Young, female and a vicar: What it’s like working in the church

Revd Canon Lisa Barnett is team rector of St Mary's Church in Horsham. Here she shares why she decided to become a vicar, what it's like day-to-day and the challenges she's faced.

Vicar Lisa Barnett

I was ordained in 2007 when I was 27, so I’ve been ordained for 13 years now.

I became a Christian as a teenager, and quickly got involved in lots of different parts of church life. As I began thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, I quickly realised that I’d love to be a vicar, because it would be such a privilege to lead a church, and support people in exploring who God is, and what Christians believe. 

Journey to becoming a vicar

I graduated as a primary school teacher, had a gap year working in Moscow, and then taught for two years in a local primary school. It was a great chance to practise ‘adulting’, and to get used to the routines and disciplines of the working world. But I knew that I wasn’t called to be a teacher forever, and increasingly felt that God was calling me to be ordained. Having been selected to train for ordained ministry, I studied theology in Cambridge for three years, and then worked in my first church, in Brighton.

Four years later, I became Vicar of Scaynes Hill, a small village outside Haywards Heath. This was a part-time role, which I combined with being mum to my three children: twin girls who were born in 2013, and a boy, born in 2016. I have loved being both a mum and a vicar, and am keen to encourage young women that juggling these two roles is possible, and a great privilege.

Women in the church

The first women were ordained as priests in 1994, and so we have just celebrated the 25th anniversary. But it has taken some time for women priests to be seen as ‘normal’ within church communities. As a teenager, all the vicars that I knew were old and male, and so I wasn’t sure if it was something that I could do.

Read more: What it’s like to organise funerals and give people a good send off

When I went to my ‘Selection Conference’ (a two day extended interview about the possibility of being ordained) I was the youngest person there by ten years, and I really felt it! But a wise theological college principal had said to me that I probably would be the youngest there and that I should hold my head up high because the church needs young clergy too! I am so grateful for her words, and her confidence in me. Now I try to offer the same encouragement to other young women, to believe that they too have gifts to bring, and they don’t need to be put off because they don’t see any other vicars who are ‘like them’.

What it is like being a Reverend

It’s a huge privilege! Every day is different. There are plenty of emails to send, meetings to organise, sermons to write and schools and nursing homes to visit. But alongside the organising of church leadership, there are precious encounters with families at some of the most important moments of their lives, through Christenings, weddings and funerals. I particularly enjoy building a church community where everyone has a part to play, according to their gifts, skills and passions, and everyone can be involved, from the oldest to the youngest. 

The biggest misconceptions

People always joke that vicars only work on a Sunday! It’s not easy to try to explain the things that keep vicars busy all week long, but there is plenty. And it’s certainly not a 9-5 job, because there are a lot of evening meetings too.

In the early days, people liked to comment, ‘You’re just like the Vicar of Dibley’! And though I’m not really much like her at all, I do have a chocolate cupboard and a cheerful smile!

How the church has changed

Though people often think that the church is slow to change, there have been significant changes, and having women vicars, and now women bishops, is a great example. But these changes do take time, because the church doesn’t want to be swayed by every passing fad of society, but to listen to the leading of the Spirit of God.

Our church buildings are often valued as places of stability in a changing world – St Mary’s Church in Horsham is 800 years old! But our Christian communities are creative and vibrant, places of life and energy, made up of people who are doing their best to love God, to love one another, and to love our wider communities.

My advice

Being a vicar is an amazing privilege, so if you have any sense that it might be something that you’d like to do, then do speak to your own vicar, or someone in your diocesan vocations team, to begin to explore what it might mean. There are also lots of opportunities to take a gap year, working for a local church, which is a great way to see whether it would be a good fit for you.

To my younger self, I would say that being ordained wouldn’t mean trying to squeeze myself into an uncomfortable box and pretend to be something that I wasn’t. I have learnt through the years that God has called me to be a vicar, as a young woman, and I don’t need to try to make myself like the male vicars around me.

I love the quote from St Catherine of Siena, who said: ‘Be who you were created to be, and you will set the world on fire!’

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