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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