By Cameron Nations

David Goodhew’s recent post “Facing Episcopal Church Decline” tells a familiar story: the Episcopal Church’s numbers are falling fast and, without a turnaround, things don’t look great for the future of the denomination. He looks at figures such as membership, average Sunday attendance, baptisms, and weddings to trace a sobering picture of an institution facing decades of overall decline. Yet, despite many posts from numerous outlets and voices on the subject of TEC’s membership issues, I’ve yet to see anyone discuss at length another, no less important, side of the story: TEC’s impending leadership and experience vacuum.

In the Church Pension Group’s 2015 Church Compensation Report: A National, Provincial, and Diocesan Analysis of Clergy Compensation, we find a rather fascinating breakdown of the Church’s full-time clergy that reflects decades of inadequate development of young leaders.[1] (For clarity’s sake, I have taken the liberty to create tables that omit the data irrelevant to this post, such as average and median compensation figures.)





According to the report, there are about 5,000 full-time parochial and non-parochial clergy in TEC[2] (there are many more clergy if you count those who are “active,” but not necessarily full-time stipendiary clergy). Of this number, 3,163 (or 63.1%) are male and only 1,850 (or 36.9%) are female. Breaking those numbers down demographically by age reveals even more.[3]

Of all full-time clergy in TEC, 55.4 percent are older than 55, and almost 80 percent of all full-time clergy in TEC are older than 45.[4] Particularly noteworthy are the figures for Millennial clergy, which, depending on where you want to place the cutoff in your definition of Millennial, comprise roughly 6 percent of all full-time clergy in TEC.

Only 20 percent of full-time clergy younger than 45 equals 100 percent of a problem for a denomination struggling to grow and thrive in the decades to come.

If you were to think, Well, at least we have experience going for us, you would be a little off target. The average age of ordinands has held pretty steady at about 50 years of age according to recent CPG Annual Reports (which are different than the Compensation Report). That means that a significant amount of those in the older age brackets are no more seasoned in ministry than many of their younger colleagues; they were ordained later in life.


I intend in no way to disparage or demean anyone who hears the call to ministry later in life — the call to ordination is a mysterious one, and I know many incredible ministers who didn’t hear the call until they were well into adulthood — but these are statistics that we must engage if we seek to reverse some of the trends described in Goodhew’s analysis. Many people ordained later in life actually felt the call to ordination much earlier, only to be rebuffed by the church or told to hold off on ordination until accumulating more “life experience.” Stories like these underscore our denomination’s need to encourage and enable the discernment of young vocations.

Questions about our supply of clergy are not new. Back around the year 2000, Dr. Matthew J. Price wrote multiple reports for CPG (e.g. A Troubled Profession? Episcopal Clergy and Vocation at the Turn of the Millennium, and Will There Be a Clergy Shortage? Analysis and Predictions of Uncertain Times) that addressed some of the issues I’ve outlined here. Price’s research encouraged the church to head off possible clergy shortages. Nearly 20 years on, however, it seems little has been done.

What might turn things around? Goodhew’s article concluded with three remedies for us to consider:

First, churches need to face demographic realities. If, for example, a city’s or town’s ethnic make-up shifts, wise dioceses and congregations will adapt, not pretend everything is the same.

One might assume that this suggestion would extend to generational shifts as well, leading “wise dioceses and congregations” to take seriously the need for encouraging, equipping, and enabling young leaders — not only clergy, but lay leaders, too — to cultivate a new generation of Episcopalians.

Indeed, making the cultivation of young leaders an institutional virtue might be the only real way to point the church in a different direction. Unless bishops and Commissions on Ministry make discernment of young vocations a priority, our current lack of natural pipelines, such as robust youth programs, college ministries, and young adult ministries, will make organically expanding the demographic diversity of clergy more challenging.

There are already hopeful signs around the church that suggest a potential shift in the trends that Goodhew discusses. Perhaps in the next few triennia these statistics will begin to change as dioceses place a greater emphasis on outreach and mission, and begin to reconsider the ways they recruit and train new clergy. Otherwise, we will be a denomination left with few experienced ministers as waves of Boomers retire.

If our conversations about mission and evangelism don’t also include conversations about fostering a more balanced generational makeup among our church’s leadership, then we will only be having part of the conversation — and that affects us all.

The Rev. Cameron Nations is associate rector at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois (English) and Sewanee (Divinity). For fun, he likes hosting good friends for dinner, riding motorcycles, cooking, reading, and writing — though not simultaneously.


[1] The Report defines full time as one earning “$32,550 (in 2015 dollars),” p. 2.

[2] For some tables, the Report lists this figure at 5,013 clergy. For others, it lists the total figure at 5,009. The tables I cite use the 5,009 figure.

[3] You will notice in these graphs that the first age range is 18-34. This is the range provided in the report. I do not know why CPG decides to begin the range at 18, given that the minimum age for ordination is 25.

[4] Also worth noting is that because of the way that the CPG defines full time, one can safely assume the average age of active clergy overall skews even older than this.

3 Responses

  1. Vivian Ruth Sawyer

    Good analysis, Cameron! I would love to see the statistics per diocese to which you alluded. We both know that some dioceses are doing a good job in this area. Should they not be applauded? We can only do that if the diocesan statistics are released. Perhaps they have been, and I just don’t know where to find them. Thanks! Congratulations in your new position! I’ll miss seeing you at DoCF meetings!

  2. Carl Peter Klapper

    There is another issue which affects both congregations and priests: housing. As real estate continues to soar, both congregations and priests are pushed out. This is especially true of Episcopal churches here in New York City, ground zero of gentrification, but it applies across the board. I realize that vestries like to put a brave face on this, but when my fellow congregants talk about schlepping forty minutes or more to a church which they or their families once found local, there is something seriously amiss. Parishes without rectories have to contend with housing allowances that fail to attract rectors. Parishes with rectories are under increasing pressure from those who think that churches are cash cows ripe for a property tax milking.

    Even those who are sympathetic to the mainline denominations, and to the Episcopal Church in particular, question the relevance of their services to a population losing their homes. This has not been lost on the younger generations, even as they were growing up, as their parents were forced to be vagabonds to preserve their careers while navigating ever higher rents. The Episcopal Church has been ignoring the housing issue at its peril.

    [Note: See the link for what can be done about this issue.]

  3. Robin Bugbee

    Until the Episcopal church starts treating Bishops as nothing more than the priests we are ALL called to be and stops treating them as infallible Royalty…I am afraid we will continue to travel down the wrong road. Bishops should be stripped of their authority to determine (without question) who is responding to a true call to ministry. If they reject a candidate…they should be responsible for explaining why. (Which in my personal experience they frequently refuse to do). In NO circumstances should any ordained clergy put themselves between a postulant or candidate and attempt to determine God’s will for that person. If this doesn’t stop ( and it goes on frequently) I am afraid there is little hope for the church. Younger potential members are simply unwilling to bend to the whims of the ordained. I am 72 and neither am I.


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