Economy prunes pulpit posts

The New York Times reports on the lack of clergy positions for graduating seminarians and the burden of seminarian debt as the economy worsens:

Indeed, the trepidation Ms. Sparks feels as she prepares to receive her divinity degree on Sunday is widely shared among graduating seminarians and newly ordained clergy members. A contracting national economy has led congregations across the religious spectrum to cut or downsize clergy positions, hire part-time lay people instead and delay filling vacancies. Veteran clergy members, watching their retirement accounts wither, are postponing retirement.

The anecdotal evidence collected by the Association of Theological Schools, which covers 250 graduate institutions in the United States and Canada, has found job listings for ministerial positions down by about one-third at major seminaries serving both evangelical and mainstream Protestant denominations. The Jewish newspaper The Forward reported last month that Jewish seminaries accustomed to placing nearly all their newly minted rabbis were finding jobs this year for only about half.

In the Episcopal Church, the issue of seminarian debt is one focus of the report of the Committee on the State of the Church. A resolution will come before this summer's General Convention. (See below.) In response to the lack of paid positions and churches needing leadership, some dioceses have moved to Mutual Ministry - calling local persons, trained and educated locally, to serve in ordained and lay ministries without a salary.

TITLE: Financial Support for Seminarians

Resolved, the House of ____________ concurring, That the 76th General Convention request the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance provide funding for the next triennium to underwrite the mounting costs of theological education by providing needs-based scholarships for Episcopal Seminarians; and be it further

Resolved, That said funds be administered and distributed to needy seminarians through the existing Scholarship Program of the Society for the Increase of the Ministry (SIM), said Society having an established record of 151 years of experience in administering scholarship grants to Episcopal seminarians; and be it further

Resolved, That the General Convention direct SIM to report annually to the Executive Council on this work and its effectiveness in meeting the needs of the future ordained leaders of this Church and that the Executive Council, in turn, provide a full report to the 77th General Convention; and be it further

Resolved, That the General Convention request the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance to consider a budget allocation in the amounts of $100,000 in year one, $150,000 in year two and $200,000 in year three for the implementation of this resolution.

The cost of three years of seminary can range from $51,000 to over $100,000, depending upon family circumstances and one's choice of seminaries. About half of our seminarians struggle under the burden of debt, most of which is educational debt. The Society for the Increase of the Ministry reported in autumn 2007 that some 42% of the graduating 2008 will have incurred an estimated indebtedness of $62,000, which will amount to about $12,000 per year against a median postgraduation income of $45,500. SIM also reports a declining enrollment of students in the Master of Divinity degree programs at Episcopal seminaries (a decrease of 25% over the last three academic years) reportedly related to the level of incurred student indebtedness. The high cost of seminary education and the threat of debilitating debt limits diversity among our seminary student bodies and limits the placement opportunities for ordinands to those congregations which pay better than others. This funding schedule is intended to bring the support from the General Convention budget to a level matching the annual grants committed by SIM ($225,000 for the academic year 2008-09).

Comments (4)

"...ministries without a salary." You gotta pay your people, that's all there is to it. It's not about leadership, its about paying people to live the difficult and consuming lifestyle of someone who is always, always ready to serve, and cultivates a transformative, resurrection-manifesting presence around them all the time. These people gotta eat, have somewhere to live, etc. and you should never expect a priest without paying for one. Those with a talent for communicating religious ideas, or with the talent for raising the hair on the back of your neck during the liturgy, cannot be allowed to languish in professions that do not benefit the Church and Her people. It's a society-wide devaluing of religion and religious experience, and our refusal to consciously act against this as a religious community, that brings us to this place.
So much is lost. Why doesn't anyone see this?


If clergy are delaying retirement, that makes life difficult for those entering the priesthood. You can't pay off debt as easily if there are no openings or if salaries fall due to competition.

Enrollment may be falling, but that appears fortuitous if retirements are being delayed or there is already a "lack of paid positions."

Clint - you should come and see what is happening- our leadership is not paid and I would put them up against any paid priest or lay leader for commitment and holiness of life - modeling the call to all the baptized that we are all in ministry. Church becomes the body of Christ - hands, heart, mind, feet - not an audience.

Wyoming is adequate proof that a mutual/cooperative ministry works. Four of the smalltown/marginal congregations I served in active ministry now have very satisfactory ministries raised up from within and two in Wyoming are outstanding examples. Perhaps those east of the Mississippi don't understand the challenges of financing these small but essential congregations west of the Mississipi, especially in the Northern Plains and northern Rocky Mountain states. Yes. PLEASE come and see what REALLY GOOD is happening. BUT, help the seminarians as well.

Kale King

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