The Clergy Hassle

By H. Boone Porter

The most obvious problems facing the Episcopal Church relate in one way or another to the church’s ministry. A greater concern for the ministry of lay people is going to engage our attention on many occasions in the future. So too, will the distinctive ministries of bishops, priests, and deacons. At this point, we would like to address ourselves to one of the most flagrant problems: the “system” (if it can be imaginatively so described) for providing clergy to serve in our congregations.

Prior to the middle of this century, the Episcopal Church did not have enough clergy to staff all of its churches. Some were served (and some very well served) by lay readers, Church Army evangelists, or deaconesses. Priests came in to celebrate the eucharist every so often. Some priests had to rotate about in half a dozen congregations. Following World War II, both an improved economy and an ever-increasing number of aspirants for ordination changed the scene. By the early 1960’s, in most areas, staffs were generally filled. Yet it was still considered desirable to encourage devout men to prepare for ordination. Seminaries were recruiting students and expanding both their faculties and their physical facilities, and bishops were proud of the number of their candidates. 

By the mid ‘60s, the burgeoning number of priests and deacons was leading to subtle changes not always noticed. Ordained musicians were being hired as organists in some parishes. Priests with academic experience were being hired by colleges. Those with business experience were filling administrative posts for dioceses ro the national church. Often the result of these placements was good, yet slowly but surely clergy were being crammed into every corner that could hold them.

In the field of Christian education, the developments were tragic. The new availability of young priests led large parishes to hire them in place of professional directors of Christian education, to supervise the Sunday school and related activities. In a few short years an experienced and well qualified DRE could hardly find a job. An important profession, which had served the church so well, found itself largely unemployed. It was a tragic day when the two distinguished women’s training schools, St. Margaret’s House in Berkeley, California, and Windham House in New York, had to shut their doors. Quite apart from the implications of this for the subsequent women’s movement in the church, there is reason to believe that in many areas the quality of religious education in the Episcopal Church has never recovered. 

Meanwhile, although available national statistics plainly indicated the danger signal, year after year new clergy were being ordained to serve as employees of the church. The small number who had secular occupations and were ordained with the intention of supporting themselves were regarded with suspicion and considered as disloyal to the system. Seminaries could easily place most of their new graduates since the newly ordained often did not have families, could work at the minimum salary, and would temporarily undertake unfulfilling positions.

In a church heavily overstocked with employed staff, it took very little inflation to precipitate a grave situation. During the 1970s many Episcopal clergy have found themselves without church employment, even though they desire it. Some barely survive on substandard salaries, augmented by their wives’ salaries. Others battle it out year after year in positions that are uncongenial to them and to their parishioners, because no other job is available, even though the Clergy Deployment Office is in fact offering more national placement assistance than was ever provided in the past.

The study of the episcopate recently undertaken by the House of Bishops [TLC, Oct. 30] indicates that some candidates accept election in quite uncongenial dioceses. This is hardly surprising. Even for the successful rector of a large parish, a call to the episcopate may be the only opportunity of change he will ever have in the remainder of his working life! For some, priests and bishops alike, the price of professional immobility is frustration, stagnation, and declining competence; for a few, it is alcoholism, broken homes, and mental or physical malady.

It is easy to say that the survival of the fittest will prevail. But fittest for what? Some of the most competent clergy have, in fact, taken their talents to other better equipped employers during the past ten or twelve years, although many of these still offer their ministry to the church on a part time basis where it is desired. Some of the most creative and sensitive clergy have been broken by discouragement and frustration. Some of the very intelligent have lost their faith. On the whole, this does not seem to be the best of all possible ways to operate a church. 

Yet there are signs of hope. Some dioceses are discovering ways of circumnavigating the impossibilities of the present system. Some are finding new ways of constituting the positions of priests, deacons, and lay workers. Some rural areas, or areas not at all rural, are utilizing the concepts of “New Directions for Churches in Small Communities” [TLC, Nov. 20]. Some congregations are demonstrating new ways to carry out ministry. During the months ahead we will often be returning to these questions. Beginning with this issue, we will give our readers information about new and effective ministries that are in fact emerging.

The Rev. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977-1990. This article was published in our November 27, 1977 issue.

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