Reflections of a Former Theological Educator
Afew years ago, I spent much of my time defending the old system of full-time residential training. Indeed, I so believed in the good of residential formation that I once proposed that it be expanded. “Make full-time study three or four years and curacy two years,” I suggested to one group, earning myself the same look one would receive for proposing that state schools return to teaching the trivium and quadrivium.
I have presented my reasons for this suggestion in two earlier essays on formation for Covenant (see here and here): namely, that few people selected for ordination these days have known prolonged exposure to Scripture, worship, or life within a church community. Someone once said that if you want to teach people to cross the ocean, make them yearn for the horizon rather than teach them how to build boats. I think that’s basically correct. A reorientation of hearts needs to precede the informing of minds. So, I remain convinced of the superiority of full-time residential formation. The stakes are too high and the challenges too great to make any compromises on producing clergy of the highest possible caliber. And that takes time.
I can hear the resistance: But if traditional residential formation is so great, why the hell is the Church in such a mess?
I can identify at least three reasons for this, none of which is applicable only to residential training. First, the approach to teaching has often not been intentionally formative. Method and information have trumped the formation of habits and hearts. For example, I think it’s generally a good thing that ordinands are introduced to various forms of biblical criticism. But it’s less helpful if the students don’t know the narrative or how the Bible has been read in the Church. It’s like teaching people how to drive by discussing how cars are built. Too often the study of Scripture and theology is done at arm’s length, like a scientist engaging in vivisection.
Second, and closely related to this, in too many cases residential training has differed little from full-time undergraduate or postgraduate programs. Sure, students pray more often (one hopes) but otherwise being full-time mainly means living and going to classes together. That’s not to be undervalued, but it falls short of the deeper sense of community to which the Church witnesses (and that many ordinands have hardly experienced before their formation). Almost all theological colleges now make free use of the word formation in their self-description. I’d be fascinated to enquire what institutions mean by this and how they ensure it happens.
Third, the Church’s relationship with many of its ordinands leaves much to be desired. The treatment of ordinands by some diocesan officials and college staff ranges from benign neglect to active bullying. This is, in my experience, an unspoken and dark side of the focus on “character” in formation — given the power dynamics at play, it too often lends itself to abuse, excusing the meddling by diocesan officials and clergy into the private lives of ordinands. That’s fine when there’s a pressing moral issue, but often the reasons invoked are perceived “character flaws.” The Church must be better about treating its ordinands like grownups and recognizing how vulnerable many of them are. The whim of a bishop, ministry officer, principal, or tutor can be devastating to ordinands, many of whom are already enduring criticism from friends and family for pursuing their vocation.
Replacing theological colleges with other modes of training won’t address these issues (and, in fact, may worsen them). We can be wonderfully creative and innovative in devising new schemes for delivering training, but if we don’t seriously form, care for, and inspire our ordinands, the results will be much the same. Moreover, if we retool ministerial formation to focus on techniques (managerial, clinical, reflective, and so on) without first empirically determining their effectiveness (and the raison d’être of these new subjects is based entirely on their practical utility) then we run the risk of creating a generation of unformed clergy without even the skills for conducting their ministry fruitfully. Given the unreasonable demands that the Church now places on the shoulders of parish clergy, this could be disastrous.
The unformed state of many ordinands has convinced me that if anything the Church needs to pour more resources into an immersive approach to training — a kind of immersive school for would-be clergy intended to shape deeply how they conceive of themselves, the world, and the Church along theological principles. While I remain convinced that this is basically correct, I no longer believe that residential training in university-based theological colleges is the only or even best way of accomplishing this. My change of heart occurred for two reasons.
First, all the wishful thinking in the world cannot shift the general opinion among policy makers in the Church that full-time theological colleges are no longer good value for money. Overwhelmingly, the energy is now behind mixed-mode, context-based, and non-residential modes of training. Nothing is going to shift that opinion in the near term.
Second, universities have developed in ways that undermine ministerial formation. Administration has grown exponentially during the past 30 years, forcing theological colleges either to hire an increasing number of administrators or require teaching staff to undertake additional administrative work. The institutional culture to which theological colleges must conform are increasingly imposed by modern universities rather than fostered by the Church. This isn’t helped by the antipathy of some universities toward theological colleges.
Thus, after almost five years of involvement in residential ministerial formation, I have reluctantly reached the conclusion that they, in most instances, can no longer best serve the Church’s needs. They lack the support of the Church, face debilitating financial and administrative demands, and are required to conform to the expectations of contemporary academic institutions rather than to the needs of the Church for a well-formed ministry. Many of them are taken seriously neither by the Church they serve nor the universities on which they depend. That can’t be healthy.
What then should the Church do? Let’s start with the basics. The primary requirement for ministerial training is to form clergy deeply within the Christian tradition (by which I mean the stories, teachings, symbols, and practices). There’s little point in teaching techniques and skills if ordinands haven’t been first immersed in Scripture, theology, and prayer. They need to be immersed in Scripture’s narrative, Christian history, doctrine, and a life of prayer so that a Christian ethos becomes second nature to them. Think of this as a process of naturalization.
Second, formation for ministry needs again to be located firmly within the wider Church rather than apart from it. Ministerial formation needs to be ecclesial more than academic. I think mixed-mode and context-modes of training are correct in this respect. But this doesn’t mean they should sit light to theology. As conceived today, context-based formation undervalues theological formation and keeps ordinands in silos. Theological formation is properly a corporate activity and requires ordinands having time together to discuss and argue about the ideas they’re encountering. Furthermore, the current system often lacks the quality controls for placement supervisors and training incumbents. Corporate formation within the context of the life of the Church with proper supervision would benefit both ordinands and the Church.
There needs to be an honest and thorough reassessment of the curriculum. I wrote a paper years ago in which I proposed our taking a page from Aristotle by distinguishing more clearly between three areas of formation: theoría, praxis, and techné.
Knowledge (theoría) is the underlying Christian narrative and imaginary that (1) gives character and substance to the Church’s identity, (2) produces a distinctly Christian ministry, and (3) forms the character and qualities of individuals preparing for ministry. In broad terms, knowledge comprises Scripture, tradition (understood as doctrine and history), and reason (understood as a capacity for critical thinking and reflection).
Essential practices (praxis) are the established ways in which theological knowledge is enacted through, for example, pastoral care, worship, preaching, mission, and catechesis. These are the primary means of expressing the Church’s narrative and imaginary to convey the faith, enable local churches to form individuals within the body of Christ, proclaim the gospel to the world, and engage with contemporary society.
Preferred techniques (techné) are the various methods for performing a specific ministry effectively. These practices are not essential to the core being of the ministry but may be generally useful for the competent conduct of that ministry.
In terms of theological education, knowledge is the engagement with the foundational narrative and imaginary upon which discipleship and ministry are built; essential practices are rooted in, develop from, and enact this knowledge. To be grounded solidly in such knowledge and practices represents what we mean by a formed ministry. Formed ministers are instructed in the preferred techniques of the Church for performing the ministry as part of wider ministerial strategies. A division of priorities in this way helps to bring shape to theological education: emphasis is placed on the essential knowledge and practices that deeply shape the character and conduct of ministers rather than on rationalized techniques and models that depend on knowledge and practice to be effective. The substance of the ministry needs to be formed and developed so that there is something upon which the preferred techniques may draw.
Although I wrote this during my second year of working at a theological college, I remain convinced that this is a helpful way of thinking about the formation of clergy. The most pressing need is for better formation in the first of these areas: a formation of the imagination. In my next and final instalment, I’ll suggest a way to undertake formation along these lines within the Church.