When should leaders be trained?

520445In 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!)

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31 thoughts on “When should leaders be trained?”

  1. ‘Is this the strategy of the Church of England?’ Good question. When, as a DDO a few years ago I asked the head of Ministry Division what the strategy for recruiting ordinands in the Church of England actually was, the reply came straight back (without embarrassment or shame) ‘We don’t have a strategy.’ Draw your own conclusions!

  2. A further point is the energy required for effective and sustained ministry – both physical and mental – which is diminished with age!
    It also seems as if the church DDOs have looked for good administrative skills, rather than the previous focus on pastoral gifts. This is a further way to waste good people – the bureaucracy of a parish should be an Administrator’s job, not the clergy’s. Not only is it endlessly time-consuming, but it saps energy which should be used for ‘vicaring about’. Youth has the edge over experience when well-trained; and is attractive to its own age-group, as you so rightly say – but also to other age-groups, because young vicars are attractive.

  3. I guess we always deal in generalisations but Nelson Mandela was 70 when he changed South Africa and Winston Churchill was 65 when he became PM. In the Bible Moses was 80 when he returned to Egypt and Abraham was 90(?) when he defeated Kedorlaomer – maybe we should be looking at increasing the age clergy retire (in line with the ageing population)?
    I think what would make a difference to clergy effectiveness would be giving congregations the ability to remove incumbents who have lost their vision: maybe vicars should start on a 5 year contract, at the end of which the congregation vote on whether to extend it for another 3 (and another 3 at the end of that etc). Personally I would go for a 70% vote in favour for a 3 year extension with anything between 50% and 70% leading to a 1 year extension.

  4. Hallelujah! Someone has started to say this stuff! I was assured some years ago by the head of mindiv that the policy of sending possible ordinands away for ten years was shown to be a failure and had been stopped, but that was exactly what happened to my son 10 years ago. Fortunately he hung in there. As for Moses’ age, I’ve heard it said that in times of cultural stability the elderly are honoured for their wisdom, but in times of cultural change they are considered past it because they just don’t get the internet etc. Please no more clergy in their 70s!!

    • Oh I am 68 ordained when I was 63, before that 22 years as a reader, leader of a youth group, worked in the rail industry, served in three diocese in a number of churches, I use the internet, am careful about what I say on the net. Remember that one quarter of the population is now over 65 and they need to be treated with respect not only from younger people but also the church who seems to disregard them as past it. as for being of the older generation, just did a school assembly not bad for someone as seen by many in the church as past it. Now for a six mile walk

  5. Copied from my comment on your Facebook page, as requested:
    ‘Life experience’ is an over-played nonsense. Someone ordained at 25 will have twenty years more life experience by 45 and still have twenty years of ministry before retirement. They will grow into their vocational role, just as we would expect for any other vocation, such as a teacher or doctor. When the ‘norm’ is ordaining young – without excluding those who come to explore ordination at a later stage in life – we get continuous bands of growing experience as cohorts age, which was seriously disrupted by the experiment in delaying ordination as the norm. I say experiment because not so very long ago most ordinands were straight out of university. They lacked life experience – and often served two curacies in contrasting contexts in order to give them time, and, crucially, breadth of experience – but grew into themselves in Christ over a lifetime of ministry.

  6. I am not suggesting that there is no value in those who come to ordained ministry having done other things. Far from it. Just that the ‘life experience’ argument isn’t convincing. No one tells young people who express a call to be a teacher or a doctor to go away and get experience in some other field. It is simply recognised that they will grow into their calling.

  7. ‘the bureaucracy of a parish should be an Administrator’s job, not the clergy’s’ Amen to that Lavender!

    As we get older, physical energy diminishes…but I think we learn to be effective in different ways…

  8. John, I think people have been articulating this for a while…but I don’t know how much it has changed anything. Is anyone anywhere setting goals for ordination age? Is anyone monitoring this? I was amazed at how little analysis is being done. Do you know where ordinands come from (by diocese)?

