The future of (UK) ministerial formation: some musings

Posted on March 11, 2012


I have been involved in a large number of (private) conversations recently around a broad theme of ‘ministerial formation’, where ‘ministry’ is widely defined. It seems to me that we stand at the threshold of a significant change: this is in part necessary, and in part possible and desirable.

For a century, or nearly two, we (defined here as ‘British nonconformist churches’) have practiced a model of ministerial formation that centred on attendance at a residential college. This is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive: most candidates for ministry these days are married, potentially with family, and so moving house is a major upheaval; for colleges tied in to mainstream university programmes in England, there is a sudden increase of £6-9K pa in training costs that someone has to bear from this year as a result of the introduction of university fees.

At the same time, the imperative that made college attendance necessary is receding fast. We used to train ministers on an apprenticeship model, a young aspiring minister studying alongside an experienced and recognised practitioner. That had to change as a result of the expansion of academic publishing: where once a thoughtful minister’s library could be nearly exhaustive, we moved to a situation where a major institutional investment was required to offer a library that was even adequate. Again, the development of academic sub-disciplines made the idea of apprenticeship to a single master implausible: those of us trained in Christian doctrine are acutely aware of our lack of expertise in Biblical studies, for instance. So a community of scholars, each with a different specialism, was needed  – a college.

Now, however, these necessities are passing away. In writing my recent Trinity book, I accessed 80-90% of the articles, and perhaps 40% of the monographs, online – probably I could have accessed 50% of the monographs online, but I still prefer working from a printed edition when it is easily available. I am very aware of the rate of advance of electronic publication, and (particularly given CLA permission to digitise material for course packs) the moment when an entire course could be delivered on the basis of electronic access to publications without any real compromise in quality was reached some years ago, if the course is offered by an institution is linked to a top academic library (this conditional is significant: academic e-publication presently works by selling big chunks of material for big money to big institutions; a specialist theological college should in theory be able to access a bespoke body of specialist material for a reasonable price, but those options are not currently offered in the marketplace).

Similarly, there is no need any more for physical access to faculty. I have done doctoral supervisions, and even vivas, using something as basic as Skype; this is less than ideal, but an institution that invested seriously in web conferencing equipment and software could offer a student experience not far from that of the best campuses with only very infrequent requirement to attend. (Much distance learning is substandard: a good test is to look at the cost – here in St Andrews, we charge our DL students the same as we charge our residential students, because we offer them the same standard of programme; this was a revelation to me when I first discovered it, that it is possible to aspire to genuine excellence in every aspect of learning and student experience, even when working at a distance.)

These same electronic opportunities change what is necessary in ministerial training. One conversation I had concerned people who had advanced to positions of national leadership very quickly on the basis of their abilities, but needed some better intellectual foundations to sustain a long and fruitful ministry. My first thought was the old ‘don’t give them a fish; give them a rod’ analogy – what such people need is the skills and language to access theological resources, not intensive grounding in theology; my second thought, though, was an extension of the analogy: ‘don’t even give them a rod, but introduce them to an expert fisherman’. I find myself regularly – certainly more than once a month – advising national church leaders with whom I have become acquainted on theological matters; some are quite highly educated theologically (doctorates…); others are less so; all share an ability to know when they are out of their depth and need expert help. That ability seems to me a crucial one now at every level of Christian ministry: there are plenty of scholars able and willing to help, but the minister needs a very clear awareness of what she doesn’t know.

To add another factor to the mix, the rate of the rise of training programmes for people who are not in full-time stipendary ministry is only going to accelerate. As culture and church drift further apart – as we move ever further into ‘post-Christendom’ contexts – intentional formation of our leaders and workers at every level becomes ever more pressing. We cannot assume that people have any skill in forming a Christian vision of a topic, or a Christian approach to a practical task. Perhaps actually we need to start offering serious training programmes for converts prior to baptism: it is striking that many of the great theologians of antiquity worked in part as catechists.

We need to prepare a much wider body of people to minister in an increasingly foreign culture – and we need first to make them understand the oddness of the gospel; we should aim to train them to minister in a world where information is freely available; we should plan to lock them into accessible networks of expertise, and to give them the skills to know when they need to call on that help; we have the opportunity of delivering excellent learning to people in the communities they live in and minister to, bringing them together only very infrequently…

…an institution of ministerial formation shaped by this sort of vision would look very different from the college I trained in; this is not a criticism of that college – my training was genuinely excellent – but a recognition that in two decades both needs and possibilities have changed radically.

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