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Do we need more vicars?

screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-07-32-41The Church of England has just released two related reports on numbers in ordained ministry. These are not related to annual ministry figures; the last figures (from 2015) were released in June, and caught the headlines for a number of reasons. These reports are related more to the aims of the Renewal and Reform process, and look back at the historical context as well as projecting forwards. Although there is no new research data included, the reports do contain some important observations which have implications for both national and diocesan approaches.

The first thing to say is that these reports are really helpful, with relevant information, well presented, and with interesting narratives to complement the information. This is a reflection of two important changes, one in strengthening the analysis of what is happening through the Research and Statistics team (they are very impressive—do go and visit them if you are passing through Church House) and the other in focussing more clearly on vocations at a national level within Ministry Division, not least through the appointment of Catherine Nancekievill as Head of Discipleship and Vocation. Is it too optimistic to think that the C of E is actually getting its act together in this area…?


The reports themselves raise some interesting issues. The first one, looking at history, begins with a graph of the total numbers of recommendations to ordained ministry since 1949, which looks surprisingly consistent, varying from 400 to 700 whilst often hovering around 500. But the detailed analysis that follows reveals some key differences—that in the boom of the 1950s, these recommendations were to stipendiary ministry, whereas the recent numbers include NSM and OLM (or SSM). Since the 1970s, the numbers entering stipendiary ministry have been around half what they were in the 1950s—hence part of the reason for the challenge we now face.

This historical report then looks at two other issues: regional variation; and variation between the sexes. The regional analysis is very revealing; numbers recommended from different dioceses over the last five years shows massive differences, with London dominating, followed by Oxford, with Chelmsford, Leeds and Chichester leading the rest of the pack. Looking at this makes me think: how could we have gone so many years without a broad theological training resource in London, and is it any surprise that St Mellitus have grown so fast?

screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-08-01-00Following this is an analysis which I first did ten years ago, which I have mentioned on this blog, and which I am very pleased has been taken up: the number of candidates being recommended in relation to actual church attendance in a diocese. This removes the differences due to size that are present in the absolute numbers, and tells us what is happened proportionately in churches in these areas. As a result, Bristol, Ely and Exeter begin to stand out, and London drops back into the followers, with Carlisle, Liverpool and Sodor and Man at the back of the pack. It would be interesting to further sort this in number order, rather than just alphabetically, and analyse by province, to see whether there really is a north/south divide. Certainly in relation to absolute numbers, the fact that so many come from London means that many will end up staying in the south—not because they are ‘southern softies’ but because they will inevitably have commitments and connections which will tie them to an area. If a diocese or region wants to see renewal of ministry in its area, it either needs to be a ‘man of Macedonia’ (Acts 16) and ask for help, or start generating vocations to ordained ministry in its region.

The second issue raised is disparity between the sexes in type of ministry and age of recommendation, and this is the focus of Benny Hazelhurst’s opening reflection as Vocations Co-ordinator in Salisbury Diocese. Women come forwards later than men, and are much more likely to end up in non-stipendiary ministry. Benny wrestles briefly with the reasons for this, and make a comparison with other employers and careers, but of course ministry is not a ‘career’ and the Church of England is not an ’employer’, so any parallels here need to be treated with caution. There can be no doubt that considerations of marriage and family affect men and women quite differently, and that cannot be negligible in thinking about one’s life vocation. Men and women in dog collars are also viewed differently within church communities and society, and that is unlikely to be irrelevant. I also wonder whether the current narrative—that we need ambitious young people to be bold and pioneering, to take on the challenges of declining churches and declining ministry—might well also have a differential impact on men’s and women’s vocations.


screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-08-19-54The second report, looking at clergy numbers going forward, doesn’t really tell us anything that we did not know before. The moving cohort of clergy reveals the gap that opens up because of the changes in age of recommendation, and the cliff-edge of retirements (particularly amongst men) which results from the historic decision to raise the age of ordination in the 1980s and 90s. However, it does now include the analysis which Peter Ould suggested on this blog: what happens if we delay by one year the retirement of this group? The answer is striking: it fills fully one-third of the gap that will be addressed by the 50% increase sought in ordinations. This is not trivial! But this analysis raises one other, vital and unanswered, question.

