Are we scapegoating our clergy?

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Recently there have been a plethora of articles on clergy and the congregations they serve. Some are concerned with burn out, some are blaming clergy or bishops, some are blaming congregations for whatever is troubling in today’s churches:

The Rev. Nigel Taber-Hamilton wonders:

Are we scapegoating our clergy?


Sometimes unrelated topics have a way of coming together to raise important questions for all Episcopalians. Take two recent seemingly unrelated threads:

The trend toward the appointment of priests-in-charge, or long-term interim priests, rather than rectors; and

Clergy burn-out as a result of unreasonable ministerial expectations by congregations, and general bad or abusive behavior toward rectors and vicars.

At first there seems little connection. But then there’s this: the Diocese of Maine is proposing the abandonment of widely-used diocesan clergy compensation scales and replacing them with a plethora of individual compensation packages tied to school employee salaries (not including superintendents) in each local community.

We all understand the financial problems congregations face in the current economic and societal environment – there’s not enough money.

Yet Maine thinks that it can help its congregations balance their budgets by paying their new clergy less and offering them fewer benefits. Their White Paper’s myopic overview gives no consideration to the impact on clergy, nor the personal clergy-stress generated, and is ultimately an inadequate and short-sighted response to much broader and more complex issues.

On its own, Maine’s proposal may seem, if somewhat misguided, simply innocuous. But when seen in the light of the two trends mentioned at the beginning it becomes much more significant.

It seems that priests are being explicitly used as handy scapegoats for the deeper issues of our day – issues whose presenting symptoms are the economic woes of the wider church; the turning of a mostly latent anti-clericalism into its ugly, active counterpart; the desire by some to exercise more and more control over the nature of priestly identity and ministry; a cultural opposition to any form of institutional authority; and, compounding all of these, the decline of involvement in organized religion.

This complex of trends raises important questions for our denomination about how we value priestly ministry, and what, in the end, we actually think about priestly identity.

On a deeper level, though, it suggests we’re burying our heads in the sand when it comes to the sweeping cultural and societal changes now occurring. Are we going to keep turning our backs to the incoming tsunami and engage in tinkering, petty bickering, and attempts at control?

Or are we going to learn to surf?

Nigel Taber-Hamilton is rector of St. Augustine’s-in-the-woods Episcopal Church on Whidbey Island, Diocese of Olympia. He is currently finishing a doctorate in pastoral leadership.

© 2010 Nigel Taber-Hamilton

Alfredo Garcia offers a collection of thoughts at Religious News Service Blog: Sounding off on the health of the clergy. He cites several authors and sources on the health of the clergy.

Is the Maine proposal alarming to you? Or is it the wave of the future? What about clergy wellbeing when salaries are cut below a living wage?

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Christopher Evans
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Christopher Evans

First, as I have reminded fellow parishioners on more than one occasion, there is no such thing as a part time priest or pastor. Remember that, and get clear about expectations on the part of the congregation. For myself, my expectation is Word and Sacrament ministry coupled with pastoral care/visitations. Clergy are not non-profit administrators, which is I think how many parishioners view them.

Second, many parishioners do not *get* it that visiting the sick and dying and shut-in, making time for those suffering and in need of counsel, is work, indeed, can be incredibly rewarding but very exhausting work. Nor do they understand that preparation of services and sermons are work.

Call committees need to be very clear about expectations and what constitutes work for priests.

Third, I do expect experiments like this. Lutherans have been doing 2, 3, 4, and even 5,6 point parishes in rural areas for years and years. This is making its way into city parishes as well, where thriving but not large enough congregations partner to have a shared pastor. There can be rewards in networking.

We should expect, however, to pay our clear

And like Fr. Bill, I think much of this is shifts in economy, especially economy of scale, as well as lower commitment on the part of parishioners in some cases to giving, and ultimately the end of Christendom. The Church model we are operating under is not sustainable.

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Jim Strader
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Jim Strader

The Episcopal Church resides in a unique clerical situation. A parish priest acts as the sacramental (and perhaps pastoral) servant-leader for her or his congregation. There's no way around this reality unless the Episcopal Church as a "Catholic-Eucharistic-centered" denomination is going to change its practical and theological tenets.

Consequently, Episcopalian congregations "need" priests and this theological, ecclesiastical, and canonical need, along with many others, require that Episcopalians find means to hire, compensate, and effectively tend to the economic, spiritual, and vocational benefits of their clergy.

This reality offers Episcopalians opportunities for re-formation of their parishes, dioceses, and denomination. Lower salaries and less benefits are only one solution amongst many (bi-vocational clergy, merged missions and parishes, use of long-term retired clergy, enhanced parochial evangelism and renewal, canonical changes such as lay Eucharistic celebration, parish closures and restructuring in conjunction with cleverly designed and implemented church planting, and other Holy Spirit led and emergent possibilities not noted here).

Organizational Development principles suggest that "corporations" will almost always seek cost-cutting and human resource reduction solutions rather than re-imagining themselves while designing and implementing significant organizational changes.

The Diocese of Maine seemingly is considering a usual "path of least resistance" as The Episcopal Church did at its most recent General Convention when it significantly reduced the size of its Church Center staff. The question Episcopalians must continue to consider at congregational, diocesan, and denominational level is Who is Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit's Wisdom and Grace calling us to be given the myriad of realities of living and spreading the gospel in 21st Century contexts.

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Bill Carroll
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Bill Carroll

There's a sea change afoot, but it has more to do with a hollow economy and vanishing middle class and with the fall of Christendom. We will see a vast decline in the number of congregations that can afford full time clergy. Experiments like the one in Maine are to be expected. I don't see anything particularly nefarious here. I'm not sure it's the best proposal, but it's surely not the worst we'll see. Clergy should expect to share in the lot of the people they are serving. I would think somewhere in the middle of the pay scale for a public school teacher would be appropriate in many towns, depending on experience and the economy. But some congregations can't afford that. But we are all going to have to become a little more entrepreneurial.

In some rural dioceses this is already a reality. The question is: how can dioceses and more prosperous parishes share financial resources with ministries that are showing signs of life but in poor areas. Reform of the pension fund and single payer healthcare are two of the things that we can do to help congregations that are teetering on the edge of viability.

What bold bishops will actually start to create missionary partnerships among the congregations of their dioceses?

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John B. Chilton
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John B. Chilton

I took a quick look at the Maine committee's proposal. Several things struck me. The committee that put it together appears balanced between clergy and lay. It was not dashed off without serious thought and consultation, and consultation remains an ongoing part of the process. Finally, I like the discussion on making part time truly part time.

Let's read the report and give some benefit of the doubt before scapegoating the committee for taking on a tough subject.

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Jason Wells
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Jason Wells

It's alarming, but not surprising. Plenty of churches, especially in rural dioceses are opting to reduce pay and benefits. Typically it's just called "hiring a part-time priest."

What exactly is the priest supposed to do to make up the rest of the income or benefits? I haven't really seen a diocesan plan for that. Typically the answer is to hire someone retired who doesn't need to make pension payments and has health care from elsewhere.

Finding someone mid-career is harder: there's often no relevant part-time work nearby, you must hire someone dependent on a spouse for the remaining income and health benefits and (in the long run) reduced pension payments will come back to bite them.

Trying to arrange reduced time and pay positions isn't new, even if it sets off alarms. What would be novel is trying to find a complete solution for the clergy before they are left underemployed, underpaid and underhealthy.

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