Are we scapegoating our clergy?


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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17 Responses to "Are we scapegoating our clergy?"
  1. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. Yes we are. We are also dealing with the reality of a smaller and smaller average congregation and a horrible economy. I think Maine is thinking creatively which is more than others appear to be doing. So are those diocese working on the 'mutual ministry' and creative use of non-stipend non-career clergy.

    Let's face it, the 200 family parish that can pay the $100,000 a rector might well be worth and need given the student loan burden, is simply not out there.

    That reality is not the 'fault' of the clergy, nor is it the 'fault' of the laity. It is simply how our society is evolving in this post modern reality.

    I told the commission on ministry here that this would be the future some years ago. They responded by dropping me from the postulancy program. 😉 But in fact it is where we are heading. It calls into question the maintenance of large physical plants, and demands new views of ministry and priesthood.


    Jim Beyer

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  7. I would take a good look at what we are doing in Southern Ohio.

    In some ways, this is a contemporary version of total ministry, borrowing heavily from Eastern Michigan. But in other ways, it is insisting that the shift toward baptismal ministry is something that needs to be incarnated in different ways in different contexts. Too often, total ministry is viewed as a solution for congregations that can't afford a full time priest. It is instead the ecclesiology of the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer.

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  8. Seventeen or eighteen years ago the Diocese of Michigan articulated a standard for clergy compensation of "comparable worth." That is, compensation for clergy was to be roughly comparable with professional peers in the geographic area.

    I was, for various reasons, the first person to actually work this out. I went through the process - calling to get salary ranges for other professionals with a Masters, including both a junior high principle and a classroom teacher with a Masters; my hospital's Director of Social Work and a bedside nurse with a Masters; a clinical social worker in mental health; and, as I recall, a few other positions - using those ranges to develop a range for clergy in my area (downtown Detroit), and then applying a formula determining how much of my work was administrative. The first time I ran the numbers, they said that my pay needed to rise 40% over the next three years. I ran them again, being more humble about how much of my time was administrative, and the result was a need to raise my salary 25% over the next three years. Mine was a contract position, shared between hospital and diocese; and the diocese couldn't, and the hospital wouldn't, meet that increase.

    The alternative laid out in the plan was for me to reduce my hours; but for what? In any case, I had an opportunity where I am now, and I took it. Could I have stayed, and either contracted with a parish for hours, or found some other employment? Perhaps; but I wanted to focus on chaplaincy, and made that choice.

    The issue of whether a part time parish position is or isn't part time has at least two pieces. One is whether we as clergy can set and hold boundaries, and take the related heat - something we're not all that good at as a group, really. The second is educating our laity on appropriate expectations, and on good peer support. Will that make it all work? Not perfectly. However, I've continued to think on the earlier post here about congregations as places of sanctuary. Such a development of lay resources in the congregation would seem consistent with that.

    There is another part of this we don't hear about. The Church Pension Fund has two aspects that could be used, if only we clergy were willing. One is that an important part of our defined benefits pension, the measure of Highest Average Compensation, is based on the best years in our career, and doesn't go down even if we end our career in a congregation that can't pay as well. The second is that those who qualify to retire after 30 years in the Pension Fund can continue to serve in a part time position without losing our pension benefits (yes, the classic "double dip" that federal and military retirees have taken for years). Part of the point of these was that folks at or nearing retirement could take smaller positions, arguably requiring less time, without losing pension benefits. In a society still focused on "he who dies with the most toys wins," we don't get encouraged to this enough; but I for one have certainly thought about it. Certainly, there are enough folks who are late vocations who won't be able to serve in these ways. On the other hand, there are folks who can. Are our bishops talking to us about that?

    Marshall Scott

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  9. You’re right, this situation is alarming; but it’s just reflective of what has been going on in America for most folks for the past 30 years. Only now it’s beginning to impact the clergy as well.


    • 83 percent of all U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people.

    • 61 percent of Americans "always or usually" live paycheck to paycheck, which was up from 49 percent in 2008 and 43 percent in 2007.

    • 66 percent of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1% of all Americans.

    • 36 percent of Americans say that they don't contribute anything to retirement savings.

    • A staggering 43 percent of Americans have less than $10,000 saved up for retirement.

    • 24 percent of American workers say that they have postponed their planned retirement age in the past year.

    • Over 1.4 million Americans filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009, which represented a 32 percent increase over 2008.

    • Only the top 5 percent of U.S. households have earned enough additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.

    • For the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth in the United States than all individual Americans put together.

    • In 1950, the ratio of the average executive's paycheck to the average worker's paycheck was about 30 to 1. Since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 to 500 to one.

