Further musings on ministerial formation

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 Рcertainly not me Рthat 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.


  1. andygoodliff
    Mar 20, 2012

    I think you put too much trust in the local church to do that work of forming … part of my concern with so much church-based training, is that student ministers (and their respective churches) do not see them as students who are undergoing formation … many students see themselves as already formed and all that their ministerial training provides is a little theological education (which is not always welcomed) and some skilling …

    Our big problem is ministerial formation is not formation, because most of us resist the idea that we need formation, that we need to unlearn and relearn … and subsequently I would claim or tentatively suggest (depending on mood) that our churches are now not places now for formation, but consumption … here I think Hauerwas complaint that the free churches understanding of church has ceased to be distinctive and offer opportunities to create disciplined communties … instead they mirror society in practising church as autonomous individual persons who resist any notion of authority or obedience in the name of skewed understanding of rights and freedom.

    I would argue that our ministerial formation needs to be more rigorous in trying to find a way of offering an intentional (and partially separate) community, that is still engaged in the practice of ministry in apprenticeship model …

    Secondly, I am able to theologise because I sat through in lecture room and listened to the likes of colin, murray, douglas and yourself with fellow students in a community of enquiry … it was this that gave me the language and the ability to then read … so I only learned to read all the works of colin gunton in my 2ns yr undergrad, because I had received the very long but excellent unit ‘the making of christian theology’ … online courses and individual skyping cannot replace that … again its the willingness to be formed …

  2. Rev Joe Haward
    Mar 21, 2012

    I was called to work as evangelist within my local Baptist church. I was 23 having become a Christians 2 years prior. My mentor was the Senior Pastor with an elder and a couple of church members also providing regular advice.
    When I entered Spurgeon’s I encountered the works of Irenaeus, Gunton, Hauerwas and Barth – these were people I had never even heard of because all I was exposed to was evangelical popular theology. My Senior Pastor was not seeking my formation but was giving me information to consume. Spurgeons opened my eyes to the concept that I was being called to be a living sacrament, a disciple in theology, a worshipper.
    Now I know that our training is flawed – how can we possible expect anyone to go through college in 3 years and be a minister – but it is within the college community where I was truly discipled. I did the church based course and there is a real need for this to be a longer course that is forming woman and men to be people of prayer and Scripture, a people who take theology seriously.

    I used to be an oyster fisherman with my father. He would take me out on the water and teach me the ways of the tide, the subtitles of the water. He would teach me through hands on hard work how to farm oysters well and properly. He drilled into me that we must respect nature – the sea is an unpredictable and strong force. ‘You never stop learning when you’re on the water, don’t ever get arrogant and forget that son.’
    I was the eighth generation to do this in my family and my Dad drew from all our history to form me into an oyster fisherman.
    So much of what he taught me and showed me has formed how I approach being a Baptist minister and church planter. It is hands on hard work, forever learning and always watching what the tide of the Spirit is doing. When I was with my Dad on the water I realised I knew nothing and needed to listen and learn and be formed. And that is why I appreciated (and continue to appreciate) John Colwell, Nigel Wright etc because they have gone before us in the hard work of theology and pastoring – I realise how little I know.

    Surely our formation has to partly be a raw, gritty and face to face experience in college? But surly too, as Andy writes, people need to be willing to learn and be discipled?

  3. Mark Leveson
    Mar 21, 2012

    This is a fascinating conversation for me because my transition into, and initial training in, ministry happened in much the way you outline in this post, Steve. I was, in effect, apprenticed to the Senior Pastor of the church we attended at the time for a period and then sent to become Pastor of a recently planted church under his supervision. Several years down the line I undertook formal theological study whilst “in post”. It is clearly for others to judge whether or not any of this has been effective. But I can honestly say I have never wished that I’d been part of a College cohort, or felt that I was somehow unquallifed in ministry until I did my Spurgeon’s bit. In fact, I remember being in one particularly bizarre pastoral situation and silently thanking God that I hadn’t spent 3 years at Theological College, because nothing would have prepared to deal with what I was hearing! In hindsight, that was a little unfair. And I would say that for me, at least, the apprenticeship without any formal theological training would, I strongly suspect, have proved inadequate in the long run. To lay too much stress on a 3 years studying theology in a college environment though,for all its huge benefits, which I don’t dispute, does seem to me to run the risk of turning ministry into a “profession” for the academically capable, rather than a calling for the spiritually equipped. But then I suppose I am writing as non-denominational sort….

