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.