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Underemployed: The present and future of TEC clergy

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.

 

14 COMMENTS

  1. 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!

  2. 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 us who just starting out even though we have only a few years before the Church’s “official” retirement age of 72. I would call myself bivocational as I work part time as a hospital chaplain and draw income from retirement savings, so no church needs to pay me a large salary, but a little something would be nice as I have this crazy idea that the Church should value her clergy. Don’t get me started on non-stipendiary deacons. Anyway, thanks for a great summary of the situation.

  3. 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 solo ministry on tight church budgets? I forged ahead on this path because I felt called to do so, but this author is right to say we need to seriously revisit how we structure seminary education and what it is we want to teach.

  4. 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 desire church employment. These folks will get nowhere in the process, even though they are actually embodying the bivocational model.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 that dioceses frequently place recent seminary graduates into very complicated and challenging parochial settings with anecdotal oversight or collegial support. She adds that we’ve reached a point in our hiring/ordination processes when and where we are not promising jobs to seminarians yet still expecting seminary-trained candidates for ministry to serve our congregations. (I recall more than one bishop indicating that he would not send candidates for ministry off to seminary unless he was able to employ them upon graduation. This was his means of regulating the ordination system in the 1990s. Was that a bad strategy)? Evidence suggests that much of our congregational modeling and recruitment is still built around staffing parishes and other congregations in the ways that we did in the 1950s/1960s. This technical solution is reinforced, as Emily suggests, by continuing to provide congregations pastoral care and liturgical support through the part-time employment of retired clergy. What are the (un)intended consequences of such interventions? Emily rightly points out how such engagements provide immediate relief without considering longer term implications.

    We need to sit and observe from the balcony what is happening. Such intentional analysis would provide some clearance and rational from what is taking place before we engage this issue of recruiting clerics for the future Episcopal Church. It is difficult to navigate the issues while dancing with them. And, it is next to impossible to exercise leadership from positions of authority. This is an ongoing problem with The Episcopal Church’s issues because we are hinged and yoked to our hierarchical and traditional ways of being.

    Here’s one possibility. If we were a business, we would be ascertaining how to draft and develop strategic business and vocational business plans by emphasizing new markets, new products, new means of engaging and relating to customers? In a roundabout way, the Reimagining Task Force of a few years ago proposed such possibilities. Not surprisingly, most of the task force’s suggestions died on the floor of General Convention. Do secular models or task force suggested possibilities seem so far out of bounds to us because we are not a business or afraid to exercise some creativity that bends canons, and traditional ways of being the Episcopal Church? Do we not possess such creativity and faith?

    From my vantage point, we are organized like an institutional corporate being in many ways. That said, we have plenty of resources promoting congregational vitality. Nonetheless there remains too much apathy in our current system to fuel and sustain how we have operated in the recent and longer term past. There is an ongoing transformational process that requires accepting loss, abiding with despair, and engaging Christ’s hope for the future without really knowing what that future holds. I ponder who and where the Philander Chases of our present day Episcopal Church are?

    We Episcopalians frequently abide in our endowed funds and ways of being. I suggest that the turbulent and uncertain times we live in are going to send people (seekers) our way. I further suggest we should not be waiting for them to arrive on Sunday mornings. We need to be in the marketplaces of life where we live, work, play and pray whether we are a lay person or a cleric. Chaotic conditions are the cauldron for establishing new communal ways of being. Those issues however are not directly responsive to the questions that Emily asked.

    The Rev Wachner closed her article by asking why we are not employing full-time, fairly compensated clergy. My response would be that we’re struggling (for quite some time now) to figure out how to be a 21st Century Church using 19th and 20th Century paradigms. It isn’t working out very well. Without a pioneering and risk-taking Spirit and efforts to engage our “commons” more differently, we should not encumber ordinands with unethical financial and vocational debts. We may consider all sorts of other options that seemingly are out of bounds including lay pastors and sacramental leaders, liturgical revisions, parish closures, redistribution of diocesan funds from parochial support to financing new and fully supported opportunities (including human resources) for new start-ups and God knows what else. We are seemingly blind or afraid of learning from what many of our non-denominational and locally imaginative evangelical Christian Sisters and Brothers are accomplishing. We can also choose any number of options to include the technical yet not always fair or adaptive solutions we are presently implementing. For those congregations who are able to abide in the 20th Century model of being The Episcopal Church – Go for it with God’s Grace. For others, Emily proposes earnest considerations of what the (un)intended consequences are for continuing to operate and minister in (c)overtly unreasonable and desperate ways. It is indeed time to dance with the matters she addresses and take some sort of actions, risky, quantifiable, and contemplative in nature.

  7. 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 “folly” of taking on financial burdens on the border of legal retirement, I have to say that I believe it is a wise thing to do.

    My life experiences will color my ministry and help me relate to people in a way that few others will be able to match. Age is also not a barrier to new ideas and, as someone who has experienced a great deal of the world, I dare to hope that I may even make some small contribution to our church’s intellectual environment. Because this is a new vocation, I have the energy and vigor of someone finding a new enterprise and love – coupled with the insight of many years. I believe that I can be one of the better priests of the Episcopal church and that any roadblocks (even discouragement) to my ordination will not serve the church.

    Let’s remember, Christ only said “Follow me”. Period. Nowhere in there did he mention a 401K plan or guaranteed income. Bonhoeffer is even more stark when he notes that the call of Christ is an invitation for us to die. No one likes financial struggle, but the better solution that would fulfill our ministry may be to GROW our church. In any event, financial struggle seems a small price to pay. If Christ could give his life FOR me, I can certainly give mine TO him.

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

  9. 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 that priests often have loans from seminary (who doesn’t have student loans these days?) and they aren’t exactly on a 9-5 schedule. It’s definitely worth ensuring that they’re taken care of for those reasons, and because a priest living with too many difficulties may be hampered in her or his ministry. But maybe some of that needs to be revisited to allow churches and priests looking for work more flexibility in what they can negotiate.

    Keep in mind that lay people in the church often do so much volunteer work, and lay employees are often underemployed or underpaid. Lay ministry in the church – ministry the church can’t survive without – is something they’re called to do in addition to their “day job.” Deacons also are rarely paid for their work done on the church’s behalf. Over time, we’ve created (and in part inherited from earlier traditions) a model where we have professional priests, whose vocation and day job are one and the same. That’s a privilege that most people in the world don’t enjoy.

  10. 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.

  11. Heard this around a lot. And all the points, and often felt suffocated by the rationalizations. Thanks for putting it on record. Here’s the thing I haven’t heard: what is it that the Canadians are doing right that we’re doing wrong? The Church in communion with us up there seems to be absolutely thriving. Can we at least send them some priests?

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