On page 10, there is a chart of where people come from and go to in and out of stipendiary parochial ministry. Remarkably, fully one quarter of exits are to destinations ‘unknown’. What happens to this group? And how many are simply falling out of ministry without being tracked or traced? I have a hunch: there is a steady stream of experienced male clergy who are dropping out in their fifties or early sixties, some way short of retirement, and this makes a difference in ministry numbers. I say this only on the basis of anecdotal experience; many of my peers are wondering ‘what next?’ in ministry, facing another 10 or 15 years possibly doing something similar to what they have been doing for the last 20. When discussing differences in diocesan strategy, one good friend lamented the fact that, as someone in his late 50s with significant experience, he seemed to be of no interest to his bishop, who was much more focussed on energetic young people who could be pioneering church planters. I asked the statistics unit about data on those leaving ministry at this stage—and it turns out that we don’t have any. Is this another important area to do some analysis?

I am aware that clergy in their 50s might not be the easiest to work with. We have been thinking about ministry issues for a long time; we can be rather set in our ways; we might not be as pliable as younger clergy nor so easily won over by dynamic new diocesan plans; to be honest, we are a bit eccentric. But we might just have some wisdom to offer, even a sense of sagacious ballast which could help younger clergy from being blown off course by frustrations and disappointments, and perhaps a role as mentors, counsellors and encouragers. I hope that the right focus on younger ordinands and step changes in approaches to ministry does not contribute to a sense of marginalization for this important group.

When I wrote about the previous statistics, from the annual report in June, it prompted Jeremy Fletcher to write on just this issue, identifying himself as appearing to be ‘part of the problem’ of the Church of England’s ‘Middle Aged Spread’. He suggests some actions that might be taken to address the potential of this group:

Give me one of those whizzy health checks you give to Bishops and senior clergy as they are appointed. Give me active encouragement to invest all I can in my spiritual and physical well-being…

The next post I’m looking for is likely to be my last. So offer models of ministry and growth which go beyond getting a hipster millennial to plant something – fab though that is. Recognise that I am likely to be turned down in favour of a younger model, unless posts are identified where age and mileage will be an advantage, not a problem. Manage the expectations of those writing job descriptions and doing interviews.

Update my software. I can be a decent mentor to these young things whizzing through the processes. Yes, they are young enough to be my offspring. Get me excited about how I can foster vocations and mentor younger generations. I can be taught new tricks too, and they might need a wise head (if I’ve learnt anything…).

When I retire, think carefully about how my ministry can be continued. There are more clergy with PTO – the majority retired – than stipendiaries at present. Is House for Duty the only option for the deployment of the retired? Are there other models of focussed ministry in the years from 65 – 80? Invest in your officers for retired clergy – the numbers are worth it.

All this might actually more effective and cost-effective as a way of address at least some of the current challenge.


Overall, these reports set out the challenge clearly and helpfully. The need for stipendiary clergy is not, I think, descending into clericalism. The task group on this, headed up by Andrew Watson, Bishop of Guildford, talks of ‘ordained vocations’ and not simply ‘vocations’, as if lay people had no vocation, which is a welcome change. And we will soon have a fascinating report on lay leadership, whose preparation I have been involved in, which will offer some quite different and challenging insights.


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35 Responses to Do we need more vicars?

  1. Steve Walton September 22, 2016 at 8:59 am #

    Thanks Ian; very helpful, although it does sound as though we’re learning little we didn’t know already (that said, the extra year before retirement statistic is stunning!).

    • Ian Paul September 22, 2016 at 9:55 am #

      It is, isn’t it? How much energy and effort to increase ordinands by 50%? How much comparative effort to make delaying retirement by one year attractive and possible?

