When Sarah Lunn first came to Cumbria as a vicar she was in charge of three churches. Now she’s in charge of 12.

They’re Appleby, Dufton, Great Asby, Kirkby Thore, Long Marton, Milburn, Murton, Musgrave, Newbiggin, Ormside, Temple Sowerby and Warcop.

So as well as the usual role of a priest, Sarah has to find time, early in the morning and late at night, to handle a vast amount of paperwork.

“I’ve got the usual sort of admin times 12,” she says.

Ms Lunn’s predicament points up a problem that the Church of England is facing – winning enough new priests.

But it’s more serious than that. It’s that so few of the priests they already have are young.

Ms Lunn is 52 but many are in their 60s, close to retirement, and without enough new people coming up to replace them there’s going to be a serious staff shortage in the next few years.

The latest available figures show that the situation is worse in Cumbria than elsewhere in the country.

According to statistics for 2015, nine per cent of the Diocese of Carlisle’s full-time, salaried clergy are under the age of 40, compared with the national average of 13 per cent.

And 30 per cent of those in the Diocese are over the age of 60, compared with a national average of 25 per cent.

Part of the problem is persuading the new recruits to work deep in the countryside.

Ms Lunn is single but for clergy with spouses and children, secondary schools, workplaces and other amenities need to be handy.

Vicars talk of feeling a calling to join the church – that God chooses them for the role rather than choosing it themselves. But the practicalities still needed to be considered.

“It’s a six-mile round trip to the shop and a 26-mile round trip to the supermarket and to get to a hospital is a 70-mile round trip,” she points out.

“I wouldn’t choose to be elsewhere but a lot of people would. When I was studying I was in a small minority of people who wanted to work in a rural area.”

But she cites another reason that priests are in short supply. She studied music at university and worked as a librarian before training as a priest – something the Church was encouraging at the time.

“They wanted people to do something else first, and gain some life experience,” she explains.

“They didn’t really want people under 30 pursuing ordination, particularly. When I was training there was only one person under 25 and only a few under 30.”

It could be that this policy of discouraging too many young entrants was storing up problems for the future. The older new entrants are, the sooner they’ll be joining the ranks of those retiring.

The Rev Matthew Firth One of Cumbria’s younger clergy is 33-year-old the Rev Matthew Firth, chaplain to the University of Cumbria.

While studying natural sciences at Cambridge he felt called to become a priest, and was ordained at the age of 26. But he’s aware of the policy Ms Lunn describes.

“There was a period of time when getting ordained in your 20s was the norm.

“Then there was this period where you were advised to get a normal job first, and gain some other experience.

“Now it’s recognised that we need the gifts of people who are older and those who are younger.”

Mr Firth believes that seeing younger people in leadership roles would encourage more young recruits to come forward. But at the moment it has a certain image problem.

“There could be a perception among young people that because a vicar is old, it’s a job you do when you are old.

“It would be more attractive for younger people if there were role models.”

He adds: “The clergy need to be actively seeking out young people, asking them: ‘Why not? Have you ever though about it?’

“We are seeing an increase in the number of young people being ordained. But it’s not enough to counteract the numbers of people retiring.”

However, he’s not pessimistic about the future of the Church of England. “The fact is that some churches are closing – but a lot of new churches are opening, and a lot are going through renewal.”

Cumbria may have fewer younger clergy and more older ones than the national average, but the Bishop of Carlisle maintains that the county is heading in the right direction.

The Rt Rev James Newcome The Right Reverend James Newcome says a restructuring of the Church of England in Cumbria has broadened its membership.

“In terms of diversity we have quite a good mix of men and women and ethnic minorities,” he says.

“The proportion is higher than the proportion of ethnic minorities in the county as a whole.”

The age of clergy and church members in Cumbria is partly down to the difficulties in recruiting people to come here – a situation shared with other professions in the county. “Over many years people have been very reluctant to move to the north if they have been based in the south, because it is a long way from elderly parents and job prospects for spouses are not thought to be as good.

“This is being experienced not just in Cumbria but right across the northern dioceses.

“Whereas in the south they might get a dozen job applications, we are lucky if we get a few and they do tend to be older.”

The answer has been to create missionary communities that employ self-supporting and part-time clergy who help cover a group of churches and are managed by salaried ministers.

Bishop James admits there is a danger that the aging face of the church could affect its attitude and how it relates to people and society.

“But the demography of the church reflects the demography of the county as a whole.

“We are making an effort to reach younger people through Youth Church congregations set up round the county, led by younger people.

“We are not neglecting or ignoring younger people or expecting them to come to services where the congregation is more elderly.There is no question that where there is a younger vicar, that tends to attract younger people.

“But we also value the experience older ones bring.”

Mr Firth is working on his own solution. Three years ago he set up a new church, The Way, aimed at a younger age group.

It meets sometimes at the university chapel in Fusehill Street and sometimes in members’ homes. It’s not barred to older people but has a greater focus on the young.

“Some members are students, some are people in their 20s or 30s who are local to Carlisle. One, in his 20s, is now thinking about ordination.

“It’s not about making church hip. It’s about sharing the Gospel message about forgiveness and life with God and doing it in a way that connects with people.”