The future of (UK) ministerial formation: some musings

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.


  1. Jason Goroncy
    Mar 11, 2012

    Steve. There’s much to applaud here, BUT I think that the picture you paint here looks all a bit too much in the head, and all a bit too consumerist. Where’s the collegiality, the sharing of lives, building of trust, and working out the faith with fellow students and future ministerial colleagues over a sustained period of time? Surely these are crucial. And it’s hard enough to establish these in the flesh, let alone electronically. Just a thought …

    BTW: I like the new look of Shored Fragments.

  2. Steve H
    Mar 11, 2012

    Thanks, Jason. The point you raise is a good one.
    Two responses, at some deliberate variance:
    1. There are ways of promoting at least some of the community you ask for in a dispersed student body. We bring our DL students together for two residential weeks each year, & my colleague Eric Stoddart works very hard to build the communal aspects into those. In terms of ministerial formation, it needs to go further, but we can begin to imagine ways of doing it. How about borrowing practices of shared prayer from the new monastic communities, so that every student in the ‘college’ will be praying the same way at the same time every day? How about small accountability groups, that meet infrequently, but use social media – and very private means of communication – to support and challenge each other in between physical meetings (I am exploring this with some friends right now)?
    2. In a dispersed model like this, the primary community for faith formation remains precisely the local church of which the student is a part. I certainly value immensely the relationships I formed, and that formed me, in college but – from my, Baptist/congregationalist, perspective – there is something unnatural about finding your primary Christian community in a separated order of ministers, rather than in your local fellowship (I am conscious that this will feel different from your Presbyterian context…). Of course this is not an either/or, but I am prepared to defend the proposition that a significant proportion of the Christian community building we did in college was just a compensation for the fact that we had, of necessity, each come out of our local congregations to be formed for ministry.

  3. Lucy Peppiatt
    Mar 11, 2012

    ……needless to say Steve, very very encouraged to read this!!

    • Steve H
      Mar 11, 2012


  4. Jason Goroncy
    Mar 11, 2012

    Steve, thanks for taking the time to offer this encouraging response. On (1), I’m very pleased to hear about Eric’s vision, and I like your ideas about fostering such in other creative ways. On (2), true not only for Baptists but also for Presbyterians! Remember, Baptists are simply Methodists with shoes on, and Methodists are simply Baptists who can read. (Well that used to be true anyway.) Presbyterians, on the other hand, are simply, to steal words from T.S. Eliot, those who ‘shall not cease from exploration’, even if ‘the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time’. More seriously, though, does not such a vision as you offer here support the notion of congregation/parish-based internships? Coupled with (1), it sounds a lot like what we do here in NZ. I love your love for the church.

    • Steve H
      Mar 11, 2012

      Hi Jason,
      Yes, not trying to be rude about Presbyterians and others, just reflecting that your ecclesiology makes it easier to embrace a separated order of ministers than mine does…

      Internships – yes. Baptist colleges in the UK have been working on ‘church-based’ training (or similar phrase) for two decades or more – I’m not sure we’ve always been adequately committed to partnering with the church/congregation, though…

      • Jason Goroncy
        Mar 11, 2012


        I’m not offended, and you’re right – even among the Presbybaptistcostals that we have here in NZ such is more likely to be the case.

        As for the ‘partnering’ thing, it seems to me that this is one of the most mutually-encouraging and fruitful aspects of the internship program that we run here in NZ. It’s not perfect in every sense, but the college and the churches do have to work together for it to work, and formal structures are in place that foster such co-responsibility and trust. We are in daily conversation with churches on all manner of levels. Without trust, no one learns anything.

  5. Steve,
    I agree with much of what you are saying. I would raise two further points:

    1) Although personally I am a doctoral student in theology, I think that the academic ENTRY requirements for ministry should be reduced. I have seen quite a few examples of God-called church planters who hold postgraduate qualifications and significant professional experience who are put off by demands to study theology for 2-3 years. Reflecting on my own experience most of my theological training at a degree level which I have actually used in ministry could have been fit into 1 year full-time or 2 years part-time.

    2) This would be compensated by increased ongoing study. For example when I graduated the New Perspective on Paul was just starting to cause ripples among evangelicals, emerging church was yet to become a popular term, internet pornography was still a minor pastoral problem and the New Atheists would have been regarded as the name of a slightly dodgy boy band. Thus rather, than 2-3 years intensive study I believe that many ministers would be better served by a 1-2 year introductory study, followed by ongoing learning.

    • Steve H
      Mar 12, 2012

      Thanks, Daniel, and welcome to the blog.

      I agree completely with both your points. In several conversations I’ve had, the problem of the time and cost of training has been raised in different ways – sometimes thinking of those who have worked in volunteer roles for several years and so cannot afford training; sometimes thinking of those who are already ministering in significant ways, and so should not step back for several years.

      And, yes, ongoing formation is vital.

  6. Ali Griffiths
    Mar 12, 2012

    The model of training that you discuss is already being offered by some Baptist colleges. I’ve recently completed training at Bristol Baptist College where the student body contained a few full time college based students who were also expected to serve a local church as they studied, but the majority were part time ministers who fitted in the extra study and demands of college life as they trained. Some did the study in 3 years and others expect to take 6 years because of their circumstances. Some had part time jobs whilst training, most had family responsibilities and college did seem unnecessary distraction at times but being a minister can be tough and there is a limit to how much you can share in your local church. College then became a valuable resource. To be honest, those who were most resistant to being in college were often the ones who most needed to be there. There is something about rubbing shoulders with your peers that is painfully beneficial. Distance learning enables you to keep others at – er – a comfortably safe distance. No amount of technology is going to replace the sort of formation that happens face to face in ‘real’ community.

