Clergy invited to participate in unprecedented survey

November 23, 2008

All ordained women in the Episcopal Church -- and 1,500 male clergy -- are beginning to receive invitations to participate in what is one of the comprehensive studies of female clergy by any denomination in recent years.

Every ordained woman -- deacon, priest, and bishop -- will be asked about her aspirations, needs, and experience of how ministry is lived out through her life. The Called to Serve survey is unprecedented in the Episcopal Church for its attempt to obtain responses from those in both paid and unpaid ministry, those actively engaged in ministry, those who are taking time out, and who are retired. It also seeks the input of young new clergy, second-career clergy, those ministering in two-career families, and those ministering as single parents or caregivers.

Inclusion of both women and active and retired men is meant to give comparative data on careers, and men's needs for family leave as well as retirement. It is also meant to help the church understand the way the call to ministry is being lived out in 2008.

The survey is "the first to include and hear the voices of those in non-institutional and non-traditional ministries" in the same survey as those serving in traditional ministries, according to the Rev. Paula Nesbitt, one of two research consultants working on the project.

Those serving in such non-traditional ministries are "a growing constituency in the church" and researchers want to better understand the work of all ordained ministers -- "not just those being paid," said Nesbitt, a visiting associate professor of sociology at the University of California in Berkeley and the author of "The Feminization of the Clergy in America."

Nesbitt said her conversations with research colleagues show that the scope of the Called to Serve project is also unprecedented among denominations.

Concerns about obtaining information on non-traditional models of ordained ministry were raised in the Church Pension Group's 2006 State of the Clergy report. Matthew Price, CPG vice president and director of analytical research, told the first-ever gathering of ordained women in the Episcopal Church in October 2006 that more research needs to be done, especially about women's career paths. For instance, more needs to be known about why their paths lead where they do. Price said he suspected that women face a constellation of issues when they make career choices that men may not have, or that may have less impact on their decisions.

At the same conference, Nesbitt noted that there is a "limbo list" of women who minister in a multitude of ways "and who are not paid a cent" by church institutions and so escape notation by CPG.

The Episcopal Church’s offices of Congregational Research, Women’s Ministry and Leadership Development, CPG, and the CREDO Institute developed the survey as part of an effort to gather data to respond to 75th General Convention resolutions A140 titled Women Clergy Retirement Needs and D065 titled Family Leave Pension Waiver. The results will be reported to the 76th General Convention next summer.

Most people believe that the traditional clergy career path -- working exclusively in parish ministry, moving from small congregations to larger ones -- is no longer the exclusive model, Price told ENS in an interview about the planned survey. Ministry "is different that it was," he added. "We know it's different. We just don’t know how it's different."

Researchers want to learn about how ordained women and men have ministered in the past, what they think their ministry might be like in the future, and what constraints on their choices they experience, he said.

The survey will consist of a combination of check-the-appropriate-box questions and questions for which people can write fuller answers. The two types of questions are meant to give a more complete picture of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church, Price said.

"Once you've read the stories, you really understand what the numbers are telling us," he explained. "We'll read as much as people want to write."

There also will be opportunities to volunteer for a confidential research interview.

Coming as it will during Advent, Price said he hopes clergy will consider the survey as a chance to reflect on their vocation, and take the opportunity to share part of that reflection with those who will be influencing ministry policies and ordination preparation in the church. The study is expected to help the church analyze, improve and sustain ordained ministry as a vocation.

Called to Serve is the third survey of Episcopal Church employees that has been conducted during the 2007-2009 triennium. An earlier survey considered lay employee demographics, the exercise of authority in the employment setting, and compensation and benefits. The second survey studied the way the church provides health care coverage to its employees and the feasibility of changing current structures.
A letter was recently sent to the Episcopal Church's 4,026 ordained women and 1,500 ordained men. The letter says participants will soon receive an email with a link to the online version of the survey. Participants can request a paper copy of the questionnaire. All responses will be anonymous and confidential.

Women clergy who do not receive the letter by December 1 or the e-mail invitation by December 8 should request a link or paper copy by contacting or calling Andrea Van Zile at the Church Pension Group (800-223-6602 x9474). If people think the Church Pension Group may not have their correct mailing or email address, they can also contact customer service at 800-223-6602 to update that information.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends.