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What is the future for Episcopal Clergy?

What is the future for Episcopal Clergy?

An Invitation to the Church …

… to wonder and ponder with the Board for Transition Ministry


Our goal is to invite the church to think out loud about how we bring ordained leaders to our churches. From our experience, study and prayer, we recognize these to be important issues in our time. We invite dialogue in the many and diverse ways we have available: conversations on social media, at church gatherings such as meetings of diocesan transition ministers, diocesan conventions, the House of Bishops, and other leaders in our church. We offer this not as a declaration, but as an invitation to dialogue.


These invitations to ponder about clergy transitions might seem like a very “churchy” endeavor. But we are reminded that the Church exists not for itself but for the glory of God and the transformation of the world. We are the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement that is out to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many, into the dream God has for it. God’s will is to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” We are to develop disciples that go out into the world and “turn it upside down” (Acts 17:6) – which our Presiding Bishop tells us “”is actually right side up.” The Church exists to fulfill the mandate of Matthew 25.


And we offer these reflections as a people reminded 365 times in the Bible to “be not afraid.” These are times of challenge and opportunity. The Spirit blows where it will and yet we are assured it is always with us. With the confidence of a people reborn in the Resurrection of Jesus we invite us all to discover new life now as we live into God’s future.


Aging Church

We invite the church to ponder with us about the aging of The Episcopal Church. What does it mean that, not only is the average age of members of our parishes increasing, but that 67.3% of active priests are aged 55 and over? Since 2009, retirements have outpaced ordinations to the priesthood by almost two to one.


Dual-Call Couples

According to a 2013 Church Pension Group report, Episcopal clergy include 428 dual-call couples (both partners ordained). Approximately 14 percent of active priests are married to another Episcopal clergyperson. (This figure does not include Episcopal clergy married to clergy in other traditions.) It is reasonable to expect that this number will only continue to grow. In some search processes, dual-call couples have been seen as a burden. We see a need for a culture change in which dual-call couples are considered a blessing.


Energy Beyond the Parish

We see a growing need for leaders in non-traditional, non-parochial ministry, to which the Jesus Movement calls us: urban challenges, underserved populations, veterans, the “church without walls,” environmental concerns, prisons, to name a few. We need to find sustainable financing for these developing areas of ministry.


Diversifying Our Clergy

Although search committees have worked hard to offer slates of candidates for bishop with more non-traditional candidates—women, LGBT clergy, other racial and ethnic communities—we still see that straight, white, married males are most often elected. From 2013 through Oct. 28, 2016, there were 23 elections for bishops. Women were candidates in 16 of those elections, African-American and Hispanic candidates in 13. Women were elected in five of those dioceses. (One is no longer serving as a bishop; three are awaiting consecration.) Four Hispanic male candidates were elected, one Korean male, and one African-American male. These elections of untraditional candidates validate the normalcy of female candidates, but there is still much work to be done before the House of Bishops looks like the rest of the Episcopal Church.


Interim Ministries

How can the time between rectors or vicars best be used on behalf of the worshiping community and the diocese? We find that the time between priests is a valuable opportunity for looking at who the parish is and envisioning the future. We invite the church to discuss the roles of interims and priests-in-charge during times of clergy transition.


Part-time Clergy Leadership

We invite the church to consider the effects of part-time ordained ministry on both parish and priest. The number of full-time calls continues to decrease, and the number of priests able and willing to work part-time fails to match the need. The church has long advised of the need for bi-vocational clergy, but that has not yet become a practical reality.


Full-Communion Partners

We acknowledge the great gift of our full-communion agreements with Lutherans and Moravians. In some places these joint ministries are flourishing; in many others, the practice has yet to be implemented. We need to devote attention to clarifying and simplifying the procedures of these shared ministries, which are a blessing to the church.


Diversity is reality

How can we more effectively minister in multicultural settings, given our increasingly diverse society? Many of our churches are still not currently reflective of the diversity outside their doors. Multicultural churches are the fastest growing segment of TEC. We invite the church to prioritize raising up clergy and lay leaders who are multilingual, and who able to effectively serve in multicultural settings.


“Calling” is Not “Hiring”

The best calls happen when the Holy Spirit is part of the process. We remind our communities that seeking new clergy leadership is a spiritual process, not an executive search, and we encourage our congregations to be open to God’s imagination as they seek new spiritual leaders.