  4. Some areas that I think are worth reflecting on are:
    1) The culturally conditioning of our model of ministerial preparation. In the wider culture liberal professionals have usually been prepared by going away to University, studying full-time for 3 years and looking for a job at the end of the process. Our traditional model of ministerial preparation: go away to college, study full time, look for a job at the end of the process.
    2) The cost of our ministerial model, including deferred earnings. It is not about “the willingness to be formed” but about whether one should incur such high levels of debt so as to be formed. In the case of the ministry, the financial investment in training is unlikely to be compensated by higher levels of earning after finishing the degree. Once more, this is likely to have a greater impact on the poor, and especially immigrants who will not have access to student loans to cover university fees. Hence, whilst as Baptists we have many intellectually formed ministers who are sacrificially willing to minister to the poor, we develop very through ministers from the poor.
    3) My own area of research has tended to be among churches which thrive amongst the poor and the marginalised. Those denominations which have a greater impact are those which have a more accessible entry path to leadership and ministry. In fact, in some denominations the loss of a missionary and church planting thrust can be clearly co-related with the emergence of an insistence on university-trained, accredited ministry. That is not to deny the value of a continuous process of theological formation.
    4) I agree with andygoodliff that churches too often become places of consumption rather than formation. Yet why should we assume that this will necessarily be different in colleges, especially as in the latter the market transaction (the payment of a fee in return for services) is unavoidable?

  5. Steve H
    Mar 22, 2012

    Thanks, all, for commenting.
    Let me be clear: I am not against collegiate training at all; I simply observe that the conditions that first made it necessary are now passing away, and that other factors are making it increasingly costly. In this context, thinking aloud about whether there is a possibility of a mixed economy, so to speak, seems appropriate.
    I am well aware, Andy, of the problems of our contemporary congregations as centres of formation – we’ve had this conversation more than once. Equally, I am aware that (in the USA more than here) many churches report finding the colleges to be inadequate, damaging the good things students bring and adding little of real value in recompense. Communities of formation need to be intentional and well-designed, and often fail.
    But the response that keeps coming back is ‘college gives something irreplaceable’ – I simply want to ask, what? I am very prepared to be convinced, but so far I hear either unspecified assertion or an appeal to things that – demonstrably – a church or a virtual learning environment can deliver just as well.

    So my challenge is simple: what does a residential college education give that is not available elsewhere? If the answer is nothing, then we ought to be open to consider other modes of formation.

  6. Andrew Wilson
    Mar 26, 2012

    Steve, it would be fascinating – as someone who runs a church-based theological and leadership training course in a denomination that doesn’t generally send people to Bible colleges – to hear your thoughts on what elements of a college degree course are the most important to preserve if a non-college model is used. (Long time no comma.) Great post.

    • Steve H
      Mar 26, 2012

      Hi Andrew, thanks for stopping by again.
      Quickly, two things: first, college creates a community of ministers which I think is important; where do you find the close relationships of support and accountability in a non-collegiate training programme? Second, college [should] challenge sectarian tendencies, exposing students to a wider Christian tradition than their own – not to undermine their confidence in their own tradition, but to expose them to the broader streams of Christianity.

  7. andygoodliff
    Mar 26, 2012

    Steve, ok you’ve set the challenge, I will see if I can (partially) meet it:

    1. a residential college education offers a place that is outside of the church if which you are surviving. The possible danger/temptation for ministerial students is to set aside the theological, spiritual, practical formation because of the pressure to be the ‘minister’ – this is already a difficult balance for many to do, it would I suggest be excerbated without the weekly trip to college.