  2. Pat Hawkins September 22, 2016 at 9:00 am #

    Thank you for this Ian, picking out some very pertinent questions; I am particularly interested in how we balance dynamism and experience and use well

  3. Mike Newman September 22, 2016 at 9:13 am #

    An interesting article. As a more mature cleric (57) myself my feeling is that more creative use should be made of part-time appointments so that people can pace themselves better. However, most that I have seen do not offer realistic terms eg 0.5 stipend for 3 1/2 days a week plus Sundays or worse) Given that any sane person will be trying to take, on average, 1.5 days off a week and working a full day on Sunday, that means losing 12.5K to gain, at best, one extra day off a week (you would also lose half your pension contributions)

    • Ian Paul September 22, 2016 at 5:44 pm #

      Mike, thanks for that. I could suggest that you continue in a full-time role, but actually work more realistic hours, perhaps not far from this p/t specification…but I am sure it would be quite irresponsible of me to do so…!

      • mike newman October 7, 2016 at 8:17 pm #

        That’s a very encouraging thought. Thank you. On the subject of part time / house for duty, I just penned this letter to the CT

        Dear Sirs,

        I note two house for duty positions advertised in this week’s Church Times. Both expect a commitment of 2.5 days per week plus Sundays. Both have extensive jobs descriptions.

        Whilst both vacancies will doubtless be filled without too much trouble, my concern is that such terms are exploitative. To be comparable, for example, to the package a full stipendiary minister would receive for six days ministry (maybe less in practice), including housing, council tax (not paid for at least one of the positions), pension etc. such house for duty positions ought to pay something in the region of 0.5 stipend in addition to housing (assuming no pension)

        Whilst legal, such conditions of service are neither ethical nor scriptural (1 Timothy 5.18)

        Thanks again for your excellent site

  4. Philip September 22, 2016 at 11:09 am #

    I am one of the early male leavers at the age of 59. I left stipendiary ministry last year when all of life’s overwhelmings came at once. There didn’t appear at the time to be any interest from the diocesan hierarchy in providing space or time. Also I am surprised that a year later no request from the Statistics unit or anyone else on reasons for leaving etc.

    • Ian Paul September 22, 2016 at 12:59 pm #

      Philip, thanks for sharing. Clearly this is an area we need to do more work on…

  5. Leon September 22, 2016 at 11:55 am #

    On the ‘why do women put themselves forward later’ question, a few thoughts:

    As you suggest, men may be more attracted to being bold and pioneering, but also young people who are attracted to being bold and pioneering might be drawn to churches which are either actively hostile or weakly supportive of women’s ministry – there are a bunch of large evangelical churches that are, frankly, way better than everyone else (including average medium-sized evangelical churches) at encouraging vocations. And these churches tend to be dominated by male leadership.

    I suspect the effects of allowing women’s ordination are taking a much longer time to settle down than had been anticipated. Imagine a woman who ‘should have’ applied straight after university in 1994. Maybe it actually took her a bit over a decade to get used to the idea that women can be priests, and think of herself as a possible candidate. But by then she’s married and about to start a family. So she waits until family commitments allow her the time to study on a course, which means she’s currently talking to a DDO. We’re still actually seeing the tail end of the rush of women’s ordination following the initial decision. Once this has finally ended, we’ll see that not nearly enough women are coming forward.

    And, somewhat hinted at in my previous point, being a vicar and a mother of young children is particularly hard. The expectations that still exist on vicars are very hard to combine with the expectations on mothers. Anyone who avoids being in that situation is, frankly, sensible. If we want to attract young female ordinands, that needs sorting out.

    Mike Newman: Entirely agree about part time. When you look at the details, things can be worse than the example you quote (e.g. there’s a sensible part time job with advertised sensible part time hours, but it’s clear that no-one is prepared to think about which things done by the previous (full-time, workaholic) vicar don’t need doing.

  6. Kevin Lewis September 22, 2016 at 2:28 pm #

    This is really interesting to read, and borne out by my anecdotal experience esp in terms of younger male/older female. As someone who is about to tip over categories from ‘dynamic under 40s’ to ‘drain on the pension over 40s’, I think there definitely is a role to play for older – experienced – clergy, in terms of mentoring, whether or not they have a Curate of their own. I have 10+ yrs of experience, and has never been asked…

    Another area I would be fascinated to see stats on is the amount of those ordained from working class backgrounds. The C of E is dramatically skewed towards the middle-class, and within that the privately/OxBridge educated, especially in the Archdeacon/Bishops/Deans. Our diocese (Southwark) is constantly pushing BAME vocations (rightly so), but never emphasise vocation in those from working class and less educated backgrounds.

