Further musings on ministerial formation

Posted on March 20, 2012

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My previous post attracted a number of comments about the importance of the college community in ministerial formation. My first quick reply, that community formation might happen in an intentional dispersed community, and perhaps should be happening in the local church, seemed not to satisfy anyone. Musing on this on a train, a further thought occurred to me.

No-one seems to doubt – certainly not me – that there are important processes of formation that can only happen in an intentional community living closely together. This indeed is central to a Baptist vision of being the church: we watch over each other and walk together, growing into holiness and maturity as a community. (I argue in my Baptist Theology at one point that an authentically Baptist vision of Christian holiness is irreducibly communal: we become saints together or not at all.)

In an older Baptist, and broader nonconformist, tradition, most ministerial formation happened similarly within the local church: someone with gifts and a vocation was identified, and then apprenticed (loosely speaking) to an experienced minister, to be a part of his church community and to be formed into a minister there. There was an intentionality about shaping the life of an apprentice pastor, perhaps particularly on the part of the senior minister, but it happened within the local congregation.

For reasons that became unavoidable about 1850, but (I argue) are now passing, we moved the community of formation to a college, a community formed of experienced ministers and scholars, together with a shifting and transient body of trainee ministers. Ministers (and ministers-to-be) would form other ministers, rather than that formation happening in the local church. This was my experience of formation, and the experience of most of those who commented on my previous post; I did not say there that it was wrong, but I did suggest that there were convincing reasons why it might be becoming unnecessary, and less workable than it once was.

Now, I admit happily that in my own life the process worked, and worked well; I question, however, whether it is a necessary process. If it is, where might that necessity lie? The only conceivable answer, it seems to me – if my imagination has failed me, please suggest others – the only conceivable answer is in some account of ministry as a specialist guild or profession: only those of us called to and gifted for this task have the requisite understanding or insight to help another similarly called and gifted to grow into her calling. The Roman Catholic religious orders, particularly the preaching and missionary orders, perhaps have something of this understanding: their members are people set apart to a particular task, and find their support and accountability in an intentional community of others who all know the particular needs and temptations of that task, because they are all similarly set apart to it.

I have to say that I do not find this a convincing argument within Baptist ecclesiology. The local church is, or should be, the place where every ministry – not excluding the ministry of Word and sacrament – is recognised, authorised, supported, and held accountable. If there are things we can only talk about with a fellow minister – and I know that often there are – then that is adequate evidence that the local church is failing to be the community God intends it to be. Our congregations should be adequate to the formation of their ministers – and of their deacons, children’s workers, evangelists, &c.; if they are not, something has gone wrong.

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