations have changed and people’s experience of parenting has changed. When other people in caring professions hear of the level of supervision a parish priest has they are often appalled and shocked. In a typical month I may have ‘counselled’ people who are bereaved, self-harming, destitute, facing terminal illness, abused at work, abused historically, suicidal. I may have heard 17 good ideas on how I could do my job better, compared myself – or been compared by others – to better practitioners in my field, and dealt with a safeguarding issue or two. If I still have some energy I will possibly be doing some change management exercise for one part of our church or another, whilst living in the fog of a national narrative whereby the church generally, and the part of the church I specifically relate to, are identified as a hostile/negative force by much of the media (sometimes sadly briefed as such by ‘colleagues’/ including the occasional rogue Bishop).

And so we conveyor belt leaders through our systems, mollycoddle them through college and curacy and then dump them, unsupervised, with a bewildering range of responsibilities – fundraising, teaching, crowd control, grief management, youth and children’s work, care for the elderly, building maintenance, health and safety, and whatever the Diocesan priorities happen to be for that quinquennial (often dreamt up by people who have never been a parish priest/not been one for at least two decades). Is it any real surprise that the drop out rate for parish clergy is so high, and would most probably be even higher if people felt that they had a ‘good out’ – an alternative that they were still skilled for and could move into if necessary?

As one pioneer priest put it:

I also think levels of support for clergy are hugely variable across dioceses – I have worked for a lot of organisations and the C of E is I think the worst I have ever worked in – but I recognise I am probably not ‘normal’. What this made me think about is those that pioneer – those that are on the edge of stuff get a lot of satanic attack much of which comes through the institution.

So, do you have a remedy, or just a pointless whinge, you may ask?

Well a few things to say first in summary…

  1. We have a lot of quality Bishops with a heart for their clergy and mission field – but the maths is against them.
  2. It is not statistically possible for them to do this oversight alone.
  3. Therefore realistic and clear expectations need to be in place for the clergy.
  4. Oversight is nevertheless utterly necessary and important
  5. Younger priests will increasingly expect/demand/need it
  6. Pioneering ministries (i.e. every parish/chaplaincy post in the CoE) will need back up and support that maintenance ministry in the past did not need.

So what can be done?

There are two routes to effective oversight – bottom up and top down. Both will be important, neither should be relied on alone…

Bottom up

a) Clergy can form meaningful supervisory relationships for themselves…

The problem(s):

  • You’re least likely to do this when you most need it.
  • You pick someone who likes you/sympathises with you/only hears your perspective
  • You end up in peer to peer relationships which have great value, but are lacking in authority.
  • These relationships are removed from Diocesan structures etc so have little ability to  effect change in your situation (through reordering/ grants/ structural solutions etc).
  • You’re left still really wanting a relationship with your Bishop (or at least someone overseeing you as a key supporter/encourager/manager who actually knows you)…

b) Networks can provide a solution that brings peers together for mentoring alongside those with empowering/apostolic gifting…

  • Energy gets expended in two directions – easy for the Diocese to miss out on some of the most proactive clergy if they find a home in a network, rather than the person they have sworn an oath of allegiance to…
  • all the points relating to a) above.

Top Down

Dioceses put in a system of annual MDRs with lay consultants…

  • Annual review with a near stranger followed by once every three year access to Bishop for supervision.
  • Exceptionally low probability of saving anyone from burn out in ministry…
  • Limited ability for talent spotting.
  • Very little sense of family on mission.

Dioceses redesign their structures to achieve a solution… e.g.

  • Area Deans/Archdeacon/Suffragans reappointed with quasi- episcopal brief…
  • Other central staff appointed with mentoring / coaching brief… (arguably avoiding those with limited/no experience of incumbency & preferably continuing to be actively involved in local church oversight ministry).
  • HR professionals employed / enabled to volunteer (as work coaches)

A Third-Way: Alongside on a Mission

As much as culture might demand a lovely HR solution to all our problems most of us want to be on a mission alongside, rather than nannied by, our leaders…

I learnt something invaluable this week when our staff team took a walk and lunch together… In a few minutes walking alongside team I had conversations as good and fundamental as any that we manage in our once or twice yearly formal review meetings… Walking side by side we made huge progress on character issues, future directions, and celebrating their many achievements…

I learnt something even better from listening to some Gen Y leaders. Even more than this time together what they really want is to go on mission together with someone inspirational. I saw the fruit of a rural church in Sussex where the leader has trained 18-21 year olds in prophetic ministry. I saw the impact of similar intentional training and modelling in Leicester with a group of young interns. Just today I heard a story of an LST doing a wonderful bit of mission in Camden Market.