  7. Kevin Lewis September 22, 2016 at 3:39 pm #

    Another point I meant to include above, is on the subject of clergy ‘moving on’. There is an expectation that being a parish priest is a job for life, in the way that few people have them any more. I know that after 10 years doing essentially the same thing, I am questioning whether I will still be doing it in another 10, let alone the 30 I still have left in employment. And aside from being an Archdeacon/Bishop, or taking a Diocese desk-job, what else is there…?

    I don’t know the answer to this – I have friends who have left ministry altogether, who have taken break then come back, doing ‘ministry’ in another form, and know many clergy who are just bored (or at least they look it, by the way they do church!!). Parish ministry needs invigorating, that invigorating must be encouraged from on high, so that it can be varied and interesting, taking in our individual skills, interests etc…, be it sports chaplaincy or social action or writing or music or whatever – just more than Eucharists, rotas and herding people to church on Sundays!

    A key difficulty in ‘moving on’ is that a new job means a totally new life, unlike many people who could change jobs without uprooting families, children, entire networks. It’s a massive call. Just some thoughts.

    • Jamie Wood September 22, 2016 at 4:59 pm #

      Any other “vocation” is a “vocation-for-the-time-being”. ie until God calls me, or you, to something else. But a vocation to ordained ministry is widely perceived as a one-way street – you are allowed to join (OK, subject to very strict conditions), but not really supposed to leave.

      Paradoxically, if leaving the ordained ministry were seen as “going on to what God is calling to next” rather than as a failure, we might get a lot of extra younger people willing to apply.

  8. David Keen September 22, 2016 at 5:07 pm #

    Thankyou for this Ian – I was struck by the fact that nothing was said about clergy retention, despite that fact that at present we are ordaining more people than are retiring – the main ‘hole in the boat’ is the net 100-150 per year who are leaving parish ministry to do something else, and not coming back.

    What also struck me is that we have over 2500 trained clergy who are doing something other than parish ministry – chaplains etc. That’s a sizeable % of active clergy, yet we train all clergy as though they are going to end up as a traditional vicar.

    Some of my thoughts: http://davidkeen.blogspot.co.uk/2016/09/vicars-of-future-finding-more-keeping.html

    • Ian Paul September 22, 2016 at 5:42 pm #

      David, thanks. Fantastic analysis on your post. Can I incorporate some into mine with credit? And I wonder who in MinDiv/Stats/Dioceses should be picking this up in a coordinated way?

      • David Keen September 22, 2016 at 5:56 pm #

        sure, no problem. Anything to get some clicks 😉 My first thought would be to tweet it to the Research and Statistics people

  9. David Keen September 22, 2016 at 6:55 pm #

    yes, no problem. I see the Research and Statistics twitter feed has picked up your post, so that’s a start. I’m guessing the person who wrote the report is the starting point?

  10. Don Benson September 22, 2016 at 10:13 pm #

    Regarding renewal of ministry in an area and the ‘man of Macedonia’ call from dioceses seeking new blood –

    Some years ago our vicar announced his retirement about 3 months ahead of the date. There then followed an interregnum of over 12 months for a cluster of 4 churches (what serious organisation would allow for any break longer than a couple of weeks where a key position was unoccupied?). Over this whole period the church council were refused permission by the diocese to advertise the vacancy, the reason given that ‘you cannot attract outside clergy to this area’. (It’s a fantastic area in every respect!) In exasperation, as a member of the congregation, I queried the sense of such a situation in a letter to the Church Times. I received 6 inquiry letters; one person said he’d been trying to get a job in our diocese for years! Finally the church council were invited to interview prospective incumbents from a choice of 1, from within the diocese.

    In fairness I’m pretty sure that the real reason was the dire finances of the diocese, and I do sympathise with those who were trying to manage a pretty desperate situation; but the reality is that such a policy can only dig you into a deeper decline as you fail to import new energy and vision into an area that desperately needs it. Of course the issue of a diocese with a monopoly of a particular churchmanship which positively excludes others may seem to be of little effect when looking at the overall stats but there’s a real and sad spiritual effect noticeable if you happen to live in such an area.