    We should not forget the relationships that a minister in training develops with his or her peers is an invaluable resource that can continue to bear fruit long after college training has ceased but these relationships simply cannot be built in a couple of weeks here and there. You can’t put a price on this. A small group of us are currently exploring how to maintain these relationships using social media – to be honest, it’s not a satisfactory substitute at all and we are a group who already know each other very well – but it’s better than nothing and I’m grateful for it.

    Those of us who do have a certain level of education can forget just how important it is to discuss theology face to face, formally and informally, with ‘experts’ and one’s peers especially in the early days of training and learning. These kind of discussions just don’t happen within a normal church community unless you are particularly privileged to have church members who want that level of conversation on a regular basis.

    We are called to take a lead at a time when the general level of education has increased and a good ministerial formation has to include a good grounding in theology as well as understanding how important it is to continue to learn. Why anyone would want to skimp on their theological grounding to minister is beyond me. Those who are put off by the need to study maybe shouldn’t be thinking of being ministers at all.

    • Steve H
      Mar 12, 2012

      Ali, thanks for stopping by.

      Yes, I know about church-based/context-based models of training, and applaud them (I was external examiner for Bristol BC & TTC until recently – probably read some of your essays…). In most of England they work – there are not many places (rural Northumbria, perhaps; bits of Cornwall) where travel to one of the colleges each week is not possible. This is not true in Scotland, which is perhaps one of the reasons I am imagining much less attendance. (The pattern of certain days each week in college is also very constraining for many sorts of ministry.)

      I take your point completely about relationships; I think we can now construct relationships adequate to learning and accountability using a mixture of infrequent, but intense, meetings in the flesh, and web-based technology.

  7. Alice
    Mar 15, 2012

    I understand that we need to move forward in this challenging time both post-Christendom and economic but I must say that I could not imagine how I would manage to train for ministry without being ‘in’ college. One of my previous degrees lent itself to distance learning as my Pure Maths Degree was a bit like doing puzzles for fun and for no reason other than to stretch my brain a bit whilst working. But the depth of understanding I gained from going up to Spurgeon’s once a month over two years for lay training gave a foundation which was much needed to start study at degree level. The discussions and learning environment at Scottish Baptist College, in addition to the added level I gain in the tea bar and over meals and coffee near the library are a vital part to my learning. The ‘security’ of pushing the boundaries of what I believe and what I consider is part of my formation. I don’t believe this could be achieved in a virtual environment.

  8. Lynn
    Mar 19, 2012

    Lovin Jason’s humour & shivering at the recollection of my NP on Paul studies a few years back…..

    Just nosied in on this convo to mention some developments in ministry training being instigated by Mike Breen and 3DM….focusing on training leaders for missional communities, something I’ve been part of to some extent.

    This development was hinted at in this post here:

    Liking the chat over here, folks!

  9. Sean McGever
    Mar 20, 2012

    I am not ordained through a mainstream denomination so I may be out of place here. But I did spent 6 years (part time) on an MDiv (in residence in my hometown) in the midst of doing full time ministry. This may be an issue for another post, likely written elsewhere on many blogs, but my MDiv work was really not pastoral, it was mostly an attempt to train a quasi-pastoral academic, if that makes sense. The training had very little to do with working and ministering to people.

    I currently am a student in the Univ. of St. Andrews DL and Eric does a fine job bringing the community together. Many of us talk on our own via Facebook and Twitter often. Leading up to our residential weeks we often plan travel and lodging together. I talk more to the people in my DL classes than I do with the people in my 6 years doing my MDiv in person.

    I think a model of online and/or short residentials combined with mentoring/apprenticeship is a viable model that could more effectively prepare ministers. In the ministry I work in (with over 4,000 world wide staff and 40k+ volunteers) I have been part of conversations to move a part of our training online to better serve all involved. I do believe a new era is upon us that could be leveraged strongly for the kingdom.

  10. Gus Macaulay
    Mar 20, 2012

    Steve, many thanks for this. As insightful as one would expect.

    There’s something of the need for both/and, rather than the either/or, approach to being “in” college for some and the need for distance learning for others.

    We now live in a complicated and complicating environment. Our colleges need to become increasingly flexibile in what they offer. A combination of distance learning, the use of social media and residential, collegiate settings will all play a part.

    I am a pastor and also a lawyer (an oxymoron for some, perhaps a shortened description for others). Throughout my two theology degrees and later studies at a Baptist College, I continued to practise law. Continuining to work in that area enriched (and financed) my studies.

    However, I couldn’t imagine not having rubbed shoulders with fellow students and engaging in face-to-face dialogue and a collegiate culture of learning. It was essential from time to time. The learning is important, but it was a part of a greater goal – ministerial formation, and we cannot do that while distanced from others, or without the warmth of human contact.

    I am now bivocational, still working in law, pastoring in a church that can’t afford a full-time pastor. If I had given up the very job that supports me in order to study, it would have deprived me of the vocation that now blesses the church I serve and allows me to be bivocational.

    With an increasing amount of bivocational pastors that will inevitably be required to serve our churches in the future (and it is an inevitability), colleges need to respond to that and not assume that ministerial formation will require the “other job” to be given up, perhaps forever.

    Thanks once again for raising this very important issue.

  11. Steve H
    Mar 20, 2012

    (Responding many of these points in another post)

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