Father John and Father Jeff

The Diocese of Truro has recently appointed Father John Eatock as Dean of Retired Clergy and Father Jeff Risbridger as Dean of Self-Supporting Clergy.

These roles are seen as vital in supporting people for whose ministry we will always owe a profound debt of gratitude, and in ensuring that we continue to hear their voices and promote the value of their contributions to our diocese.

“As a diocese we are committed to supporting the wellbeing and flourishing of all our clergy, throughout their ministry, and following their retirement,” says Sally Piper, Head of Ministry at the Diocese of Truro. “All priests share the same call and have been ordained to the same ministry, but we recognise that there are particular perspectives and experiences, and sometimes additional challenges, for clergy who are self-supporting and for those who are retired, but continue to exercise an active ministry. I’m looking forward to working with Father Jeff and Father John to develop the support we offer to meet the specific needs of these particular groups of clergy, and I’m so grateful for their enthusiasm and commitment.”

We spoke with Father John and Father Jeff about their plans and aspirations for their new roles.

Retiring with grace

Retired priest and practising psychotherapist, Father John has published extensively as a therapist and counsellor, and has most recently been involved in a project researching life after stipendiary priesthood at Plymouth Marjon University, a subject on which he’s both knowledgeable and passionate.

“Many priests on retirement go through a grieving process,” he says. “Their whole identity has been tied up with being a priest. When they retire it can be very difficult for them.”

Some of course want to spend time with their families. Others pursue interests in history, theology or the arts, or focus upon developing second careers – as John himself did when in 1992, at the age of forty-seven, he resigned his position as Rural Dean of Accrington to take a position as a counsellor supporting a general medical practice in the town of Eccles in Greater Manchester.

Many retired members of the clergy will also, like John, then seek permission from their diocese to officiate, in order to continue with their works of ministry as self-supporting priests.

“But all of them were ordained as priests forever – as it says in the Psalms,” John points out. “So what does it mean to be a priest in retirement? What does it mean for their identity when they’re no longer the very significant public figure they once were?”

In an essay published in 2020, John wrote that for years after his retirement he’d felt that the Church had shown “no interest” in his welfare. He has however discovered that attitudes have since changed, as the Church has come to recognise its responsibilities towards, and the value of, those who’ve served as its priests, and has found that Bishop Hugh and his recent predecessors in the Diocese of Truro have shared his concerns.

John stresses that the Church has a duty of care to its retired clergy, their spouses, widows and widowers, those who care for them and those for whom they care. He’s therefore currently in the process of recruiting four voluntary chaplains, whom he will supervise to develop contacts and undertake visits with those retirees and their families, and to express the diocese’s ongoing commitment to their care.

A holistic approach

John and his team can also offer advice and information about practical support available for retired clergy. He says, however, that his primary concern, both in research and in practice, is for their spiritual and emotional wellbeing.

“Do they miss their pastoral responsibilities?” he asks. “Do they miss celebrating the Eucharist? Do they carry on praying and do they still go to church? What happens to that belief?”

Many of course continue to officiate, and he’s keen to support those priests in maintaining their currency with their vocation through opportunities for ongoing professional development and engaging with their clerical colleagues and chapters, and to champion their voices and facilitate their dialogues across the diocese.

John has enjoyed long and distinguished careers both as a priest in the Dioceses of Manchester and Blackburn, and as a practising therapist, author and lead advisor in healthcare counselling and psychotherapy, and in spiritual and pastoral care, to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. Through these complementary careers in pastoral care, he has come to believe that it’s vital to ensure proper care, concern and oversight is shown to members of the clergy from the point at which they apply to be trained for ordination, throughout their priestly careers, and into their years of retirement.

“We taking the whole person seriously,” he says.

It’s that approach which is intended to ensure that all retired clergy may find themselves as “greatly blessed” in their retirement as he himself says he has been.

Supporting those who support themselves

Priest at St Hilary near Penzance, former Rural Dean of Penwith, and once a headteacher in southwest London, Father Jeff has, like Father John, been busy recruiting a team of volunteer chaplains to support him in this crucial work, since accepting the role of Dean of Self-Supporting Clergy for the diocese.

“Like Father John, mine is an honorary appointment made by the Bishop in recognition of the fact that, given the challenges facing the Church, there’s likely be a change in the range of responsibilities given to self-supporting clergy,” he says.

Although there might appear to be some overlap between Father Jeff and Father John’s remits, one key distinction is that self-supporting clergy are licensed to their benefice, while retired clergy are given permission to officiate by the Diocese.

Indeed, self-supporting clergy can themselves be divided into various categories. Some work full-time or part-time in secular jobs, giving their own free time to the Church, in between managing their workloads and their family lives. Others are employed by secular organizations in ministerial positions, such as hospital, police or prison chaplains. Some of those will also have self-supporting roles in parishes.

“But they’re all still priests living in the diocese and needing collegial and pastoral support,” Jeff says. “I’ve always resisted drawing distinctions between clergy based on whether or not they receive remuneration for their ministry, because I believe a priest is a priest is a priest. But I’ve been persuaded in recent times that there’s a power imbalance between incumbents – who are licensed by bishops with specific responsibilities and authority – and other clergy. This isn’t because anyone sets out to create an imbalance, but is just how the structures work.”

A gift and an opportunity

Jeff stresses that self-supporting clergy may therefore need specific kinds of support – and that’s where he and his team of chaplains come in.

“On occasion, I might introduce a self-supporting priest to a chaplain who can offer spiritual, pastoral and practical support and advice,” he says. “Or I might help an incumbent and a self-supporting priest to devise a fair and equitable working agreement. Self-supporting clergy have a breadth of different experience, and this may sometimes present a challenge.  But it’s also a gift and an opportunity for their parishes.

“It’s part of my role to provide this kind of support and also to provide self-supporting clergy with opportunities to share ideas and concerns, and to celebrate the diversity of their ministry.”

Jeff’s keen to ensure that at least once a year he and his team are able to bring the diocese’s self-supporting clergy together to celebrate their diverse experiences and contributions.

He also serves as diocesan representative on the National Network of SSM Officers and Advisers to keep the diocese abreast of key issues and developments in this area, and to share best practice across the Church of England.

“I want to help self-supporting clergy and incumbents recognise the richness of their relationships, and see how their ministry may be enhanced by working together and by appreciating that, although we’re all wonderfully different, what we have in common is of essential value in what we do,” he says. “My role is to try to provide the support to allow ministry to flourish, so that everyone in a ministry team knows that, while different roles may have different responsibilities, their own contributions are truly valid, valuable and valued.”