Do churches exist to support clergy?

by George Clifford

Is supporting their clergy the raison d’être for congregations to exist?

In 2010, half of the 6,794 congregations in The Episcopal Church (TEC) had an average Sunday attendance (ASA) of 65 or fewer people; 58% of TEC congregations had fewer than 200 active, baptized members and only 15% have more than 500 active, baptized members. Nevertheless, TEC congregations generally want to have the services of a full-time, paid clergyperson.


click to enlarge (C. Kirk Hadaway, “Episcopal Congregations Overview: Findings from the 2008 Faith Communities Today Survey,” March 2009, available at here)

Having served small (ASA under 20) and large (ASA over 500) congregations, I find it impossible to imagine that small congregations (e.g., those with an ASA under 150 or fewer than 350 active baptized members) require the services of a full-time paid cleric.

The smallest congregation that I have served was a Royal Navy (RN) Church in London, England. Ministering to my active parishioners left me ample time to minister to the spiritual needs of my 2000 plus military parishioners and their families not active in the Church, to manage some local RN social service programs, and to design, obtain funding for, and oversee construction of, a new multi-purpose facility (church, pub, and theater). That experience confirmed the jaundiced suspicion with which I have long viewed the need for small congregations to have full-time paid clergy.

The bald truth is that small congregations spend a hugely disproportionate, even scandalous, percentage of their resources, especially financial resources, on clergy compensation. If the cleric receives a not very generous annual stipend of $50,000, healthcare insurance costing $12,000 and payments into the pension fund of $11,160, then the cleric’s total package costs the congregation $73,160. That represents 25 donors, each giving $2926 per year, or 50 donors, each giving $1463. To put those numbers in context, the average pledge in TEC today is approximately $1500. Thus, the 12% of congregations with an ASA of 25 or less who have full-time paid clergy either have exceptionally generous contributors or pay their bills from an endowment.

The Church does not exist to provide full-time employment for the clergy. The Church’s mission, broadly conceived by H. Richard Niebuhr, is the increase of the love of God and neighbor. As the author of I Timothy remarked, clergy, like all laborers, are rightly paid for their labor. However, clergy, like any laborer, should not expect full-time compensation for performing what are actually part-time duties.

Congregations and clergy share responsibility for this ugly form of clericalism. Few priests (or bishops or seminary faculty members!) question the prevailing ministry model with its strong presumption of at least one full-time paid cleric for every congregation. Their silence makes them complicit in sustaining a model that diverts resources from bringing new life to maintenance of the dying.

Similarly, few congregants vigorously, persistently, and effectively question congregational decision makers (bishop, clergy, vestry, bishop’s committee, wardens) whether the grossly skewed expenditure of funds on clergy compensation reflects the most prudential use of monies received as offerings to God. Our culture has a strongly normative belief that having a full-time, paid cleric on staff and owning a building are minimum essential hallmarks for a Christian congregation. In other words, this is not a problem unique to TEC>

Yet half of all Americans have incomes near or below the poverty level. Hunger in America is on the increase. And the plight of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world makes most of the poor in the U.S. seem wealthy. The percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians has declined from 86% in 1990 to 76% in 2009; during that same period, the percentage who identify as “no religious preference” has doubled. Is clergy compensation the best, the most prudential use of the gifts that God’s people give?

If the Church does not exist to support the clergy, what can we do?

First, TEC and its clergy can establish a fuller, healthier mutual accountability for clergy and congregations. A relative handful of clergy who serve small congregations devote much of their time to managing mission endeavors the congregation sponsors. A smaller handful spend their time effectively growing the congregation (It’s true! TEC does have some small congregations that are growing numerically). Most underemployed clergy, however, lack the opportunity or skills for either of the foregoing. They, or perhaps their successor, should become bi-vocational, serve multiple congregations, or combine part-time in the small congregation with another part-time clergy position (e.g., chaplaincy, staff for an ecumenical group, diocesan staff, or assisting in a larger congregation). Regular and rigorously honest mutual ministry reviews that discuss how the clergy use their time represent an excellent opportunity to move toward institutionalizing a fuller, healthier accountability.

Second, TEC needs to make seminary education more affordable, so that graduates leave without debt. Consolidating our eleven seminaries is one possibility for achieving this (cf. A word on our seminaries: Consolidate!). Well-intentioned initiatives to provide clergy for small congregations that lower educational requirements risk creating an under-qualified, ill-equipped, second-rate set of clergy for small congregations. Leading a small congregation requires considerable expertise and as comprehensive a skill set as needed to lead a very large congregation. God’s people deserve the best. TEC has no shortage of people who hear a call to ordination. Making seminary affordable represents a significant step toward solving TEC’s problem of a mal-distributed clergy, i.e., too many clergy need full-time salaries that too few congregations can, or should, pay.

Third, we can change our thinking about Church. The older form of clericalism identified ministry as the work of the clergy, isolated them on pedestals, and invested them with the responsibility of managing the Church (i.e., made them holy authority figures) is thankfully dying, a casualty of healthy changes in the last 50 years. The new form of clericalism tacitly presumes that the Church exists for the clergy, providing them full-time compensation in exchange for being a person of faith, saying the prayers others are too busy or too doubtful to say, and maintaining the Church. Sometimes the cleric literally maintains the building, arriving early to adjust the thermostat and to make coffee, and then leaving late, taking out the trash, and locking the doors after the last person has left. More often, the cleric is the lynchpin for ensuring the congregation’s organizational functionality.

Neither model of clericalism is faithful to the mutual ministry of all God’s people. The four orders of ministry identify functional and not spiritual distinctions. Clergy bring certain gifts and authority to their ministry within a congregation, but those gifts and that authority (e.g., preaching and consecrating sacraments) are no better than the gifts and authority that lay people bring; indeed, without the gifts and authority of the laity, the Church reverts to the worst of the old form of clericalism.

If The Episcopal Church is to once again thrive as a vibrant, fully alive branch of the larger Church, then TEC congregations must cease existing to support their clergy and instead discover new patterns of mutual ministry to reach a world that is literally and spiritually hungry. The clergy’s raison d’être is to support the Church, not the other way around.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

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