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Fragmented formation: training clergy

For the past nine months, I have spent a great deal of time considering the word “formation.” This isn’t a subject for contemplation that I chose — I much prefer to ponder my next walk in the Welsh mountains — but is due to my participation in the Church in Wales’s redevelopment of its program for ministry training. You won’t be surprised to learn that in those discussions words like “training” and “formation” recur frequently, though, interestingly, the word “education” rarely does so.

By and large, we who are in the business of preparing people for the ministry think of our work in terms of forming — rather than training or educating — men and women for the ministry. I have used the word often myself; indeed, I wrote a theological piece on formation for the Church in Wales and was rather pleased with the result (if I do say so myself). But, after countless hours of conversation and anxious sweat about ministerial formation in theological college, I’ve reached the conclusion that the idea of “ministerial formation” is mostly a load of crock.

Here’s why. When most people in the Church say “formation,” they use it as shorthand to describe a process whereby people are prepared theologically, psychologically, and pastorally to fulfil their vocation within the Church: ordinarily, the priesthood. Thus, seminaries or theological colleges spend two or three years forming otherwise “unformed” men and women into budding clergy and lay ministers. And to achieve this, they are given remarkable latitude, not only to teach ordinands but also to attempt to shape their character. Here in the UK, all theological colleges and dioceses have been working towards the Hind Learning Outcomes (though these will soon be replaced), which provide a checklist of knowledge, faith, skills, spirituality, faith, and character traits that should be fostered in ordinands. So it’s not uncommon for new ordinands to be subjected to dire predictions that run along the lines of: “They’ll break you down and then build you back up as a priest.”

Now, on one level, I have few problems with this. Especially in a post-Christian culture, many of the men and women who begin theological training have very few deep roots within the community of the Church or the normative narrative of Scripture. Equally, many of them have quite strong beliefs that have largely been shaped by forces outside of the Church that need to be challenged. And even their identity within the Church is often based on aesthetic taste rather than theological conviction, whether they are an Evangelical who prefers contemporary music and non-liturgical worship or an Anglo-Catholic who adores Solemn High Mass and reams of lace.

I get all that, and in my role as a dean of residential training I spend a great deal of time attempting to achieve a miraculous transformation of my ordinands, whether they like it or not. Why then my doubts?

On the one hand, if formation is as necessary and holistic as it’s often billed to be, can it really be achieved in the two to three years of ministerial training? More to the point (given the pressures on the Church today), can it really be achieved through non-residential training, which generally leaves ordinands in the midst of their old lives, trying to squeeze their studies into their limited leisure time?

If formation is as serious as we say it is then it must be immersive, of the highest quality, and of sufficient duration to embed the vision, character, prayer-life, practices, and routines deemed essential for the conduct of the ministry. This, it seems to me, leaves us in an intolerable predicament: either the process of formation is really as profound as we claim, but we think it easily and swiftly achievable, or else it’s just another example of church-spin, sounding all the right notes but not meaningfully directing policies. Either way, when we promote the formative experience of ministerial training, I suspect we engage in a little false advertising along the lines of: “Be transformed in three easy steps or your money back.”

And that brings me to my second doubt: do we actually see that transformation occur? Do clerics actually demonstrate any greater depth of character and moral fiber than the laity? I see little evidence for that claim. Clerics are as likely to post strident political messages on Facebook, tear into those who disagree with them, engage in unseemly politics, take criticism with immature sensitivity, chase after the latest smoothly-marketed initiative, and neglect their prayers as anybody else. All of this suggests to me that formation, at least as it’s normally portrayed, is largely a myth. If theological colleges are supposedly focusing on character development, then all indications are they’re failing miserably.

Finally, the unspoken implication of formation is that those who experience it are somehow morally or spiritually superior to those who haven’t. If formation is as important as we claim, then why aren’t we doing more to offer something like it to all baptized men and women? Because we don’t, we regularly end up with clergy who ooze pious superiority. Fortunately, those people are few and far between (not least because of the essential vocation of the laity to knock clergy down a peg or two), but I think the idea of relative spiritual maturity underpins quite a number of relationships and power dynamics in the Church: everything from the often difficult relationship between stipendiary and non-stipendiary clergy to the way some ministry officers and senior clerics meddle in the private lives of their charges.

What then am I contending? Do away with theological colleges and perhaps lay hands suddenly on all sorts of people? While that might solve the problem of clergy shortage, it would fall a little short of producing the kind of clergy and engaged laity that the Church desperately needs. For my part, I think I would begin by rehabilitating the word education and resituating the word formation. I’ll explain what I mean in reverse order.

In spite of my general tone above, I believe deeply in formation. The Cistercian idea of the schola charitatis where men and women are formed deeply by love, through love, and into love is one that resonates powerfully with my Augustinian heart. But this formation is not the result of educational policies, well-managed theological colleges, or psychologically adept clerics and tutors. It’s due entirely to the graceful experience of God’s love through a ministry of Word and Sacrament, as well as service and fellowship within the Body of Christ. Formation, be it of ordinands, clergy, or the laity, happens within the Church and amidst her members. It begins at baptism and ends somewhere on the other side of the grave (though even there, in the words of the Prayer Book, we’ll go “from strength to strength in the life of perfect service”). Moreover, this formation is first and foremost about the Church being conformed to the mysterious image of Christ and only secondarily about individuals developing particular virtuous character traits; formation isn’t a fancy word for personal development. Finally, this formation is due entirely to the grace of God. To speak of the formation of clergy as somehow separate and different from the formation of the Church and of its members is, therefore, misguided and not a little pompous. Really, formal preparation for the ministry is but a brief episode in a lifelong formation into divine love within a Church constantly struggling to grow into and manifest that divine love in a fallen world.

It’s within the context of corporate and lifelong formation inside the Church that the education of people into their ministry occurs. Without losing sight of all the essential elements of formation, this frees theological colleges from having to perform miracles: i.e., achieving priestly formation of men and women within a very brief span of time. They can get on with the important business of introducing students to the theological ideas and Scriptural understanding that will deepen their reflections, engage their imaginations, and equip them for their vital role within the Church as sacramental mediators of corporate formation (what has traditionally been termed sanctification). It will be through their conduct of worship, their administration of the sacraments, their teaching through sermons and classes, and their pastoral care that God will shape his community into his love; that is also where clergy experience their own richest formation.

But for that education to be effective, it must be situated within and permeated by God’s formation of his Church. This means that churches need to be much more intentional about how they form their people so that, among other things, those selected for the ministry are already in the midst of their formation before they ever step foot in a theological college. It also means that their corporate life within theological college should itself be formative; it’s by living, praying, studying, dining, playing, and struggling together that formation continues within the context of their ministerial education. In other words, ministerial education flows from earlier formation and will, upon graduation, give way to lifelong priestly formation through service to Christ’s Body. At the same time, part of the faculty’s own formation is their daily struggle not only to teach well but also to allow God through their own supervision to form the college community into his love.

Formation, then, is properly the business of the Church, and ministerial education is the business of seminaries and theological colleges. Unless we get both right, no amount of new ministry training schemes or (horrors!) leadership models will make a blind bit of difference.

But, you will say, that is hopelessly idealistic. The Church generally does a terrible job at forming men and women into mature members of Christ’s Body. And with Sunday schools collapsing, confirmation classes becoming rare, and few alternative avenues for teaching the faith being explored, there is little prospect for this getting any better. How then can theological colleges hope to produce the kind of clergy that the Church needs?

Well, I’m glad you asked, as it provides me with a topic for a further reflection for the Covenant blog…

The featured image is “And the left over” by Sanjeev Kar. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

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