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New drive to encourage busy clerics in Northern Ireland to look after themselves

Clergy to be sent health booklet amid fears they sacrifice own wellbeing to help others

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 24/06/2016

Cocaine scandal priest Fr Stephen Crossan
Cocaine scandal priest Fr Stephen Crossan
Jo Murphy of Lighthouse Ireland
Retired Methodist minister the Rev Roy Cooper

Clergy across Northern Ireland are to be offered support to care for their emotional health and mental wellbeing.

Health experts have warned that the pressures of the job of caring for a community can lead to many priests and ministers not taking time out to look after themselves, leading to stress and ill-health.

The move launched by the Public Health Agency (PHA) was been welcomed by clergy members as "essential".

A new booklet will be sent to more than 1,300 clergymen and women across different denominations in the region.

It includes advice on taking care of mental health and emphasises the importance of striking a balance between work, family and friends, leisure and rest.

It was produced by the suicide prevention group Flourish! which includes workers from Lighthouse Ireland, clergy from across the Christian churches in Northern Ireland, the Churches Community Work Alliance NI and the PHA.

Simple steps are set out in the booklet to maintain good mental health, including eating regularly, exercising, making time for self-reflection, spending time with others and taking a break during the work day.

Fr Cathal Deery, a Catholic priest from the Clones Parish in the Diocese of Clogher, said: "I think that clergy will find this resource very useful. It can be difficult to find the time to look after your own mental health.

"This toolkit gives some simple steps to take and advice on looking after your mental health. The toolkit emphasises that self-care is not selfish or indulgent, rather that it is essential."

Retired Methodist minister the Rev Roy Cooper said there could be intense pressure on some of the clergy, particularly those looking after more than one congregation.

"To be effective, the Lord expects us to look after ourselves -not for selfish reasons, but so that we can be of use to our family and congregations," he added

With many ministers retiring, it "puts pressure on the guys still there," Rev Cooper explained. "It's important to take time for yourself and your family," he said. "Family can pay a high price, and that can bring guilt."

The Rev Jim Stothers, deputy clerk of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and secretary to its Council for Training and Ministry, said: "We currently have 342 active ministers with congregational responsibilities across Ireland, so how we as a church pastor our pastors and their families is crucially important.

"As a church, we are committed to ensuring that appropriate and effective pastoral care is available in a number of different ways, and each of our 19 presbyteries has ongoing and day-to-day responsibility for providing that care to ministers and their families.

"The outworking of that pastoral care varies from presbytery to presbytery, but it is important to note that the denomination provides a dedicated central resource to help, along with a free to use telephone support service. Pastoral care, offered with expertise and compassion, is encouraged and supported.

"One key area that can affect a minister's wellbeing, and which is often neglected or overlooked, is taking a Sabbath Day's rest. Many people who work Monday to Friday have the weekend to rest. For ministers, Sunday is of course a full day, but many don't take that additional Sabbath Day's rest, which surely is a biblical imperative.

"Self-care is a concept that is increasingly being developed and is introduced during the training of new ministers."

Rev Adrian Dorrian, chairman of the Church of Ireland's Church and Society Commission, said: "The Flourish initiative is to be welcomed as it places front and centre the very real issue of mental health.

"Because mental illness does not always manifest physically, it is not so easily noticed or identified but it can be every bit as harmful as physical illness. Furthermore, just as physical illnesses can impact anybody, so too can mental health.

"In caring professions, such as the ordained ministry, there may be a particular need for specialised support as clergy often find themselves engaging with parishioners at the most difficult times in life - illness, death, family disruption.

"The Flourish toolkit offers some straightforward, practical and effective steps that clergy can take to safeguard their own mental health. It will be a welcome resource to the clergy of the Church of Ireland, alongside other pastoral arrangements that are in place for clergy."

Jo Murphy, manager of Lighthouse Ireland, said: "Members of the clergy lead busy lives and provide a listening ear and support for their congregations during some very challenging times."

  • For copies of the Flourish! toolkit, visit
  • If you or someone you know is in distress, call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000

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