    • As of 2007, the bottom 80 percent of American households held about 7% of the liquid financial assets.

    • The bottom 50 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.

    • Average Wall Street bonuses for 2009 were up 17 percent when compared with 2008.

    • In the United States, the average federal worker now earns 60% MORE than the average worker in the private sector.

    • The top 1 percent of U.S. households own nearly twice as much of America's corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago.

    • In America today, the average time needed to find a job has risen to a record 35.2 weeks.

    • More than 40 percent of Americans who actually are employed are now working in service jobs, which are often very low paying.

    • or the first time in U.S. history, more than 40 million Americans are on food stamps, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that number will go up to 43 million Americans in 2011.

    • This is what American workers now must compete against: in China a garment worker makes approximately 86 cents an hour and in Cambodia a garment worker makes approximately 22 cents an hour.

    • Approximately 21 percent of all children in the United States are living below the poverty line in 2010 - the highest rate in 20 years.

    • Despite the financial crisis, the number of millionaires in the United States rose a whopping 16 percent to 7.8 million in 2009.

    • The top 10 percent of Americans now earn around 50 percent of our national income.

    So, let’s DO SOMETHING about it!

    Kurt Hill

    Brooklyn, NY

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  10. I appreciate the issues that are integrated and presented here, which is for me something of a Gordian Knot and therefore critical to consider as an interrelated whole.

    Overall, I believe we are being confronted with what could be called "the secularization of religion." Within an awareness of the broadest cultural and global view, our popular culture today is challenging and testing what seems to be an newly emerging identity against the inherited concepts of our social history such as the nature of "authority," what constitutes "justice" and even what it is to be "American."

    The Episcopal Church is, I believe, being uniquely impacted within the current lived dialogue.

    We have reached a critical time in which are being invited to consider anew what is essential to the identity and expression of the Episcopal Church.

    Apparent anti-clericalism and episcopal challenges for greater control appear to me to be symptoms of the socio-cultural times in which we are living.

    We are not separate from the society in which we are an organization,and internally we are struggling with the same issues of authority,justice and American identity (particular to this country, though obviously the Episcopal expression exisits in other countries with their own issues of national history and indentity).

    Rachel Taber-Hamilton

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  11. It will be interesting to see how the Church Pension Fund's actuarial projections will play into this reactive stance. Last time I looked the median age of currently active clergy is not declining, and from what the seminaries are saying, fewer people are pursuing ordination.

    It may be wishful thinking to expect a deminishing population of retired and semi-retired clergy to fill in the "financial gap" that seems to be growing between revenues and parishioner needs. Also, if the recent clergy burnout studies are any indication of what is to come, we can expect fewer and fewer folks to accept the call to ordained ministry.

    Terry Pannell+

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  12. Well the elephant in this room is clearly stewardship. Giving per capita is lower today than it was during the great depression. To repeat it another way the actual buying power of what is given today per head is lower than in the great depression.

    As one wag said, "We have all the money we need right in this room. The problem is that it is in your pocket and not ours."

    I bet average giving is still hovering at 1.9% of gross or net income for our people.

    So the solution of paying the clergy less is about the saddest form of denial I can imagine. BISHOPS need to step up to be the water carriers on this for their clergy. They need to be clear that congregations must pay a living wage commensurate with the sorts of skills the clergy bring to the table. Tying it to the next "cheaped" out profession in the community is hardly a moral choice. Teachers should be paid more too.

    When I was a curate in Chicago I took a look at local salaries and found that I earned the same amount as the assistant on the truck picking up trash in our community. My rector earned the same as the driver. Metaphorically we are in some ways doing the same thing (sin is trash after all, bearing with people in their pain is too in a way)the difference is that they had a better union.

    We are actually more like firefighters and EMTs than teachers. On call 24/7 for emergencies, with people at the most traumatic times of their lives, walking them through personal and familial disasters and so forth. Then we add the preaching and teaching aspects, preparing and leading worship, organizing volunteers and etc, etc, etc. Clergy do this because it is their call to do it. But being called is not an excuse for paying them poorly.

    One study done in the late 70s or early 80s compared salaries of clergy in poor and wealthy communities. It found that in poor communities clergy were paid above the average income of the people and in well to do congregations clergy were paid less than the average income of the community.

    The researchers opined that in poorer communities clergy were a symbol of the community's success and so they were feted and dressed out as the exemplar of that success.

    In wealthier congregations, they opined, clergy were the symbols of their humility and so were compensated commensurate to being a symbol of humility.

    So what are clergy worth? I suspect the answer has more to do with the commitment to tithing and sharing from entrusted wealth than it has to do with finding the right occupational slot.