    • Ian Paul September 23, 2016 at 9:10 am #

      Don, if that is the case, then the churchwardens might need to do some more homework. I am not sure the diocese can legally have that much control; who are the patrons?

      • Don Benson September 24, 2016 at 11:03 am #

        Thanks, Ian.

        I believe the patrons are a combination of the diocesan bishop and the male head of a long standing local family. I don’t have a beef with particular individuals who, I’m sure, do their best given the circumstances. It’s really the way that the process seems dogged by a historical way of thinking and lack of transparency.

        Is it not time to produce a church-wide procedure to end these ridiculously long interregnums and give maximum opportunity for parishes / patrons to seek the best candidates available for interview? This would serve everyone (not least clergy who are seeking out a living in a new parish) much better than what we now have.

        PS: I do realise the problem of clergy with children at school and spouses who are in employment and cannot move at the drop of a hat, but I’m pretty sure a lot of long interregnums are not due to that?

        • Don Benson September 24, 2016 at 3:51 pm #

          Why could there not be, as standard procedure, a Church of England online listing on which all vacancies are automatically listed for, say, 4 weeks (thereafter automatically deleted) from a month after a retirement / resignation is announced? A parish could request a second 4 week listing if too few enquiries had been received.

          The listing could be in a standard form, stating simply and clearly the name and location of the Church, type of parish (suburban, rural, inner city etc), churchmanship, preferred quality of candidates etc. It would obviously need proper supervision, not least to weed out mischievous entries! An accompanying page could summarise the rights, responsibilities and duties of patrons, parishes, applicants and bishops regarding interregnums. It would be pretty simple software to produce and maintain, and would help towards a more efficient, talent-sharing and transparent process of filling vacancies. It might even help with providing useful stats too!

          Since one would assume that it is a bishop’s role and duty to ensure due process and fair play to all involved, I wonder how it can be seen as acceptable that bishops can also act as patrons? This is not meant as a criticism of bishops who should always have an interest in the best recruitment and deployment of clergy in their dioceses.

          • Ian Paul September 25, 2016 at 9:57 pm #

            The problem is with the phrase ‘standard procedure.’ Different dioceses and different patrons produce different policies—and there is a resistance to evidence-based policy change.

  11. Sebastian Hyatt September 23, 2016 at 7:48 am #

    Much more needs to made of the so-called ‘retired’ clergy who keep the church going in many places. They are frequently forgotten in graphs. We also use job terminology too readily with the sacred ministry.

    In the RC Church resignation is offered at 75, but is often refused. The excellent (non-retired) parish priest of Haydock is 101.

  12. Alan September 23, 2016 at 8:44 am #

    Almost every other area of life has used technology to do more with less. If decent IT systems were put in place to help with administrative support we may find that we could release more vicar time (or spend less on an administrator).

    • Ian Paul September 23, 2016 at 9:08 am #

      Almost all the clergy I know make extensive use of IT. Am I untypical?

      • Leon September 23, 2016 at 1:27 pm #

        You say they make extensive use of ‘IT’ but make no reference to ‘Decent IT’. Clergy seem to spend a lot of time doing very inefficient administrative tasks. The fact that they are sitting in front of a computer doesn’t make this any better.

  13. David Chamberlin September 23, 2016 at 11:06 am #

    Thanks for this helpful post Ian. As a Nottingham contemporary of yours, just turned 60, and in my present post for 12 years, thoughts are inevitably turning to ‘what next?’ questions. My wife (five years younger than me) is just starting the second year of a curacy (bearing out the ‘women offering later’ trend), so these questions will take on more concrete form in a short while. I probably can’t afford to retire until I’m nearer 70 than 65, so (unless I stay where I am) I’ll be likely looking at a 6-8 year post at the age of 62. I’m far from Jeremy Fletcher’s ‘hipster millennial planting something’, but I think I’ve got something to offer from 22 years of ordained experience, and 20 years of a vocation to office work before that. The job adverts in Church Times are almost universally not looking for someone like that, unless it’s one of the many (generally unrealistically framed) House for Duty or half stipend vacancies. I don’t have an answer to any of this – Jeremy’s analysis is a good starting point – but I do hope that, if and when I’m looking for the next post, attitudes will have evolved!