    2. a residential college education offers an intentional place to think and reflect with others – the roots of the word ‘college’ is about a group of persons living together – while perhaps there are moans about the travel, being with others, talking about ministry and also theology, etc was a great support … and it was ‘other’ to the church … hopefully the practice of getting together to reflect – learned at college – is then carried on in ministry, it challenges the lone ranger pastor syndrome – I certainly couldn’t do what I do without getting together with fellow colleagues …

    3. a residential college education creates centres of learning, which can encourage research, house libraries, demonstrate that ministry requires a serious education.

    4. a virtual learning environment is I think always second best … as someone who enjoys the ‘virtual’ conversations through a number of different media, i.e. I’m a positive user of it, I do not believe that my theological education would have been so good, if it was only done via a screen … are there not also theological reasons to resist a technologically meditated education?

    5. too few of our churches are equipped to do the extensive forming of those ministers … they definitely play a role … i am the minister i am – for better or worse – because of the examples and experiences i had in churches, but I am a better minister for that being tempered and shaped by college education, which brought me into contact with a group of tutors who were theologically-astute and had thought a lot about what they were doing … again our churches are not those kind of intentional places and I don’t know what to do about that … I find the majority of my church members resistant or indifferent to any serious discipleship … as long as i am visible to lead a service on a sunday and visit now and then in the week, that would be probably be enough for a good majority!!!

    • Steve H
      Mar 26, 2012

      Thanks, Andy, that gives me something to engage with.

      1. Someone trying to learn to be a pastor whilst being ‘the pastor’ is in a very difficult situation, and does need outside help (which, however, might not need to be a college); I have repeatedly imagined the older Baptist/Free Church situation of trainee ministers apprenticed to experienced, respected ministers.
      2. Yep. Is there anything here a well-resourced ‘fraternal’ (need a better word for that) couldn’t do? (Imagine your fraternal spending, say, half the money we currently spend on two ministerial students each year to buy in speakers, admin support, &c.)
      3. As I have pointed out, libraries are almost a non-issue if you are linked in to a decent e-resource today. Looking beyond the Baptist scene, how many of the evangelical Bible colleges in Britain actually ‘encourage research’, honestly? I’m not knocking anybody here, but the financial reality is that, outside of a small number of elite universities, research is generally something some people can manage to do by juggling their time very carefully.
      4. You are far too optimistic: a vle is fourth or fifth best if done well, much worse if, as generally, done badly. Were money and time no object, we would apprentice every ministerial student in two directions, with a senior minister and to work one-on-one with a top rank scholar, or perhaps a small number of top ranked scholars. Individual tuition is just the best way to learn. But even in Oxbridge, money and time are relevant, and so supervisions tend to be 2-1; beyond Oxbridge, we compromise further. The question is not ‘is a vle a compromise?’ but ‘is it a compromise too far, that damages the learning experience to an extent that is not acceptable or retrievable?’ I think the answer to this is ‘no.’
      5. Yes, absolutely – at present our churches are not equipped for this work because they are not being asked to do it. As I commented before, there is plenty of evidence, perhaps particularly from the States, that colleges are not always very good at forming ministers (consider this http://www.nathanfinn.com/2012/03/26/how-to-stay-christian-in-seminary/ from Nathan Finn, who is good guy and a committed seminary teacher!). If we intentionally began to change our practice, is there any good reason to suppose that our churches could not be equipped for the work?

  8. Hi Steve, I have been reluctant to participate in this discussion for a number of reasons:

    First, I write from the posisition of someone with a vested interest in collegiate training for ministerial formation. Yet, everyone of course participates from perspectives and the important thing is to be aware of it and self critical of it. Interestingly for me this very insight was not gained in my local church where I had opportunities to preach, lead, baptise, evangelise, participate. Rather it only came as I spent time outside of that context not simply in a residential college but one in a different culture. It was there, out of my local church that I became aware of my own church and culture perspectives and indeed my limited prejudices, allowing them to be explored, appreciated, and critiqued.

