Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On the Aging of Clergy

Over at The Lead in the Episcopal Cafe, we are pointed to an interesting table from the 2009 Clergy Compensation Report. Now there are some other curious numbers, such as why men are paid better than women except in curate positions, or my associates in Province VI are paid so poorly compared to those in other dioceses.

Table 5, however, offers the opportunity to recover some other demographics, if one is willing to indulge in a few suppositions, because it reports how many clergy are in each of four age brackets, and it breaks this down by gender. Now as Laura Toepfer points out in the comments, the clergy in each age range includes both those ordained at an earlier age and those newly ordained; therefore by making a few assumptions we can work out the ages at which clergy are ordained. The assumptions are actually pretty dubious on one level, but I believe that the likely errors tend to reduce the effects I am about to describe, so I'm not too unhappy about making then.

The central assumption is that the flow of people into each of the groups is constant, so that I can assume that the number of people ordained at a given age in the past is the same as it is now. This assumption, over the very long haul, isn't true, but when I say "long haul" we're talking before my lifetime: the pattern that is going to appear fits what I knew about ordination patterns back when I was in college. The second assumption is that people don't die or quit young. Again, this is a bad assumption, but the degree to which it is false will blunt the pattern, so it won't hurt to make it. The third assumption is that deaths and retirements in the last group are balanced by ordinations and aging into it. This is also dubious, but the likely error is in the direction of blunting the pattern, so again I'm not too concerned about this.

Using these assumptions, I can get the number of people ordained in each age range by subtracting out the number of people in the previous range from the number of people in the current range. Normalizing this over the these new quantities, we get the following:

Age groupMenWomenTotal
under 3515%15%15%
over 5539%38%39%

One result of this is very striking: only about a quarter of all ECUSA clergy are ordained before age 45, and over a third are ordained after age 55. I have a hard time imagining that this pattern obtains for any but mainline churches, and probably not even for most of them. It's impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Episcopal priesthood is, for most, a second career or even a post-retirement hobby.

And that conclusion is reinforced by the second pattern: the decided drop in women ordained in the 35-45 age bracket. Either a lot more women are reluctant to abandon careers in that age group, or child-rearing interferes with starting the ordination path. (I would note, BTW, that discernment processes, seminary and transitional diaconates apply about a five year bias to these numbers in terms of when people actually make their decisions to start.)

Of course one has to allow for the possibility that the Holy Spirit likes it this way. But there are plenty of reasons to suspect that economic realities and diocesan policies are likely contributors. Having to largely go without pay for several years surely accounts for much of the dip in the 35-45 bracket: unless a spouse can support the family themselves, people with families to support are unlikely to be able to afford to drop everything, especially with the risk of being dropped from the process and having to pick up the pieces of their lives. Kids fresh out of college lack the obligations, but there has been a historic pattern of discouraging them as being insufficiently mature. So instead we see people waiting until the kids are old enough or indeed out on their own. In any case this presents a very different picture of the priesthood and how it is to be lived, when it is not a primary profession, but a second stage in life. And it creates a very strong bias towards a priesthood whose peers are older. One has to wonder how much this affects the causes espoused by those clergy, who are so much older than the population as a whole.

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