  14. Will Jones September 23, 2016 at 11:45 am #

    I just wanted to echo the idea in this post that connecting the middle-aged with millennials through mentoring especially would be a huge benefit to both cohorts. We need to make the most of our experienced clergy, and help support and direct the energies of our younger leaders.

  15. Paul Waddington September 24, 2016 at 1:29 pm #

    You are right to point to the 25% of stipendiary clergy who drop out for other reasons or for reasons unknown. The comments received so far would suggest that that there are a number of clergy, who may have given 20 years service, but whose enthusiasm is dwindling, and are wondering whether it is time for a change of career. Of course quite a lot leave to join the Catholic Church and a few join an Orthodox Church.

    I suspect that the main reason for clergy leaving the CofE is disillusion with the direction that the Church is taking on various issues, especially sexuality. If this is the case there is worse to come.

    • David Keen September 24, 2016 at 5:59 pm #

      Paul I’m aware of 3 local clergy in one area where I served who left full-time stipendiary ministry early, and one who nearly did. In 1 case it was health, in another case it was health-related brought on by stress, in the other two there was a combination of work pressure, lack of support from elsewhere (and sometimes that’s self-inflicted, clergy aren’t always great at organising our own support networks), and some serious mistakes of their own. In none of these cases was it anything to do with the direction the church was taking. Linda Woodhead published a survey a couple of years ago which suggested that half of clergy thought their dioceses were ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ at identifying their particular gifts and skills and making use of them. My working hypothesis is that most of the departures are a combination of job stress and lack of support, resulting in poor decisions made under stress or health issues. Of my contemporaries from theolological college, I’m aware of more who are out of ministry because they did something silly/inappropriate than for any other reason. But we need evidence, not just anecdote…

  16. Fr Richard Peers September 24, 2016 at 6:04 pm #

    Ian, this is a fascinating piece, thank you.
    I am struck by similarities with teaching in terms of the difficulty of what those in their 50s and above should do. The job is exhausting, if they have been working since their 20s unless they have been promoted how do they maintain interest and enthusiasm? I think similarly in teaching – especially in London – there is a tendency to value the young over the older; Teach Firsters over those with BEds etc.
    I often tell people that I would like to go back to parish ministry for my final job – it is normative for priests – but, similarly to teaching, those who have been doing it a long time tend to react very negatively to that idea.
    No answers but lots of questions.

  17. Tim Chesterton September 25, 2016 at 1:15 am #

    ‘I am aware that clergy in their 50s might not be the easiest to work with. We have been thinking about ministry issues for a long time; we can be rather set in our ways; we might not be as pliable as younger clergy nor so easily won over by dynamic new diocesan plans; to be honest, we are a bit eccentric. But we might just have some wisdom to offer, even a sense of sagacious ballast which could help younger clergy from being blown off course by frustrations and disappointments, and perhaps a role as mentors, counsellors and encouragers. I hope that the right focus on younger ordinands and step changes in approaches to ministry does not contribute to a sense of marginalization for this important group.’

    This is brilliant, Ian – thank you. I was commissioned as a Church Army evangelist in 1978 at the age of 20, and ordained in 1990. I’m nearly 58 and have 37 years of ministry experience, and I feel exactly as you describe here (even though our polity in the Anglican Church of Canada has some significant differences from the C of E).

  18. Father Ron Smith September 25, 2016 at 4:02 am #

    My answer, Ian? Not if they’re congenitally homophobic. There death lies.

    • Ian Paul September 25, 2016 at 9:56 pm #

      Dear Ron

      Thanks so much for reminding me that every single issue in the Church comes down to its institutional homophobia, including this one.

      No doubt, this, like all other problems, will immediately disappear once the Church sees sense and changes its teaching on sexuality and marriage. Silly of me to forget.

    • David Shepherd September 26, 2016 at 2:04 pm #

      Hi Ron,

      Did you write: ‘congenitally homophobic’? How dare you discriminate against anyone who is ‘born that way’!

      I mean how is it at all possible for someone to overcome their natural predispositions?

    • Tim Chesterton September 26, 2016 at 6:03 pm #

      Ron, are you familiar with the Dickensian phrase ‘King Charles’ Head’?

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