The change makers

Women are breaking new ground within our churches and taking on key roles that have previously been male-dominated. Ali Herbert speaks with three women about their journey to the top and the challenges they face.

‘I want to encourage unity among the churches’

Francesca Del Mese was appointed as the Church of England’s Diocesan Secretary/CEO of Chichester Diocese in 2009.

When I applied for the job, I was working as the UNICEF specialist adviser for juvenile justice in South Sudan. It was blisteringly hot and the air conditioning, as well as the computer connection, was very sporadic. I wasn’t even sure if I had managed to e-mail the job application through. We had previously been thrown out of the hotel by militia running around with machine guns at night, so people’s nerves were frayed and the atmosphere was quite uncomfortable. When I came back from the Sudan, I had a huge pile of post and at the very bottom was a letter inviting me for interview.

My background is as a barrister. I practised criminal and human rights law from a Chambers in London before going to Australia on winning an academic World Peace Scholarship. This enabled me to study a Masters in International Relations, and Peace and Conflict Resolution, and I also worked for the United Nations and travelled extensively in countries like East Timor, Sierra Leone, Northern Uganda, the Balkans, The Hague and Sudan. This was a great experience, but also personally quite destabilising and I wanted to face a new challenge of being closer to my family and working in a Christian and charitable context in my own country.

People thought it was challenging for me travelling and living in many different countries, but actually I found it a challenge to come and settle back home again. It is a huge leap to go from a country where you often survive on adrenalin and see quite horrific situations every day, to a wealthy country where even the poorest person has access to facilities that millions of people in developing countries would be amazed at.

I have now been almost a year in the post and am still on a steep learning curve. As one of my main responsibilities is the financial health of the diocese, I am often called upon to make decisions that are unpopular. Mediation is one of the skills that I bring with me to negotiate in situations of conflict.

I’m the first woman to have this post in this diocese. As a female, it is sometimes difficult to know how to be confident and credible in the workplace, as well as being personable. It can be a bit of a tightrope walk because there are some people who will see confidence in a man as being reassuring but will translate the same trait in a woman in a different way. Ultimately I have come to see that there are those who are happy to work with you, and those that aren’t. Sometimes this is beyond our control, so I have learnt not to take it personally.

What I love about my job is that it is so varied and takes me into all sorts of new areas.  One day I can be visiting a project, the next I can be trying to look at personnel issues or trying to make the best use of our finances.

My hope for the future is that I will be able to encourage churches across the diocese to be more unified. I want them to have a wider community view – as joining efforts in learning and outreach across the diocese could be hugely effective. If we want the Anglican Church to survive into the next century, we have no choice but to review the way we hold services and communicate with the world around us.

What motivates me most is concern for people’

Alison Tomlin is President of the Methodist Conference for 2010-11.

I was born in Hampshire in 1946, the youngest of four children. Both my parents were committed Christians and my father was a pacifist in the Second World War which profoundly affected things. We had an incredibly happy childhood and were always part of the church.

I became an ordained minister in the Methodist church in 1984. I soon discovered in my first appointments that the thing people most wanted to talk to me about was how they talk with God and how they listen to God – in other words their prayer lives. So I trained in spiritual direction – about accompanying people in prayer and leading quiet retreats. I was nominated as chair of the Northampton Methodist district and enjoyed the eight years of that enormously. I was then asked if I would allow my name to be put forward for the President of the Conference – which was exciting, although I was not at all sure it would happen!

I’m excited about the role that begins this summer for a year – and sometimes terrified! There have only been two women presidents of the conference before me and it is a very exciting and challenging invitation of God. My new role will mean a huge amount of travelling, visiting the Methodist districts, visiting some other countries, listening to people, leading worship, running retreats. Some visits are not within a church setting – for instance I’ve been invited to the RAF and may go to some of the Party political conferences.

As the role of President of the Conference is only for a year there isn’t a sense of settling in, it’s more a sense of hitting the ground running! Each president brings a particular issue or vision or awareness of some aspect of God. I’m hoping we can spend some time in my year focusing on really listening to what God is saying and taking Scripture seriously – noting what the text has to say to us and what it might have to say in our world.

What motivates me most is concern for people – and that has come from my entire Christian journey. I was taught as a child that, ‘Love for God means love for others’, and that issues of justice and peace matter. We also need always to hold on to the knowledge of God’s love for us.

At one level, my hope is that the Methodist Church will be able to take hold of the fact that we have turned the corner. We’re not a declining church any more, we’re doing new and exciting things and we’re working with God in this world for all that he intends. I’d love for us to have courage to take hold of that.

'We need to see more women using their gifts in senior positions’

Christine Wilson became Archdeacon of Chesterfield, Derbyshire in 2010.

As a child I was the only churchgoer in my family and was sent to Sunday school every Sunday afternoon from a very young age. I particularly remember Bert Ward, our Sunday school superintendent. To call all the children to order he would bellow, “Sheathe swords!” and we would tuck our Bibles under our arms. Then he would shout, “Draw swords!” and we would hold them aloft and recite, “The sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God!” It was Bert Ward and his team of teachers who gave me such a good grounding in the Bible.

I married my husband Alan the day after my 18th birthday! Our three daughters Emma, Sarah and Elizabeth were born and around that time I left the Church for about five years. We then moved to Penzance and, while we were there, I joined an Anglo-Catholic church. When I walked in the church door, it was like coming home.

Over the coming decade I grew in faith and discipleship. But I had to wrestle with some difficult events – not least my best friend Rachel dying of cancer and leaving four young children. As I struggled to come to terms with the problem of suffering, Rachel showed no anger or bitterness for her untimely predicament. Just a week before she died she said, “Why should I be angry? I have so much to be thankful for.” Her words were the catalyst for a deep inner conversion in my life. It was the start of my vocational journey to priesthood and I was ordained in 1997.

I took up a post as Team Vicar of St John’s, Hove. It was here that I gained experience of developing a mission strategy and how to engage with the wider community. I also learnt that collapsed drains, evicting pigeons from spires, and extracting grants from English Heritage were also part of my job description – something they don’t teach you at college! I then moved to a large parish of two churches in Goring by Sea. However, I had hardly unpacked all the removal boxes when, out of the blue, I received a letter inviting me to consider the post of Archdeacon of Chesterfield.

I hope to bring the priority of mission to the boardroom – and fresh energy! I quite like being stretched and slightly outside of my comfort zone. I believe that if the Church is to encompass humanity at every level of leadership, then the gifts of women need to be exercised in senior appointments. It is a great privilege to be given this wonderful opportunity.

I’m a born optimist and I love my life. Every day has the potential to bring new challenges, new relationships and new opportunities. I am passionate about gardening and can’t wait to establish an organic vegetable plot at the vicarage. I am also planning to create a beautiful themed garden in purple and white in memory of my wonderful daughter, Sarah, who tragically died last October after a long and courageous battle with cancer.

My hopes for the future are that I will continue to journey with God, alongside the people of Derbyshire, in the knowledge of his abiding presence at work in my life – in the joys and in the sorrows.