Looking back over my clerical years I have seen this modelled exceptionally well by Archdeacons and Bishops and Diocesan central staff as well. The bishop who took a curate on a preaching trip to Germany, the missioner who set up a spirituality tent at a summer festival and took young people on team with him, the Archdeacon who hired a canal boat and took ordinands and curates on tour, stopping at different places to pray and witness, the Archbishop who walked a Diocese praying with people and leading many to living faith, the Diocesan who had mission weekends in their diary each year…

You see whatever else we want Diocesan staff, and bishops to do, we most of all want them to be inspirational! We want to see it’s mission possible. We want to catch a dream, not be told a vision (boiled down to 3-4 innocuous words). We want to walk in the footsteps of St Chad and join a missionary leadership driving back the forces of darkness and bringing the gospel of light… we want someone to show us how, and remind us what we already know… we want their faith to be imparted to us…

What would it take for this to happen? 

  1. Separate out the good but not essential roles…

It strikes me that many of the so-called national portfolio for Bishops could be hived off to a retired Bishop, or church functionary… We’re in ‘mission necessary’ era, we can’t afford our Bishops to be absent from their mission field… Give away the part-time jobs that aren’t focused on mission in their patch… we could start with the House of Lords…

Where some portfolio are vital for an active bishop to lead (e.g. church planting) give them a role with a clear focus, not a diverse geographical area to manage as well… this has worked well for Ric Thorpe… it’s hard not to imagine the benefits of Tom Wright still being an active Bishop – which could have perhaps happened if there was a specific role for a theological lead Bishop de-coupled from the need to lead a Diocese…

2. Redesign structures so that each clergy person knows who their key support/encourager/manager can be…

Not everyone will want this, not every Area Dean/Diocesan worker/Archdeacon/Suffragan will be capable of this – but hey – that’s where leadership/management comes in… have a clear out! [How many people in these roles actually need to get promoted to parish ministry/chaplaincy for a while? Is it too radical to think that Suffragan / Archdeacon / Missioner / DDO etc should’t be a job for life – clear the decks! Shape the team for mentoring and mission…]

Are the Area Deans people who expand other people’s ministries around them or the only person who didn’t say NO! How about we have short term appointments, give them an exciting brief, opportunity and mandate and watch what they can do… we need at least as many overseers as we have deaneries…

3. Clear the diary for mission and invite clergy along… Our Bishop today announced a month of mission in each of his deaneries… music to the ears… what fun we could have together… how much we could learn from watching them do the stuff… what Kingdom advances could happen…

4. Make the main thing the main thing…

If it’s not making disciples of Jesus who make disciples of Jesus fulfilling his mission in church and life places, then: don’t do it!



13 thoughts on “The Myth of Episcopal Oversight in the UK church

  1. Oh, friend…no words for the difficulty of living faithfully in the midst of this reality! I knew from experience that the free church was terrifying in exactly this way. Now I know it is probably true everywhere. And, of course, we see the fall out of it in various places at various times…


    1. No, it’s not that sort of rant – really! It’s way better than free church – there’s a real structure and a real possibility to get this right, and a direction of travel that’s broadly really positive…. there’s just way further we could go if we realise how important this is and get on a mission together… it will need (further) structural change for this
      {post updates btw with some possible solutions… perhaps should include reading this?}


  2. I am a Lay Leader, who was encouraged in my development by my inspirational incumbent, late in life. I see little of our Bishop since he licensed me three years ago, and I know that I swore similar oaths to Clergy at that service, but my authority stems from my parish ministry, the Incumbent and the PCC. I also exercise a pastoral ministry outside the parish, which is specifically identified in my license with oversight by a community deacon, until she retired last November. I am now in the wild, without supervision, which I miss.

    Separate to this, my SD gives me time and space monthly for reflective practice to see where I may be falling short but also to guide me in such aspirations that I have for mission or development. As he is totally disconnected from my ministry and diocese, this means a sense of independence from the system of parish, deanery or diocese. The day I dread is when he says, that he will be retiring from this ministry as that independent focus will cease, and for me, might be the time to put aside any ministry role and focus on the needs identified outside the church, which the church is unable to fulfill. Those seeking some sort of spiritual support, but not knowing or be unwilling to resort to organized religion.

    I once thought that I had discerned a vocation towards ordained ministry, but the diocesan and national systems shot that down. In retrospect I can see that it would have been a mistake to ordain me, as I would not have flourished in the environment that you portray here. Lay Leadership was the right pathway, and I have been given the opportunity to flourish under a supportive incumbent (now retired) and congregation.

    I found a place, where gifts and experience of life and work was recognized and supported through training and continues now. Now things are changing as a new Incumbent is being licensed soon, who I know quite well and gives me hope that we can work together until change becomes necessary in a very good, working parish.

    In an less than perfect church, with a confused sense of what leadership is or could be, where Clergy can be poorly supported in their ministry, I have been fortunate in finding the role that suits my personal abilities, I might have not been so fortunate had I stayed where I sought to discern a vocation, because I just didn’t fit into the category they used for discerning whether or not I was of any use in any kind of ministry.


    1. thank you for sharing your story… lay leadership is vital in the church as is good supervision structures… it’s often true that we only miss what we’ve got when it’s gone… all the best for your new working relationships


  3. Please change the title of your blog piece as it only relates to the Church of England and has nothing to do with the very different polity and experience of episcopal ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church. The UK Church is *not* the Church of England.


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