Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Where have all the young men gone?

Looking at the latest statistics for the Church of England, one of the striking things is the changing age profile of the clergy.

When I was at St John’s theological college, Nottingham, in the mid 1970s, as well as being entirely male, almost everyone training for ordination in my year was under 30. Most of us are still, consequently, some years off retirement, even after 30+ years in the job.

Yet it turns out that today, at the age of 57, I am only five years older than the average CofE clergyperson, male or female. Indeed, I am three years younger than the average diocesan bishop!

This is something of a surprise, but when you look at the graph here, it is obvious why this has happened.

Since 1996, and presumably even before that, the number of young men entering stipendiary ministry has been in decline.

The median age of male clergy then was 49, but there were substantial numbers up to twenty years younger. Since then, an entire generation has gone over the cliff off retirement, whilst the median group is now 59. Behind them, however, the generation below the age of 45, which was well-represented in 1996 is trailing off.

On another page, we read that today there are only 98 parish clergy in the whole Church of England aged under thirty. That is about the same as the student body at St John’s in my time as a student.

But it is amongst the men that this decline is taking place. Going back to the graph, the number of stipendiary women clergy aged between 26 and 43 has scarcely changed in ten years, nor is it projected to change much in the next ten.

However, the number of ordained women aged between 43 and 65 has actually gone up substantially between 1996 and 2006, whereas for men that age group has declined slightly, no doubt due to ‘natural wastage’.

In short, the Church of England has seen little change in its recruitment of young women, and its recruitment of middle aged women has increased, though its recruitment of late-middle-aged men is unremarkable. But its ability to attract young men has declined sharply.

When we look at the projected ages of clergy, this has an interesting result. In the next four years, the number of stipendiary female clergy is actually set to rise by about 6%. The number of male stipendiary clergy, however, will fall by a little over 9%.

Another chart shows, however, that the recruitment of stipendiary clergy women, having risen somewhat between 1990 and 2003, from 79 per annum to 120, has been lower for the last three years, with 92 ordained in 2006. This still represents an increase over the last sixteen years. In that time, however, ordinations of stipendiary male clergy have slumped, from 282 in 1990 to just 128 in 2006 —an overall drop of 55%.

The shift in the gender ‘balance’ between clergy men and women, therefore, is not a reflection of success in recruiting more women but of failure in replacing men, and this seems to be largely because the Church no longer attracts men early on in their working lives.

For a woman, ordination in her late forties or early fifties seems to be an attractive prospect —or, alternatively, you could argue God finds people in that age group willing and able to serve his church in the capacity of an ordained person. But for men, it is clearly different and they are not going for ordination, particularly not as non-stipendiary clergy, in their middle years.

Thus, at present, the recruitment of female stipendiary clergy seems to be balancing the losses due to death, retirement and other factors. For the men, that situation of stability is a long way off.

The question we must surely ask is why, if God is calling women at a rate which balances their departure, he is not similarly calling men. Or is there something else at work here?

Revd John P Richardson
14 November 2007

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  1. (Chelmsford)

    You seem to suggest that the problem, if not that God is not calling young men, is that the young men are not coming forward. But it seems to me more likely that the problem is in the church, that it is not encouraging young men or women to put their names forward for ordination. Perhaps this is partly a deliberate policy: I have certainly seen the argument that it is better to ordain people when they are older and so have more experience of life. But, if we see this as a problem, the solution surely is for the church, locally, at the diocesan level (e.g. DDOs) and nationally, to encourage young men to consider ordination. I don't see much of that happening. I just see clergy who are reluctant to lose their best congregation members and long-winded diocesan procedures, taking two years or more from application to recommendation for training, which delay and discourage enthusiastic young applicants. Instead, let's see local churches identifying and putting forward their best young people as candidates, and more streamlined selection procedures which get them into training within months.

  2. Bob Jackson has observed how the policy of sending applicants for ordination away to get 'a bit more experience of life' has been counter-productive, especially if that experience includes marriage and a mortgage. Too often, the candidate is simply lost to the ministry.

    In Lichfield, however, there is now a deliberate policy of seeking to recruit under-30s. Bob Jackson is an Archdeacon there - surprise, surprise.

    Does the Church give the impression of wanting to recruit enthusiastic twenty-something young men for its ministry? There are plenty of other organizations which do.