  9. I went to my first conference in 1982 aged 21 and was not recommended for training. Absolutely the right decision, I would have been terrible, but even then there was this talk of sending people away for a while, though I didn’t remember as long as 10 years being spoken of.

    Eventually ordained at 47, I feel I have benefited from being poor, unemployed, bereaved, married, a father, and many other things that I was not at 21, especially with a strong and robust sense of faith and above all calling because of my journey.

    I get what is said about energy; I have two parishes with no clerical help nor administrative help in one parish. But that was what God called me to over 3 years ago. I understand it is not a life sentence. What I can do is look many in the eye and understand their situation. The ones I have difficulty with are the wealthy because I’ve never been there.

    Youth is wasted on the young, but one when youth goes wisdom should take over!

  10. John, thanks for sharing your experience–very interesting. I do think thought that there is a danger in saying we can only minister to people if we have experienced what they have experienced…

  11. Tim, thanks for the links. I don’t want to denigrate these efforts—but to be honest they really highlight the problem. Only 22% recommended for training were under 30! That is truly shocking! I didn’t realise the figure was so low!

    It will look better if you consider the percentage selected for stipendiary/incumbent ministry, since people training on course are usually older. But when I entered training, I would say 80% were under 30.

    This continues to be a disaster for pensions, training costs and deployment.

  12. I wonder whether in fact the problem is with calling it ‘young vocations.’ 30 years ago working with people in their 20s would be called ‘vocations’. When I was 27, I don’t think I thought of myself as particularly ‘young’

  13. Just to say that I was one of the ordinands ‘discerned’ by James BB when he was DDO, so it’s good to know there wasn’t a strategy! I was ordained at 42, which was right for me (bringing experience which has proved to be invaluable) and am the same age as James BB (and slightly younger than you Ian 😉 ). My diocese (St Albans) has launched a scheme to discern and encourage vocations in young people aged 16-22.

  14. I would say as one who trained in his mid to late 30’s that if it takes me 8 to 12 years to become truly effective then I’m not doing it right. If incumbents are most effective in their mid 40’s that’s because the balance between experience and energy is about right and it’s not where or how that experience is gained just that there is ‘life’ experience. I for one have been really disappointed, both at college and on the job, how little credence is given to life experiences before ‘ministry’. It is also interesting in the full report about growing churches that the leadership qualities of motivating/envisioning/inovating are where growth is seen and maybe rather than worrying too much about age, recruitment should be more focused on those qualities at whatever age (not to do down calling as the report also mentions on numerous occassions!)

  15. Dave, it is not a question of ‘not doing it right’–I think it is more to do with establishing trust, developing vision, building relationships, and carrying change through. When you look at the number of congregations which are not growing, which have no work with young people and so on, then I think this is a fair estimate, and it is based on research.

    I am sure you are right about previous experience…but again, I am not making observations about individuals, but about what policy the church should be following. I like you comment about ‘life’ experience being the important thing–which then cuts both ways!

  16. Ian, my comment above was not intended to say what you suggest, but rather to demonstrate how inadequate was my life experience aged 21. I think myself that any age is the right age if you feel called. I also think in my case God left a marker for me to come back to when he considered the time was right…which is what happened!

  17. John, I don’t doubt your sense that the second time was right for you. I guess I just feel that this is not necessarily an observation to base a strategy on. Apart from anything else, if folk see mainly older people getting ordained, then those in their 20s will find it difficult to identify with.

    So, yes, it was right for you, but I think we ought to be encouraging others into ministry earlier if possible.

