By Emily Wachner

I was told not to expect to be employed once I’m ordained.

The first time I heard this — two years ago — I wondered how much money was in the trust fund of the young postulant sitting in my office. He had come to me seeking a parish field placement, and was responding to my standard question — “What kind of priestly ministry do you imagine for yourself upon graduation?”

But he was not an anomaly. Bishops and commissions on ministry are telling more and more ordinands that the Episcopal Church cannot guarantee employment upon ordination, and therefore that ordinands should prepare an alternate source of income.

“Be tentmakers!” they are told. “You should be in the community anyhow,” they are advised. “Your priestly ministry will be strengthened by your outside work.”

According to a little-noticed study [PDF] published by the Church Pension Group in 2016, a representative survey of all Episcopal clergy under the age of 72 revealed that 42 percent were not employed by a single Episcopal employer (what the study calls the old model). Ten percent of these clergy were employed part time; 11 percent were bivocational (meaning that they worked both for a TEC and non-TEC employer, often drawing their income from non-parochial employment), 5 percent were employed by multiple TEC institutions at the same time, and 5 percent served as interims or supply priests. The remaining 11 percent drew no salary, were not employed by TEC, or had no employment at all.

Of this group of priests working under the new model, 44 percent wished that they were employed full time by a single church, meaning that nearly 20 percent of all active clergy are underemployed (against their will).

Of particular interest were the geographic trends. The Northeast, with its oversupply of church buildings and undersupply of Episcopalians, offered mainly part time, interim, or yoked parish ministry. The Midwest promised bivocational or non-TEC work (meaning that clerics likely did not draw salary from the Episcopal Church). Clergy in the Northwest, forbiddingly, described themselves as “supply, non-stipendiary, or unemployed.” Only in the South, toward which the geographic center of the Episcopal Church has been moving for decades, could traditional old model employment still be found.

While underemployment has spread across gender and age ranges, the average cleric seeking but not finding full-time employment is not a self-selecting young mom, or a silver-haired Wall Street refugee with a golden parachute, but a woman over the age of 55.

Notable also is the statistic that 58 percent of retired priests report continued work in the Episcopal Church, as compensated supply, interim, and part-time clergy. The presence of retired priests, while doubtless beneficial in many settings, reduces available employment in an already stressed system, and gives struggling congregations a distorted sense of how much of a clergy presence they can afford.

Cameron Nations pointed out in “The future of the Episcopal Church’s clergy” (Aug. 11) that only 20 percent of full-time clergy are under 45. This statistic only scratches the surface of the future faced by the church and by those seeking ordination. Our ordinands (both young and old) are being set up for real struggle, if not true suffering, if we continue to ordain more clergy than the church can responsibly support.

The church should ask a few questions, which I have heard at many a cocktail party but not in official settings:

1. Why are we preparing clergy for ordination as if they will still serve as curates? Curacies are few and far between, and seminary preparation should change accordingly.

2. Why are we sending ordinands already on the brink of retirement to seminary, setting them up for a lifetime of debt payments? This is not fair or wise.

3. Why do we lift up bivocational, part-time, and non-stipendiary work as desirable, or even as just? Many Episcopal priests are desperate to find full-time employment, and to glorify their plight seems patronizing, if not theologically disingenuous.

These questions are not polite, but they are necessary. Seminaries, bishops, commissions on ministry, and congregations (both small and large) have a responsibility to seriously engage these questions. It is not desirable, nor should we derive a theological etiology, for priests to serve in a context where they are just scraping by. Priesthood is a full-time vocation and a job, and should be compensated as such.

The Rev. Emily Wachner is the director of integrative programs and lecturer in practical theology at the General Theological Seminary.


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11 Comments on "Underemployed: The present and future of TEC clergy"

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I am not an Episcopal clergy person, but have been in one of the ‘other’ Anglican groups in the US for the last 10 years, working as full time clergy in the church for nearly all of that time. I find your assessment to be similar to what I have experienced in my setting as well…I am an anomaly. This is a great post and I hope that educators and ecclesiastical authorities can work together to adapt to these changing times and support new ordinands in the ways you highlight. Thanks again!

What a great post. You have just described my life. I’m a recently ordained priest who went to seminary later in life (not too old to work hard though and blessedly still strong and healthy). You mention that the “old model” is still successful in the South. It is, to an extent, but here’s the conundrum. This is Southwest Florida and we have lots of retired priests (retired according to CPG) who want to keep working and do so. In many cases, they are drawing their pensions and happy to work for “free.” That makes it tough for those of… Read more »
So very true. I was told not to pursue a dual-degree program (M.Div/MSW) by many for fear of seeming insufficiently dedicated to the church, even as I was being told not to bet on the church being able to employ me. A strange and contradictory experience. More generally, I was really surprised in seminary by how little we talked about some major real-world issues–we never had one single conversation about money, let alone building maintenance/upkeep. It is not the norm for most parishes (as far as I can tell) to have more than one full-time cleric…are we equipping people for… Read more »
Great article! You touched on so much of what the church still isn’t addressing. Question #3 especially has weighed on me for quite some time. I also was grateful for your warning about ordaining people we cannot responsibly support. I do wonder if we will ever be able to have the conversation about ordination without automatic entrance into the pension fund (which is modeled on the “old model” of fulltime church employment): what I mean is, there are some folks who want to be ordained because they feel called to a certain role in the church community but do not… Read more »

Half a dozen of my clergy friends have posted this article recently, and we’re discussing it in the “ELCA (Lutheran) Clergy Under 40” FB group. Thank you for getting this discussion going, and naming the reality we are facing as well.

Your last sentence hit it right on the head! Well said.

Emily Wachner raises many excellent points in her Living Church article. The Rev. Wachner is a graduate of the Clergy Leadership Project and this article indicates that she knows how to creatively observe, analyze, and intervene into complicated organizational and ecclesiastical systems. She begins by asking why Episcopal Church commission on ministries, bishops, standing committees and congregations are functioning the way they are. For example, why are we as a denomination sending people to seminary where they learn and receive training to become curates or accept other initial calls when there are no curacies or associate positions? I would add… Read more »
As someone just starting seminary, I felt the obvious solution was to close down more seminaries and simply ordain fewer priests. With decreased supply, we can then use market forces to ensure adequate living standards for the rest …. Actually, as an older student ( who plans on challenging official “retirement” at 72 as an anachronistic concept which may also be violating our canons ) and who will also take on some student loan debt (though I plan on scholarships for 100% after my first year), I think that this is much more than an economic issue. While recognizing the… Read more »

Great article. Seminaries and bishops should take note–especially the warning about training older people for no job.

One theological question I don’t hear raised on this topic is, What kind of ministry is God calling people into? Is God calling more priests than we can employ, and if so, what might that mean for our model and expectations? Or are we ordaining people who don’t have the calling we think they do? It’s laudable that the Church wants to fully support priests financially (the old model, anyway). However, at any parish, the priest is pretty much the largest line item on the budget, with a minimum salary, housing, and other benefits required by canon law. I appreciate… Read more »

These issues are not new. When I was ordained 45 years ago, bishops were then saying to us that they could not guarantee a job after seminary. I am sure these dynamics are more pronounced now.