By Cameron Nations
David Goodhew’s recent post “Facing Episcopal Church Decline” tells a familiar story: the Episcopal Church’s numbers are falling fast and, without a turnaround, things don’t look great for the future of the denomination. He looks at figures such as membership, average Sunday attendance, baptisms, and weddings to trace a sobering picture of an institution facing decades of overall decline. Yet, despite many posts from numerous outlets and voices on the subject of TEC’s membership issues, I’ve yet to see anyone discuss at length another, no less important, side of the story: TEC’s impending leadership and experience vacuum.
In the Church Pension Group’s 2015 Church Compensation Report: A National, Provincial, and Diocesan Analysis of Clergy Compensation, we find a rather fascinating breakdown of the Church’s full-time clergy that reflects decades of inadequate development of young leaders. (For clarity’s sake, I have taken the liberty to create tables that omit the data irrelevant to this post, such as average and median compensation figures.)
According to the report, there are about 5,000 full-time parochial and non-parochial clergy in TEC (there are many more clergy if you count those who are “active,” but not necessarily full-time stipendiary clergy). Of this number, 3,163 (or 63.1%) are male and only 1,850 (or 36.9%) are female. Breaking those numbers down demographically by age reveals even more.
Of all full-time clergy in TEC, 55.4 percent are older than 55, and almost 80 percent of all full-time clergy in TEC are older than 45. Particularly noteworthy are the figures for Millennial clergy, which, depending on where you want to place the cutoff in your definition of Millennial, comprise roughly 6 percent of all full-time clergy in TEC.
Only 20 percent of full-time clergy younger than 45 equals 100 percent of a problem for a denomination struggling to grow and thrive in the decades to come.
If you were to think, Well, at least we have experience going for us, you would be a little off target. The average age of ordinands has held pretty steady at about 50 years of age according to recent CPG Annual Reports (which are different than the Compensation Report). That means that a significant amount of those in the older age brackets are no more seasoned in ministry than many of their younger colleagues; they were ordained later in life.
I intend in no way to disparage or demean anyone who hears the call to ministry later in life — the call to ordination is a mysterious one, and I know many incredible ministers who didn’t hear the call until they were well into adulthood — but these are statistics that we must engage if we seek to reverse some of the trends described in Goodhew’s analysis. Many people ordained later in life actually felt the call to ordination much earlier, only to be rebuffed by the church or told to hold off on ordination until accumulating more “life experience.” Stories like these underscore our denomination’s need to encourage and enable the discernment of young vocations.
Questions about our supply of clergy are not new. Back around the year 2000, Dr. Matthew J. Price wrote multiple reports for CPG (e.g. A Troubled Profession? Episcopal Clergy and Vocation at the Turn of the Millennium, and Will There Be a Clergy Shortage? Analysis and Predictions of Uncertain Times) that addressed some of the issues I’ve outlined here. Price’s research encouraged the church to head off possible clergy shortages. Nearly 20 years on, however, it seems little has been done.
What might turn things around? Goodhew’s article concluded with three remedies for us to consider:
First, churches need to face demographic realities. If, for example, a city’s or town’s ethnic make-up shifts, wise dioceses and congregations will adapt, not pretend everything is the same.
One might assume that this suggestion would extend to generational shifts as well, leading “wise dioceses and congregations” to take seriously the need for encouraging, equipping, and enabling young leaders — not only clergy, but lay leaders, too — to cultivate a new generation of Episcopalians.
Indeed, making the cultivation of young leaders an institutional virtue might be the only real way to point the church in a different direction. Unless bishops and Commissions on Ministry make discernment of young vocations a priority, our current lack of natural pipelines, such as robust youth programs, college ministries, and young adult ministries, will make organically expanding the demographic diversity of clergy more challenging.
There are already hopeful signs around the church that suggest a potential shift in the trends that Goodhew discusses. Perhaps in the next few triennia these statistics will begin to change as dioceses place a greater emphasis on outreach and mission, and begin to reconsider the ways they recruit and train new clergy. Otherwise, we will be a denomination left with few experienced ministers as waves of Boomers retire.
If our conversations about mission and evangelism don’t also include conversations about fostering a more balanced generational makeup among our church’s leadership, then we will only be having part of the conversation — and that affects us all.
The Rev. Cameron Nations is associate rector at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois (English) and Sewanee (Divinity). For fun, he likes hosting good friends for dinner, riding motorcycles, cooking, reading, and writing — though not simultaneously.
 The Report defines full time as one earning “$32,550 (in 2015 dollars),” p. 2.
 For some tables, the Report lists this figure at 5,013 clergy. For others, it lists the total figure at 5,009. The tables I cite use the 5,009 figure.
 You will notice in these graphs that the first age range is 18-34. This is the range provided in the report. I do not know why CPG decides to begin the range at 18, given that the minimum age for ordination is 25.
 Also worth noting is that because of the way that the CPG defines full time, one can safely assume the average age of active clergy overall skews even older than this.