Imagine your god-daughter heads off to University and joins a student friendly large Anglican church. Or perhaps the girl you’ve always admired in the youth group moves to a big city and joins the well known church you recommended to her for the courses they run. What will they have in common? Well If it’s a ‘larger’ church with 350 or more people then they’ll almost certainly be run by a man.

At a time when over 50% of archdeacon appointments and 40% of Bishop appointments have been women, I’d be gobsmacked if many of the currently advertised larger charismatic churches end up appointing a female incumbent. Only three of the churches with more than 350 adults currently do. So what’s going on?

Supply and demand 

These male led larger churches are fantastic at producing ordained vocations among young adults. Unsurprisingly 78% of young vocations are male. (About 73% if you include those selected in their Twenties and thirties combined).  If you’re looking for a safe-ish forty something year old incumbent with one/ two previous vicar jobs experience the talent pool is looks very male to start with.


Although HTB (here 2014) and New Wine (c. 2007 John/Anne Coles referenced here and here) have both (eventually) publicly affirmed women’s ordained ministry the modelling of ministry is massively male. Although many/most of the larger churches are presented as being co-led by a couple in ministry, it is usually the man who has the theological training, title and ordination.

Our Assistant Minister and Creative Director Lydia, on the day after she found out that she had been put forward for vicar factory – being made to celebrate by the staff team.
Latent theology

Despite pronouncements from the leaders of NW and more tempered ones from HTB, these gathered churches are often a multidenominational eclectic mix. For the sake of some who may still be opposed to women in overall leadership, it may be felt safer not to appoint a female incumbent. When leadership has always been modelled as male, (and often alpha male), it can be hard to conceptualise an alternative way of doing things.

Patronage Dinosaurs

Some of the key evangelical churches in the CoE are very much influenced by evangelical patronage trustees. A little bit of reflexivity about the male, stale, make up of these boards is long overdue.

The Student Issue – how we filter out potential women leaders early on and the time lag it takes to redress the balance… 

When I was at University Bob was (IMHO) the outstanding leader of my student generation. Her real name was Barbara. She held together diverse and opinionated young adults in a college format, and had an exemplary role collegially leading a Christian Union bigger than 99.8% of Anglican Churches today. All this when she was 20-22 years of age.

Then there was Anna and Ruth who ended up serving God in tough situations in the UK and abroad. I remember sitting with these girls over a meal discussing women in leadership. They each belonged to church circles where women’s leadership and teaching gifts weren’t nurtured and were decidedly happy with the status quo and humbly willing to serve in a system that precluded them from using many of their evident gifts.

All of our church leaders in student churches were men, and women were barred from the presidency of the Christian Union. There was even discussing about banning the internationally renowned missionary Jackie Pullinger from speaking at our 500 strong Saturday evening meeting.

In the post-Fusion world the student scene has changed considerably but still in these ecumenical/parachurch settings there are considerable strong voices that squash and silence the development of young women in their preaching, teaching and oversight ministry. Many of the ordained women I spoke to in my study who had got ordained later in life had taken up to 20 years to rebound from this sort of teaching to get to the place where they were clear that they were called to step up to ordained leadership. They admired the churches and visionary leadership that they came under in those student years. They were often the churches full of life, and other young adults. But they were also churches that chose not to grow them in their ministry at that time. One lovely exception noted was Michael Green at St Aldates Oxford who helped some impressive women clergy to get going in their student days through his encouragement and mentoring.

Not upsetting the minority

Most Anglican evangelical churches will draw together an eclectic mix of denominational backgrounds in their pews and PCCs. If the fear was that 10-20% might not want a woman vicar the cautious tendency might be to avoid that appointment that might impact of numbers and giving. In practice there are countless examples of intransigent campaigners against women in ministry who are turned around 180 degrees when they start to experience that ministry. But it is often perceived as safer to appoint women to the auxiliary roles in a large staff team (associate/ curate). I remember a parish rep confiding in me ‘I don’t know if we’re ready for a woman [incumbent] yet’, despite the fact that his church had been very successfully led by a woman through the interregnum.

Invite me to apply

Anything verging on a gender stereotype is heavily contested and controversial but there is some evidence that if a parish profile is daunting (some) men will look at it and go ‘I can do most of that’, whereas (some) women will look at it and go ‘that’s not for me’. The suggestion here, picked up by Rosie Ward in her Growing Women Leaders  book is that women need encouragement to apply. Just today I had a conversation with a talented clergywoman who said she might not apply for a job that she is eminently qualified for as she wasn’t sure about the current quality of her devotional life. That sort of humility perhaps should be considered an asset, rather than an impediment to ministry (assuming she is continuing to work on her devotional life!)