    We celebrated St. Laurence this morning with a reading from 2 Corinthians, "If you sow sparingly, you will reap sparingly." And a little further "God loves a cheerful giver." I'd be happy with realistic givers who gifts had the same buying power as those of the people in the depression.

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  13. This is a good conversation!

    About the report itself, John B. Chilton (above) comments: "The committee that put it together appears balanced between clergy and lay." It is more than a little odd, therefore, that the committee notes it is only interested in "affordable clergy" without commenting on the ramifications for those clergy; and that it observes that "[clergy compensation] is a very stressful matter for most parishes" while expressing no similar awareness of the much more personal stress involved for the clergy themselves.

    Later in the report the committee observes, concerning its proposals for clerical health care, that “[T]here are obvious advantages for all sides [in changing] Health Insurance Benefits.” Given a 100% increase in clergy co-payments that would result it seems apparent the committee is uninterested in the effect of its proposals on the clergy.

    Simply saying, therefore, that we should not "scapegoat the committee" misses the point: they have given clergy short-shrift in their proposals.

    A more comprehensive way of addressing the issues would be to ask what new models might be appropriate - perhaps some combination of clusters, Mutual Ministry and regional missioners, and traditional single congregations led by priests.

    A healthy conversation about priestly and Episcopal identity is also in order.

    Giving the Taskforce the "benefit of the doubt" is the traditional, passive response that no longer works.

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  14. I'm asking that folks read the Maine Committee's report to draw their own conclusions. They've been asked to be creative, and that means change, and that means discomfort. Benefit of the doubt merely meant look at the substance of what they say before jumping to conclusions based upon someone else's (well considered) conclusions, or simply because the topic is on the table at all.

    If I read the committee correctly they are looking for ways to make part time truly part time if that's what a clergy chooses, or in order to make a full time equivalent realistic. (Yes, whether that could ever be possible is a reasonable objection.)

    Honestly, I got into detail overload when it came to the health insurance component. Ok - if it's not reasonable do notice that the committee is operating in a transparent way, it is open to objections and ideas, and it doesn't have the last say by any means.

    I've done my share of dragging a parish to point where it paid its clergy decently. And I know, too, that the church for clergy can be a place where everyone is your boss and some of bosses suffer from arrested development.

    That said, trotting out "anti-clericalism" is worn out. It starts out from the premise that people do not have good intentions. I'm feeling some anti-layism right about now. It's ok to be wary and doubtful and do due deligence. But generalized labeling isn't helpful or constructive.

    Great conversation. Keep it going all of you.

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  15. When I was working at Episcopal Church at Yale in the 1970's(so had Thanksgiving as a long weekend off) I drove the long way up to Maine to visit a friend from seminary who was working a good ways north in that surprisingly large state. I'd never been to Maine, and since then have only been to the coast. Where he was working, a small, very poor town well inland, he said he was paid twice as much as the next best paid person in his congregation. Clergy salaries (and the pension payments they generate) are for a national employment pool of professional clergy. Local community in rural Maine was paying the heavy price of hiring people who could be working in New York City or San Francisco (where cost of living and salaries are remarkably higher).

    In the Diocese of California which, when I came in 1980 was last in the country for clergy compensation - if calculated in dollars adjusted to cost of living - I'm grateful for efforts that were made over the years to scale our compensation to cost of living. But what does an effort like that mean for a town or region like my friend was working in? I assume the economics of rural Maine haven't changed much.

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  16. This has been a very rich discussion. I don't think this is, by any means, a new discussion. As far as I can remember, the Church has been balancing itself on the backs of clergy. This is not isolated to Maine, or any diocese. I suspect it is one of many factors that leads to clergy burnout.

    One aspect of this conversation that I have not seen is the long-term effect of hiring cheap clergy. Everyone understands why the worlds best and brightest become doctors and lawyers. It is because of the payoff, both financially and in prestige. I have read and heard multiple times that when hiring a person, a business (church, organization, etc.) does not pay someone to do good work, rather they offer a good package to attract good people.

    With this in mind, what are we doing by continually offering less attractive incentives to the priesthood, as well as local clergy positions? We are slowing undercutting the effectiveness of our church leadership. The systematic consequences are that our churches and Church become less efficient, and less able to financially sustain themselves. Then, it becomes a vicious cycle of offering less benefits, hiring less effective clergy, making our churches less financially stable, and then making us less able to offer good benefits.

    The Church really needs to consider clergy (or any leadership, for that matter) an investment, rather than disposable or a liability. This would greatly increase the Church's effectiveness in the future.

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