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Is our deployment system broken?

Is our deployment system broken?

Here at the Cafe, we are trying to mix more conversation about the future of the Episcopal Church, and other profound issues, such as whether squirrels go to heaven, into our usual mix of faith-related news. Last week, a post from Scott Gunn at Seven Whole Days, caught our eye. He listed a number of things in the Episcopal Church that need fixing, prominent among them the way in which parishes select clergy.

Basically, the problem is that the median tenure of a rector in the Episcopal Church is about five years. The search process takes 18 months for most places. That means that many congregations end up without settled clergy leadership for 1/3 of the time. Those delays suck the momentum away. I’ve written about this before, but basically we need to increase the median tenure and massively shorten the transition time. There are plenty of ways to fix this, and our complacency is the only excuse for not making this one go away.

I agree that having interim clergy leadership as our norm is unhelpful. This isn’t to say that there are situations in which it is necessary. But at the moment, it is assumed as a fact of life. Why? What can we do about it?

On a somewhat related matter, Scott notes that our clergy compensation system works rather like our public school system, which is to say that clergy in the ecclesiastical equivalent of rich school districts earn more than those in poor districts, whether they deserve it or not. And furthermore:

Associates don’t work half as much as rectors. Priests in wealthy parishes don’t work twice as much as those in rural parishes. Let’s get a standard, toss in some cost of living and length of service factors, and call it a day. … Our current system sends newly ordained people into some of the most challenging parishes with few resources. Meanwhile, the economics of clergy compensation encourage many pastorally-minded clergy to become program-sized rectors, where their skills are simply not a good match with the needs of the community. … In an everyone-is-paid-the-same system, clergy are less influenced by a paycheck in discerning where they might be called. And, let’s face it, it’s a more just system.

It seems the system Scott is calling for might need to be administered by a diocese, or by the national church. I could see that causing some problems. But this isn’t an issue I have thought about much, and perhaps those could be easily surmounted. What are your thoughts on this?


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Jamie McMahon

I believe that in the Church of England, although clergy compensation varies a bit from diocese to diocese, the national church sets both lower and upper limits on overall compensation.

It is also worth pointing out that non-parish clergy positions, such as college chaplains, are often at diocesan minimum levels, which makes them very difficult career choices.

Dave Paisley


The problem is not a personal one. I have known and appreciated many priests while observing the deleterious effects their operating philosophies have had on congregations. I’ve also known some outright charlatans who have perpetrated some truly awful acts on churches.

As I mentioned above, the problem is the balance between the good of the congregation vs the interests of the priest.

In a system devised by, and run by, priests the latter takes precedence every time, even though 99% of the resources for the system are provided by the former.

There is talk above of priests “molding” a congregation. Priests show up with their own agenda, which they feel they must implement quickly so they can “make a mark” (even if it’s a nasty bruise) so they can move on to the next level.

Given the nature of congregations I’d say the first objective of priests ought to be that of physicians: Do no harm.

Sadly, even in the well-intentioned, that is rarely the case.


Just curious, Dave: whenever you were judging one of these “duds” w/ the “grandiose agendas”, did it EVER occur to you “…or maybe it’s me. Maybe the problem is me”?

JC Fisher

—blessed to have known dozens of better-than-decent priests, and probably more than one dozen very good-to-great ones (in my not quite 50 years). TBTG!

Dave Paisley

Wow, all we need is for more hierarchical, top-down “strategy” from bishops on high. In my 35+ years as an Anglican layperson, I can honestly say that the number of truly great priests who are focused on the congregation they serve and not their own grandiose agendas are few and far between. The deployment process serves the clergy and not the congregations. I note that none of the above comments are focused on what’s best for congregations.

One of the reasons for lengthy interims is that congregations (the paying customers) are afraid of buying a dud, because once done, they have no control over ending the relationship. In reality, their odds of getting a dud aren’t really reduced, because the odds of getting a dud are so high, and lengthy deployment processes mean you’re just as likely to miss a good candidate as have one come along at the right time.

Nowhere else in the field of human endeavor are the primary, volunteer contributors so sorely abused and ill-served.

Kristin Fontaine

I’ve been in a congregation going through search and served as part of a diocesan provided consulting team for a congregation going through search. My major concern is that congregations, even when they have direct help from the diocese, have to re-invent the wheel every time they go through a search. Experience at the congregational level in search was very limited in the situations I observed. I have also spoken with people who would never serve on a search committee again because it was not a positive experience. Also, it does not help if the congregation feels that the diocese has a different agenda in filling the position than the local congregation does. Now, that disconnect is sometimes because congregations have unrealistic expectations about what they can afford in the long term. Add any money problems between the diocese and the congregation and things get very fraught. I don’t have any answers– except that one place to make sure trust is built is between the diocese and individual congregations.

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