Is there an argument that women are less ambitious in church ministry (or that their ambition is less likely to be mono-focused)? All these years after the women have been ordained it’s hard to point to examples of churches that have grown prolifically under a female incumbent. Most of the headline leaders of the large New Wine / HTB churches “grew their own churches” – albeit, almost without exception, added and abetted by a ministerial proficient wife. Many of the interviews with female clergy with a family suggest that they have a more rounded perspective on family life and priorities than some of the men, particularly in a previous generation, who worked all hours to grow a church, while their wife raised the kids, ran the home and built up several church ministries at the same time. The number of husbands willing to do the same thing (think about the kids constantly, serve hidden in the background, keep the home) seems anecdotally few and far between. And female clergy are divided on whether they would want that role from their man anyway. Ambition may be no less high than men, but perhaps for many that ambition is likely to be worked out through family as much as through work. This may also have a factor in the jobs that women apply for. Some are more likely to look for manageable sized job that can be fit around child responsibilities.

If/when that’s true is it a bad thing for the church?

A thousand times no! See my post on motherhood and ministry  for more. Experiences gathered around bringing up a family can be a thousand times more useful in ministry than sitting on another dull trustee board that might be seen as valid experience to ‘further a career’. Training and teaching a child to read and write (discipling) can be a thousand times more valid than popping out yet another paperback pamphlet with a limited print run that almost no-one will read but looks good on a ministerial CV. Evangelism at the school gate, children’s parties and church based activities can be a thousand times more fruitful in ministerial development than being the chaplain to the converted – a role that is easy to slip into as an unintentional, busy vicar. Of course this works for men as well employing a blended ministry. 


Mentoring and Selection:

Leaders of larger churches need to be intentional in giving significant ministerial opportunities to younger women, and promoting an ordination route for them. This includes preaching opportunities. Experience suggests some of the best young women candidates will only emerge if you actively recruit them rather than wait for them to come to you. This needs to start from the youth work onwards. Last year we had a 15 year old girl preach and she shone.

We need to understand that if the senior leadership is currently male they are not starting from a level playing field as the young men. Most of the modelling will have been male. You need to counter that. Like Michael Green at St Aldate’s find ways to take women on team for mission trips, involve them in leadership at all levels and invest in them. If a woman has been called to ministry it seems eventually that calling will come out. If that involves a  20 year time-lag and a journey away from evangelical theology to find space to outwork her calling because she got no encouragement from you then that’s on your head. Deal with it.

Overall there is gender equality in the number of vocations to ordained ministry. The fact that there is a twenty year time-lag for many women coming forward most likely means we are missing some of the most dynamic years of service those women might offer. That is a tragedy for the church.


Parish Reps need to have courage of conviction. The best person for the job is the best person for the job. Do not make appointments out of fear. If God is in it he will validate the appointment whether that’s a young inexperienced man with the allegedly ideal young family, or a back to work woman vicar with lots of life experience.

Bishops and Archdeacons probably already do, but should certainly, actively review the biases and blindspots of patronage committees. If they fear that ‘patronage dinosaurs’ are filtering out women, or not giving appropriate credit for other life experiences that might otherwise be dismissed as a gap on the CV they should name that and call it out.



Final Thoughts

One of the most prominent HTB church planters recently said to me he couldn’t find many women in the congregation willing to preach. This despite a social make up with loads of talented young women to choose from. If the charismatic world is going to remedy this crisis there’s going to need to be a lot more intentionality than that. We need conference speakers who are on platform in their own right (not spouse of). We need stories of ministerial ‘success’ that are more integrated into the rest of life working too. We need to take a lot of risks and allow people to speak with their voice and their style to people just like them. On my Alpha table this term the women there wondered why the only pre-recorded talks they had heard a woman do was on ‘how to resist evil’! They’d missed the excellent previous one we had also shown, but they were clearly wanting to hear the gospel from a woman’s voice and perspective too. While academics may dispute if gender even exists, (in Durham theology they are talking about 7 genders at the mo!) for most people it is a reality. We need male and female voices representing the God who surpasses gender. The crisis we are facing is of our own making. Let’s remedy it now.



Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 12.13.15This blog post is part one of a series of posts outlining the results of research conducted in 2015. This involved extensive semi-structured  interviews of key gatekeepers to ordained ministry, open questions on a Facebook forum for ordained women, a literature review and a survey of those exploring/training for ordained ministry in the Diocese of London.