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Clergy retire later, work longer

Clergy retire later, work longer

David Briggs, writing in the Huffington Post, says that clergy are retiring later and working longer for the same reason as the rest of the workforce–they can’t afford it.

The Episcopal Church formed the Church Pension Fund twenty years before Social Security was created. In 1914, Bishop William Lawrence wrote about the moral necessity for a pension program for clergy:

The choice, he said, was often between having clergy hanging on to pastorates rather than depend on charity or providing pensions “which will place the clergy and their dependants in a position of far greater buoyancy, cheer, and dignity; which will enable men of weakening powers to give place to those younger and stronger; which will keep our parishes manned with vigor.”

Today, mainline and other churches are faced with a increasing age gap between ordained persons and lay ministers, where many ordained persons cannot afford to retire and where churches are facing rising costs making it harder for younger ordained ministers to get good positions.

The optimists’ perspective of the coming retirement crunch facing U.S. churches is that many older clergy will have the income to leave full-time positions, but the health and sense of vocation to serve smaller rural and urban churches unable to afford full-time clergy.

The pessimists’ perspective is that many spiritual leaders, financially ill-prepared for retirement, will stay on in pastorates as long as they can, exacerbating the clergy age gap and impeding efforts for denominational revitalization.

There is evidence to support both viewpoints. What is not in dispute, however, is that clergy are getting older.

Ordained ministers are getting older, partly because of later retirement and partly because of the growing numbers of people who enter ordained life as a second vocation.

The percentage of people in congregations led by someone age 50 or younger declined from 49 percent in 1998 to 42 percent in 2007, what researchers for the National Congregations Study called “a remarkable change in only nine years.”

The clergy age gap is particularly noticeable in mainline churches. From 1998 to 2006-2007, the average age of clergy in white, mainline Protestant denominations increased from 48 to 57, the congregations study found….

…Thus, the challenges facing many churches are even greater than those facing other sectors of society adjusting to our graying baby boom population. The first wave of U.S. boomers turned 65 this year. In 2010, according to the census, there were more than 16 million U.S. citizens between the ages of 60-64, an increase of around 60 percent since 1990.

The problem is not limited to denominations with weak retirement systems.

Even among denominations providing clergy pensions, there is concern about financially unprepared clergy being able to retire, particularly as a troubled economy threatens their savings.

“I hear lots of ministers who say, ‘I’m getting close to that age. I’ve really lost my zeal for it, but I’m not able to retire financially,'” said the Rev. Marcia Myers, director of the Office of Vocation for the Presbyterian Church (USA).

But she also takes encouragement from many people who entered ministry as a second career who are still full of enthusiasm. And she takes heart in the experiences of older clergy who are helping to keep smaller urban and rural churches open and vital by serving them on a part-time or interim basis.


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Judith Davis

This is particularly significant to “second-career” clergy, especially women who could not be ordained before 1976 (legally) and many of us, who would like to work longer, will not have 30 years by the time we are 72, so we will face lower pensions than our brothers who were ordained at an earlier age. I hope the Pension Fund will consider raising the age of mandatory retirement to 74 or 75.

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