In my previous post on church growth research, I hinted at a number of issues in relation to training and deployment of full-time leaders. One particular issue surfaced in the comments, and I expand on it here: at what age should future church leaders be commissioned and trained?
At one level, of course, this question cannot be answered. God calls whom he will call, and it is simply a question of whether the one who is called will respond. And yet it seems to me to be curious that God seems to call people at different ages depending on the church’s vocations strategy!
I began to explore God’s call on my life to ordained ministry when I was at university, at age 19. I told my vicar, whose response was ‘I wondered when you’d be coming to see me.’ I then went to visit my Diocesan Director of Ordinands for an initial exploration, but put things on hold until I had completed my university degree, a Masters degree, and my management training programme in business. When that was complete, I went straight to a selection conference, and eventually started training aged 27. When I arrived in college in 1989, I found I was fairly typical of the student body age wise. There were some who were younger, quite a few others a similar age, and a smaller number who were older. As a result, about half of us were single, the others married, and some were just starting a family.
What I didn’t realise then was that I was near the beginning of a selection experiment. Someone in Church House had decided that ordinands needed more life experience, and so there was a policy over a period of about 10 years to send people away and ask them to come back several in several years time. As a result, the average age of ordination went up by about 10 years over this ten-year period. I don’t know whose idea it was, or whether there was a clear rationale for this decision. I do believe that the unintended (or un-thought-through) consequences of this decision are actually behind the most serious financial, ministry and mission challenges the Church now faces.
For one thing, if the age of clergy increases by 10 years over 10 years, then you don’t have to be a maths genius to realise that all your clergy are going to be a similar age, and they are therefore going to retire at the same time. It also means that you would have to increase recruitment to maintain the same number of clergy. If clergy serve an average of 30 years instead of 40 years, you are going to have to train one third more. If they serve an average of 20 years, you’re going to have to double your recruitment. All this therefore increases the costs of training.
There are also specific mission and ministry implications of this decision, which relates to church growth strategy. Research has shown that incumbents are most effective in bringing about change and growth when they have been in post between eight and 12 years. There is also evidence that leaders are most energetic and effective in bringing change when they are in the mid 40s. If you allow for three or four years of assistant ministry as a curate, and three years of training, then that means the most effective strategy is for people to start training in their late 20s. (45 – 12 – 4 – 3 = 26)
This means that the Church should be encouraging people to explore their vocation in their early 20s.
Is this the strategy of the Church of England? To be honest, I do not know, because I don’t know who is responsible for vocations strategy. Every diocese is responsible for their own vocations, and I have no idea if there is coordination across the 44 dioceses of the Church. (When I asked, in a Synod fringe meeting some time ago, who was responsible for the manpower planning of clergy nationally, the reply was ‘I’m really pleased people like you asking questions like this.’ I didn’t find this reassuring!)
There is another benefit to this pattern of ministry. The Church Growth Research went on to highlight the declining numbers of children and teenagers in our churches. Again, the evidence suggests that churches find it easiest to attract people in the same lifestage as the leader. If our leadership is getting older, we will find it much harder to attract young families—and in fact this appears to have been precisely the case in recent years.
All this might sound very unspiritual; surely you should be relying on God? Of course we should – but we also need to be thinking through the consequences of our decisions. If you don’t think that good human organisation is vital to effective, God-inspired ministry, I suggest you visit the offices in London of Alpha or HTB—or even come and visit our local Vineyard church in Nottingham, which I think is the largest in the country.
Here is a great opportunity to allow ‘evidence-based research into the life-blood of the church’ (Will Cookson).
(The picture is of a friend of mine, Richard Moy, who is vicar in Turnham Green in London. He might be pleased to know that his image was the second brought up by a Google search for images of ‘young vicar.’ I hope his wife Nicola is encouraged to know that her image appeared just below his!)