Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Why so few younger women clergy?

Back in January I blogged about this question, but it's still there, and still needs an answer. There's a concern in the Church at the moment about the rising average age of clergy. We have been reaping the 'wisdom' of some years past, when young Christians who felt called by God to ordained ministry were told to go and 'get a life' first.

But now we're starting to see younger people coming forward, some of us have noted that there are distinctly fewer young women in training than young men. And looking round the church, there are not many young women in stipendiary ministry.

There are a whole variety of reason:
  • women don't get as much encourament as men do
  • there are fewer young women in churches
  • some of these younger women belong to more conservative churches which don't allow women to take on preaching or leadership roles
  • some women in their 20s and 30s have a young family and have chosen to keep their sense of call on hold.
But I was disturbed by a recent letter to the Church Times (13th August), which talked of the experience of one young woman at her first selection conference.

She was told when young, as many young men also used to be told, that she was 'inexperienced'. The subtext, according to the letter was 'go away, get a job, have babies, then come back.' This she did, and was finally accepted many years later.

The letter goes on to highlight other concerns which I've also noticed recently. When it came to a title parish, 'Ever present was the unspoken hint that a mature woman might be threatening to her training incumbent. And she had a family, all of whom had well-established ties to people and places,, which made things more "complicated" for the diocese. Would they have either of these concerns about a man?'

Some might, others would not. It is so hard to prove that anything like this is gender discrimination. The writer of the letter wonders why the Church seems so much more nervous about accepting inexperienced young women, when there are plenty of such men in training. A fair point. And then if those women return a few years later, they have other hurdles to overcome.

I believe that the discernment process is a good one, and that when the writer of the letter calls it 'secretive' and by implication, biassed, this is unfair. But that does not mean that it's not harder, often, for women than for men.

The Church of England needs more young women to offer themselves for a lifetime of ministry. I know some great young women who have been accepted for training at recent panels. But I think there is still more progress to be made in nurturing the vocations of women in their 20s.

And what is true for the Church of England is probably just as true in other denominations. I've read research which points to subtle or less subtle forms of discrimination in a variety of denominations. Where we are aware of barriers which make the selection process more difficult for women than for men, we need to keep raising concerns, until the process is truly equal for all.

7 comments:

Seeker said...

This situation is perturbing. I think you're right that women don't get as much encouragement as men and that much more progress is needed in nurturing vocations in women in their 20s. Are you aware of any recent serious research (focused on C. of E.) about why the young women shortage exists in ordained ministry and consequently how this could best be remedied? I'm a Vocations Adviser. In the last 7 years, most of the potential candidates I've seen who were under the age of 40 are men. I hope your post generates more discussion.

Pam said...

I wonder if there is still a cultural issue - I know from women who have recently been to conferences that the emphasis is still - probably rightly - on being fairly upfront and articulate about yourself, 'setting out your stall' if you like so the selectors can see what you are offering. I think some recent research has shown that women are much less likely than men to apply for jobs unless they fit all the criteria in the person spec - whereas men are more likely to have a punt at something even if there are gaps in their CV. Maybe this is also at work in selection. I would hope younger women are more confident than my generation but is there still more hesitancy from women about putting themselves forward in the first place?

Also, the way the system works is fairly monolithic, in that one person - the DDO - is usually the gatekeeper to the selection conference, so the selection conference may be very fair - and I think most are - but the process that you have to go through to get there could be very biased depending on local circumstances. As far as I know there is no national moderation of local vocational systems. The way they are judged is on the quality of the candidates who eventually get to conferences. Nobody is checking out who doesn't get sent to a conference and why they have not been sent. As a woman in my thirties with small children I was messed around royally by the local system - one thing I was told was that I had to choose stipendiary or non stipendiary rather than start off NSM and then move when the children were older. Yet when I finally became a curate in my forties that's exactly what I did. I was also told I could not commute from home to do full time training while living at home, but again, that's what I eventually did. I hope this flexibility is now built in but perhaps some people are still being told that they have to wait until their life circumstances fit in with the system that's on offer.

Rachel Marszalek said...