  18. The two persons in the most senior posts in the CofE apparently have other professional experience! The most effective leaders I have come across have been called out of other backgrounds but have spiritual maturity and the insight to know their own strengths and weaknesses and train a team of leaders to work with them. But I have also come across other Church leaders whom God has found at the bottom and in prison and called them to serve him.
    I don’t think any one person can fulfil all the roles in Church leadership but it depends what sort of Church you are training for-nice middleclass members or disciples in training to live Christianly at work, school, family life-

  19. I was ordained when I was 27. I was told the reason for delaying ordination for many people was that the church was looking for evidence of maturity and experience of life. To an extent I understood, there are some seriously immature priests around of all ages who lack empathy, an ability to disciple new believers and build up new leaders. Yet even a simplistic theological reflection of this approach would seek to look at the kinds of people Jesus chose as followers and eventual leaders.

  20. I am not sure it is all about chronological age. I don’t think the young are attracted by ‘young’ leadership. I think people in general are attracted by leadership that is honest and has the gift of ‘keeping it real.’

  21. As one ordained at 55 and taking an incumbency at 59 I find some of the comments here a little depressing. I wholly agree that the church needs more younger ordinands and clergy but to suggest that we older entrants don’t have the energy, capability of engaging with children and youth, or mental capacity to develop and grow ourselves is frankly risible. As an institution the CofE needs all of us with our varied skills, life experiences, gifts and abilities of we are to flourish through the 21st Century.
    I’m also concerned at the focus on ordination being about leadership. Too often I’m seeing younger ordinands believing that they have to have all the vision and drive the congregations they lead into the future. They end with weary driven communities that fall apart as soon as the heroic leader moves on. If we focus more on the servant nature of ordination then perhaps we will once again begin to see some movement and life in our churches.

  22. Ian, thanks. I don’t disagree with you on the dangers of drivenness. But I would go back to two quasi-objective facts:

    1. As Bob Jackson reminds us, research points clearly to people most effective in bringing change, and a mission orientation, in their forties. That is not a comment about any particular individual, but about policy.

    2. Yes, of course people make great incumbents at 55. But ordain someone at 25, and they will be that 30 years later. Ordain someone at 55, and they will never be an incumbent in their forties.

  23. Ian,
    Very late in the day I have only just discovered this post. Converted at 18, thinking about ordination by 21, worked for a student church for 2 years, banking for 2 years, training, ordained at 29.

    I agree with lots of your practical observations. When I was at college, we certainly thought the fact most of us were young was a “good thing” compared to lots of more liberal institutions. When I was Chair of AOCM (the ordinands’ association) I was concerned by the rising age of ordinands and despaired when a bishop told me proudly he had just ordained a 77-year-old.

    I have a few hesitations about very young ordination now though, mainly from biblical reflections (mostly missing from the comments here).
    1 Tim 3:6. “he (the overseer) must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited.” I’d only been a Christian for 7 years when I was selected for training, and probably was still fairly proud.
    The Pastoral Epistles generally emphasise how the way an elder manages their family gives insight into their suitability for ministry in the church. How will we know if 80% of our ordinands are too young to have a decent stint of marriage and parenting behind them? I know some ministers will be lifelong-single, I’m making a general point.
    Finally, the word presbyteros itself surely suggests the apostles were envisaging people old enough to be referred to as ‘elders’?

    On the other side, 1 Tim 4:12, Timothy was obviously considered young by some.

    I am only 36, but wonder if I was probably on the young side to get ordained. I’m not suggesting we follow the current CofE path, which is heading towards 50s, 60s, even 70s as standard age for ordination. But perhaps there might be wisdom in the 22-year-olds waiting 10 years?

    • Thanks Neil. It sounds like we followed a similar path: I entered training age 27 having done four years in business after graduating with a Masters.

      I understand your hesitation, but it is worth bearing a couple of things in mind. First, in terms of the sums I have done, entering training in your mid to late 20s will mean being a maturing congregational leader in your mid-40s. I think it is this, and not ordination itself, which we should compare with the discussion of ‘elders’ in the NT.

      Second, with life expectancy being so much less in the first century, we probably need to crank down our calculation of the age of an ‘elder’ too.

      I also think there are some issue to explore around the governing of a settled congregation and the difference from pioneering and mission. Being ordained now could look like being ‘apostolic’ as much as being an ‘elder’…


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