Clergy Experiences of Ministry During the Pandemic

Blurred church background. Cover of research report pictured.The research reported here was conducted independently within the Diocese of Oxford by: Prof Gillian Symon, School of Business and Management, Royal Holloway University of London; Dr Rebecca Whiting, Department of Organizational Psychology, Birkbeck University of London; and Dr Rebecca Taylor, Department of Sociology, University of Southampton.

The report is based on 40 open-ended interviews with clergy in the diocese which took place between June 2020 and October 2021. These interviews explored the experience of clergy as they delivered spiritual, psychological, and social care during the various stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, with a particular focus on the effects of the digitalisation of practice. The report summarises the perceptions and views of these participants.

50% of interviewees were women; 60% were in the age range 50-70 and 35% in the age range 30-50; 48% came from an urban parish, 33% from a rural parish and others covered a mixed parish. This distribution reflects a similar distribution of clergy within the Church of England as a whole according to available public statistics. 60% of the sample were team vicars or rectors and 28% were curates.


  • To capture what changes clergy had had to make in light of new covid restrictions, especially as this concerned managing digital channels of communication;
  • To gather clergy views on these changes and, in particular, how it had affected their everyday work practices including delivery of church services, pastoral care and parish management;
  • To review with clergy the support available to them during this period from a range of sources;
  • To understand the effects of these changes and the general pandemic measures on clergy well-being and their experience of their ministry as meaningful;
  • To ascertain clergy views on the effects of pandemic-induced changes on congregations and potential future relationships with congregations;
  • To collect clergy recommendations for future ministry.

Summary of findings

  • Pre-pandemic digital experience was very varied, but the majority of interviewees would be considered novices, who had implemented only some limited digital innovations in their parish or benefice. They had to quickly find ways to communicate as a team and to provide services and support to their congregation as the pandemic took hold. Clergy had to develop technical skills rapidly and demonstrated much ingenuity in finding solutions as guidelines changed around them.

  • In terms of support most immediate and practical help came from family and technical experts within congregations. Indeed, to some extent this experience brought congregations together as many rallied round their vicars to help. The pandemic also demonstrated the value of clergy teams and benefices taking a strategic communal approach to organization. The diocese and the Church of England informed clergy of current UK Government guidance and its interpretation and provided resources such as access to online services and sermons. However, interviewees were not necessarily aware of more specific or localised support or had any expectation that the diocese would provide this.

  • There were three main issues that undermined clergy wellbeing during the pandemic: learning the technology; workload; and cumulative effects of supporting others in very difficult times. These latter two were issues pre-pandemic but exacerbated by the current circumstances. Intense commitment to their role may have encouraged clergy to overstretch and this could not be sustained over the prolonged period of the pandemic, leading some to become close to burnout. This was better managed where work was shared out within a benefice. At the same time, learning new ways of working or rediscovering a sense of purpose was a contributor to increasing wellbeing for some.

  • The pandemic was an extraordinary transformation of clergy’s normal practices, including raising some difficult theological and identity issues. We explored this as the implications of the pandemic measures for clergy experiencing ‘meaningful ministry’. Two elements of meaningfulness seemed particularly important: authenticity and communion or connection. Both of these were severely compromised by the pandemic measures. Ministry was in many cases experienced as too individualistic, too distanced, and even somewhat paradoxical, leading for some to feelings of emptiness and questions over identity. Consequently, ministering during the pandemic became a time of reflection and an opportunity to consider the importance of mission. Returning to church buildings was recognised as alleviating many of these concerns.

  • Clergy reflected on the impact they thought these new practices had had on their congregations and parishes. This differed depending on available resources with smaller rural churches or churches in areas of urban deprivation often finding change more difficult, underlining pre-existing inequalities. Clergy were able to monitor attendance more easily but over time grew sceptical of online metrics. It seemed that rather than attracting new congregation from far afield most ‘new’ congregation already had some ties with the church, and local congregations wanted localised, familiar services. Most clergy concluded that a distinct online congregation had not emerged. Digital services provided both improved access (e.g. for those with disabilities) and excluded others (e.g. those without digital access), although clergy worked hard to include the latter.

  • Reflecting in the interviews on their overall experience, clergy provided many profound insights and preferences for the future. This latter included a desire for more strategic thinking from Church leadership on parish inequalities and the (core) role of digital technology. A need for further debate that would include a range of voices was expressed, with a specific desire that marginalisation be avoided. Clergy recognised the pandemic as a ‘teachable moment’ for congregations and wanted to be able to capitalise on technological gains and skills developed during the pandemic. More urgently, they required guidance on the immediate future in relation to developing and managing some form of hybrid church.

Recommendations for the diocese and wider Church

  • Provide opportunities to acknowledge the profound changes clergy have been through and enable the sharing of those experiences, surfacing of different perspectives, and debate on future mission.

  • Elucidate strategic direction, led by senior colleagues in the diocese, informed by consultation and pursued as joint enterprise.

  • Adopt an equitable approach to resourcing digital implementation and innovation across the diocese, taking into account specific needs of specific locale.

  • Capitalise on the utility of the digital for communication and inclusion in a strategic way, while avoiding marginalisation.

  • Provide guidance on what hybrid church may look like, including what might best be provided digitally and what might best be provided face-to-face in the community, recognising that particular care must be taken to enhance inclusivity, to be adaptive to local needs and to consider a green agenda.

  • Share existing digital skills and know-how, consolidating learnt digital skills and integrating digital skills training into ordinands’ curriculum.

  • Explore in more detail what is particularly valued by clergy and their congregation: an opportunity for reflection on meaningful ministry and working out the role of the digital in this.

  • Commit to an increased focus on clergy and lay helpers’ wellbeing to explicitly formulate what constitutes a sustainable pattern of working and how clergy can be encouraged in self-care, bringing this to parish level.

  • Review what constitutes pastoral care and what should be expected from clergy, particularly for the future, given current UK ‘cost of living’ and other crises, and learning from the positive innovations adopted during the pandemic.

  • Emphasise sense of community and the importance of community action, encompassing community of clergy, local parish community and the diocese as community.

Download the full report (PDF)

Page last updated: Wednesday 8th March 2023 9:03 AM
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