    Second, I am not sure how far ‘musings’ invite ‘detail’ questions. Of course the ‘devil’ is to be found there. This said practical issues do seem to be highlighted here as a driving motivation for change. So I flag up a few ‘practical’ questions such as: is there a difference from undergraduate and graduate courses in terms of their suitability for distance; if there was a frree market in Scotland rather than some higher education establishments attracting public funding and others not is it not possible that some attendance education might actually be considerably cheaper than some distance offered courses;, are we discussing Church formation within an educational setting or not, what is meant by formation, and what is meant here by ‘ministry’.

    Third, I do not want to repeat what others have said finding a lot of sympathy with Andy.

    Four, I think online conversations like online education is limited but here are my thoughts with reference to a loose understanding of accredited ‘ministry’ within a Scottish Baptist context…

    1. If the arguments is that formation should include collegiate and church based formation – who can deny the wisdom. It begs the question, however, as to why it is not happening already. Most students at attendance based colleges are only there a very limited number of days a week for a limited number of weeks. In turn they are members of local churches their own or that which they attend in their place of study. There is nothing to stop students therefore ‘naturally’ spending time in their local churches for a number of hours a week with their ministers or more experienced leaders, learning, being mentored etc. This could easily be insisted upon as part of a portfolio of experience that any accrediting body expects of those training for its ministers. This could start next week – students talk to your ministers/minsters your students…

    The above notwithstanding, if such activities carry no academic credit questions still exist as to whether every church situation will be suitable and who will manage it. If they are to take place within a validated educational framework as credit bearing then things are much more complex because the educational suitability of the context, the training of mentors, and the quality and equality of student experience, are among the things that will all have to be addressed.

    2. While we may not have the same understanding of say the Roman Catholic Church on the particular ministry of their ‘ministers’, we do have some theology of ‘ordained’ or at least ‘accredited’ ministry’ or don’t we? A retreat to ecclessiology and the priesthood of all believers does not really address this specific issue. I know it is a tension in Baptist ecclessiology but at the ‘very softest’ we expect in the Baptist Union of Scotland those who we accredit as ministers to undertake certain oversight and responsibilities, accountability and leadership, beyond that of every member. Or to put that differently, those who we ordain and accredit are not free to ignore certain things such as Word and Sacrament etc. even if others do. As a consequence of this, at its very softest, our understanding of ministry gives a particularity to ministry. It is this particularity that discussion with peers over and against every member can address.

    I would be interested to hear your views on the particularity or not of ‘ministry’ in your Baptist ecclessiology because I think this is quite central to this discussion.

    Of course one route open to us here is to move away from this altogether to a plurality of no specially trained ministers or indeed to a completely ‘flat’ context. If this is the option I can stop writing. To be honest the latter somewhat appeals to the iconoclast in me. This said, if we are going to continue to have an ‘ordained’ and or ‘accredited’ ministry there are a few other things I would add but will do so more briefly…

    3. Collegiate attendance training allows ministers to be formed in a context of peers, not in the context of being a ‘leader’ albeit a ‘trainee leader’ in a congregation. I would suggest that those who are going to build communities should spend some time learning to submit to a community in which they are not leaders. This can be an accompanying corrective to their in-church experiences as ‘leader’. Accordingly in my mind such a learning with ministerial peers does not create hierarchy but in fact challenges it and all the ‘leader’ talk we get in churches. I would also contend that students are much more likely to feel freer in such a context to speak openly and honestly than they are in a situation either of their congregation or more senior colleagues who could have a considerable influence of their future employments. This freedom to explore their convictions with others I think is enabled by the longevity and not simply intensity of time spent together. Most of us can kid on for a week or two.

    4. Collegiate attendance formation rather than in local church training empahsises and encourages the trans-local nature of ministry. In ordained and accredited ministry we are usually saying more than that a person is gifted and equipped to serve in a church (which indeed is simply the business of that local church) but rather that we the collective Union recognise them as those gifted and equipped to serve in our churches. The going away from the local to a collegiate experience with others who are part of our wider ‘church’ not only emphasises the ‘universal’ over and against ‘local’ nature of ministry but enables this universal and inter-dependent aspect to be explored and developed’.

    5. Finally, the virtual needs a bit of theological and incarnational critique but that would be better discussed over a meal with some bread and wine than here…oh aye that is the point.

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