Transitions Have Changed

We urge those involved in the process to be mindful of these points:

  • The number of applicants for clergy positions will be fewer than in years gone by.
  • Clergy are less willing or able to relocate.
  • More clergy are trained through local or distance-learning models, and fewer through traditional seminary settings.
  • Many clergy have already had a first career before responding to a call to the priesthood.
  • Members of the diocesan staff, particularly the diocesan transition minister, are your guides and supports through this process.
  • The church requires background checks on candidates.
  • The bishop must approve your choice of a new clergy leader.




image: from the Diocese of Colorado




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The Reverend Deacon Carol Gardner

Forty years ago I came into the Episcopal Church as an agnostic seeker. The church I attended had three full-time priests, two part-time priests and what was then called a perpetual deacon. All these clergy were in the preaching pulpit at some time during my year of sitting on the pew wondering why I was there. What I heard from the pulpit each and every Sunday was the message, “God loves you.” No matter the preacher or the style I heard “God loves you.” I grew to accept that message of God’s love and stayed, no longer wondering why I was there, but knowing that I was there because I was a beloved child of God.

I tell this story because I think there are a lot of folk outside the church longing to hear a message of love and inclusion. Finding the best way to tell them about God’s great love for them might be the first and most important goal of any discussion of growth and mission. What’s that old saying? Keep your eyes on the prize?

Mark Brown

Fantastic discussion.

As I read the comments I find myself thinking strategically about how best to tackle the challenges outlined.

In my mind we need to start with thoroughly understanding the demographics of our constituents as well as the broader cultural zeitgeist. Then identify an ideal skill set and personal qualities that would be a good match to fulfill our missional objectives within the contemporary reality.

Then under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, let’s start actively seeking people who display the qualities and skills required.

I feel we do the demographics well, but I don’t see much cultural analysis being offered or further, acknowledging the importance of identifying and approaching those who would best minister within the contemporary reality.

I am presently reading the history of my Diocese (Texas), and I am struck by the fact that time and time again, the church grew when the leadership intimately understood the zeitgeist and created entry points first into the church (including planting churches) and then into leadership positions and Holy Orders.

I wonder if the same approach is needed today?

Jim Strader-Sasser


I think your post offers exactly the sort of missional strategy Episcopalians should be experimenting with and implementing in a variety of contexts. We need to meet people where they are with an openness to learn and receive from them rather than simply informing them about what we have to share. Leadership of the transformational type lets go of what isn’t essential even as it functions upon Christ’s greatest commandments of loving God, neighbor, and self. It doesn’t simply operate sacramentally based upon what we know in our practice and praxis of traditional common prayer. It involves sharing gift and receiving them too. It is riskier than many of our churches are accustomed to, especially as they age.

Poppy St.John

The Episcopal Church may wish to consider merging with the Lutherans,Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic seminaries who share similar issues.Just a thought!
Peace be with you!
Poppy St.John

Paul Woodrum

Tech industries are using teams rather than individuals, especially where a job calls for creative input. I keep wondering what it might look like in urban and suburban areas where congregations are relatively close to each other, to organize inter-parish teams that would include priests, deacons, and laity, to work on outreach, education, mission and liturgy. Has anyone tried this approach?

David Allen

urban and suburban areas where congregations are relatively close to each other, to organize inter-parish teams

Not just Episcopal parishes, why not also other Christians nearby, especially full-communion partners?

In my experience, most progressive Christians don’t have disparate doctrinal differences any more. They mostly have different ecclesial polities and worship traditions/styles.

Michael Strong

The word ‘progressive’ bothers as does the term ‘social justice’. The revolutionary message Jesus brought was not for social change but for personal change even unto death. Social justice implies to me passing laws to make other people just and accordingly teaching others to demand their rights and to show discontent if they don’t get them. He did not chastise the robbers for leaving the man beaten in the ditch, nor complain about the unjust system which produced robbers. He chastised the priest and Levi walking past. This story started with a lawyer who hearing the statement ‘love thy neighbor’ asked ‘who is thy neighbor?’ Let’s leave aside the issue of works v grace, or voting for Hillary or Trump, let’s focus on the incredible importance of bringing Jesus on the Cross and then resurrected meaningfully to our people. We lack witnesses (I prefer the Greek word). Are we witnessing? Our priests? Our deacons? Our lay people? Our youth? This is not a Sunday morning affair: on that day we should gather and encourage each other’s witnessing nourished by the Sacraments. BTW, thank you all for this every interesting and inspirational discussion!

John Rabb

What is interesting is what is not in this report: what real gifts and skills are truly need, what are the expectations for deepening theological dialogue and what, in fact, enables clergy to “excel.” It is descriptive of many realities, but we need to go deeper. I do believe that a key element as to how the church grows and moves forward will be how develop clarity, competence, consistency and connectedness from our ordained leaders. The next steps are to carefully and thoroughly do the work necessary.

Michael Strong

Exactly, well said.

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