April 12, 2022

Our Current Clergy Shortage

A few years back, the Episcopal Church made an intentional change in its language: “Clergy Deployment” became “Transition Ministry.” The shift was generally a good one and it led to an impressive amount of reflection on lay leadership, congregational life cycles, and the strategies that can support healthy arrivals and departures.

Yet, we still need to be talking about clergy deployment. We still need to be talking about how we get the right people into the right chairs. (Or, to use a more sacred version of that same metaphor: The right people behind the right altars.)

In 2002, the Church Pension Group’s data analyst (and chief prognostication officer) Matthew Price wrote this: “At present we have a relative shortage of clergy caused by a mismatch of persons and the parishes that need them. But it is possible, given current trends in recruitment and retirement, that this relative shortage could become an absolute shortage.” Twenty years hence, Dr. Price’s vision seems to have become our reality.

Consider whether my observations align with your own:

  • Of all the small and rural congregations that I know, very few would say that they are adequately supplied with clergy leadership.
  • Of all the large and urban congregations that I know, almost none expect to have an easy time recruiting associates or curates.
  • Search processes for rectors seem to be getting longer while length of a rector’s tenure seems to be getting shorter.
  • Many full-time clergy positions remain vacant for months if not longer.

I would welcome data to show that my observations are isolated phenomena, but I fear that they are generally true across the church. The trends that Dr. Price warned us about twenty years ago have continued: The Episcopal Church has an insufficient number of clergy and an ineffective means of distributing the clergy that it has.

It is tempting to begin casting blame, but let’s put away our swords. This problem impacts us all and we all need to play a role in addressing it:

  • Bishops: We cannot address a clergy shortage without more clergy. We need to raise up new vocations from every background and every stage of life. We need to find effective methods of training clergy that can work for a variety of life circumstances.
  • Congregations and Rectors: Mentorship early on is proven to increase the likelihood that an ordained person stays in ministry for the long-haul. I suggest that it also increases their effectiveness. We need to create curacies and associateships and invest ourselves in teaching healthy priestcraft.
  • Professional Clergy: We were ordained for the whole church, and the whole church needs us. We need to be willing to relocate. We also need to be willing to continue serving congregations after we retire from full-time ministry.
  • Diocesan and Denominational Headquarters: Distribution problems are often grounded in communications problems; we need to find more effective ways of connecting people with the cures in which they will thrive. We also need to find ways of minimizing the number of clergy in administrative positions so that we can maximize the number of clergy available to our congregations.
  • Foundations and Benefactors: None of this will be inexpensive. We need to invest now in creative solutions to a pressing problem that has everything to do with the future vitality of the Episcopal Church.

No one group of people caused this crisis, and no one group of people can fix it. We all need to be talking to one another – the bishops who oversee the ordination process, who bear responsibility for unfilled pulpits, and whose staffs work hard to keep the whole system running; the rectors and congregations who create jobs, the clergy who fill them, and the people and institutions who can fund new positions.

Who can convene all the stakeholders? Who can get the conversation started?