I will be a curate next year. I am 35 with small children. I will be a stipendiary minister. I found the system very affirming and I was hugely encouraged to go forward for panel. Whilst at times it has been a juggle, it has also been a great adventure and I feel positive that the Church is beginning to look at our giftings and sense of call more than our status, gender, with children etc Some of our churches still teach traditional gender roles and I can appreciate that this can stop some people from acting on a sense of call to ordained ministry. What we have to do, I believe, as Tom Wright indicated at General Synod, is have the debates openly and in community and engage intelligently so that we can hear the scriptures and Jesus' message.

Be encouraged, the Church that reaches all of God's people must have within it those representing that very diversity of God's people. Young women - your church needs you!

Eva Frankland said...

I am in my early twenties and exploring the priesthood. I spoke to one of the diocesian Vocations Advisers who then passed me on to the Diocesian Director of Ordinands. I got to the point where I really needed my parish priest's help to explore parish life and its workings. I received no such help just constant pestering on doing further study in my employment area. This was the opposite to the help a male friend of mine received from the same priest.

If it were not for the other priests in the team, who were all women, i reside in i might have given up. My priest was unhelpful and seemingly unsupportive. This illustrated to me just how effective women are in leadership, and the priest that helped me the most was only 28.

Carry on young women. Youre not on your own. Keep persevering its worth it in the end.

Tamsin said...

Hi I got through in my twenties and had good encouragement but I think what Pam says is very true, and true for someone who's working for me - even though they're not so young. But I think it is something about getting out there and encouraging young women to explore this. Yes there are some barriers but there are also quite a lot of us working and in different ways. My advice is start asking younger women in the church - or other areas - work or whatever if they've considered it - sometimes that's just what someone needs is that question. Do we just sit and wait for it to change or can we bring the change ourselves?

Anonymous said...

Hi I am a Christian and the Christ/faith-filled life I lead now is a great contrast to the cut-throat, selfish professional life I led before my encounter with Jesus when He literally saved my life.

The challenge faced by the Church as a whole regardless of what denomination you belong to is that the people at the front are living a spirit-filled and godly life. I see so many leaders who put those robes on and become completely different people to when they're in their 'civvies'.

Faith has to be real - its not about being religious, its about being vulnerable, honest, full of integrity and your relationship with Christ meaning more to you than what anyone - even those several ranks higher or lower - thinks or speaks about you.

If you can't preach in a CofE church and God really has called you to this ministry - does he want you to be facing opposition from hierarchy? Of course not - go out into the world and preach what God has laid on your heart. you don't have to belong to anyone except God!!

The world is hungry for God and hungry for his word - don't forget he promises that no word returns to him void - he uses everything and works everything to his good.

Don't channel your passion into changing old boys networks - this is the enemy's strategy to throw you off course. Believe me thousands of women want and need to hear the Truth - America's got some (Joyce Meyers/Lisa Bevere) and Australia (Darlene Zchech). Its time Britain got passionate again and fanned the flames of a revival to sweep across Britain and rid the land of drugs, violence, greed, murder and other atrocities we have become accustomed and aclimatised to. Where pictures of pot-bellied orphans too weak to cry for help don't even make us weep anymore.

Come on ladies - lets rise up and lead the way...you've got to account for this one day...

Pat Dickin said...

Hi, just discovered this place! fantastic! shall be here more regularly. I am in my 30s, a curate, full time, stipendiary, mother to two young boys, one only just started Reception in school. at the selection stage I was supported and encouraged, my gender not an issue; at selection conference, one of the interviewers gave me a really hard time, imploying i should not consider full time ministry as that was irresponsible to my family (quite the opposite to what was said to a young male candidate, younger than myself, with a younger child than myself at that time!). once in ministry, mixed reactions, but once you show some inner strength and resilience, I am just "one more" and God's gifts take me the rest of the way. We mustn't lose sight that we are in ministry not for ourselves or our own talents, but because God has chosen us and enabled us to have a ministry. Once we rely on who we are (intellectually, academically, spiritually, charismatically or on gender) we lose sight of God who has brought us to this amazing place and granted us the privilege to serve in His church - and this is true whether you are a male or female minister