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5 reasons we should rethink ministerial formation

14:05 08/04/2021
5 reasons we should rethink ministerial formation

David Heywood, author of 'Reimagining Ministerial Formation', on why now is the time for us to rethink what ministerial formation looks like.

Because the existing paradigm of ministerial formation disables the church

Churches that devote the overwhelming proportion of their resources to the support of ordained ministry overlook and disable the gifts of lay people. Churches that dictate that most training for ministry take place in a two- or three-year period prior to licensing or ordination overlook the lifelong nature of adult learning and find that the problems of designing a curriculum to include all the necessary skills and knowledge for ministry become insoluble. Churches that train men and women to minister as individuals disable the corporate ministry of the local church. Churches that rely on academic accreditation fall prey to the shortcomings of university education in an age that requires far more than intellectual excellence.

In fact, research by the Barna organisation suggests that there is an inverse relation between ministerial training and fruitfulness: the more training a denomination insists on the less likely its churches are to grow and flourish.

Because the age of Christendom is passing

The idea of the Church as a religious institution led by professionals is increasingly alien to the wider community. In a pluralist society, the Church needs to become a diverse community of missionary disciples. As the low proportion of candidates from BAME backgrounds testifies, the Churches’ emphasis on middle-class professionalism stifles the necessary diversity of a missionary community and further distances the Church from society.

Because the Church is at last recognising the centrality of lay discipleship

‘Until together, ordained and lay, we form and equip lay disciples to follow Jesus confidently in every sphere of life in ways that demonstrate the Gospel, we will never set God’s people free to evangelise the nation.’ So declares the Church of England report, ‘Setting God’s People Free’. The report sees equipping confident, ‘whole-life’ disciples as the core task of the Church. But this involves a profound cultural shift that will affect every area of the Church’s life – including ministerial formation. Unless clergy and licensed lay ministers are equipped to enable and empower the discipleship and ministry of each member of their congregations, the challenge the Church is currently setting itself will not be met.

Because of the scandal of clericalism

As ‘Setting God’s People Free’ declares: ‘Until laity and clergy are convinced, based on their baptismal mutuality, that they are equal in worth and status, complementary in gifting and vocation, mutually accountable in discipleship, and equal partners in mission, we will never form Christian communities that can evangelise the nation. An approach to ministerial formation based on the assumption that the ministry of the ordained is the standard form of ministry and all other ministry an auxiliary optional extra is entirely unsuited to the needs of contemporary mission’.

Moreover, the reports into failures of safeguarding in successive Christian denominations have laid bare the terrible cost of the cultures of deference surrounding professional clergy and, worse still, the tendency of ecclesiastical institutions to prioritise their own reputation over the needs of victims. There is an urgent need for ecclesiastical hierarchies to confront the deeply embedded clericalism in the Churches’ structures and mindsets.

What is needed is a ‘seismic revolution in the culture of the Church’, or, as Dan Hardy has written, ‘new conceptions of theological education and formation, not simply forms of the old adapted for wider use.’ (‘Afterword’ in Robin Greenwood and Caroline Pascoe (eds.), Local Ministry: story, process and meaning, London: SPCK, 2006, p. 147.)

Because the traditional academic approach to learning no longer serves the modern world

This insight may be strenuously resisted by those academics deeply entrenched in what Edward Farley has called the ‘scholarly guild mentality’. Such staff members see the standards of excellence appropriate to the practice of scholarly enquiry validated by successive cohorts of students passing out of academic institutions having gained their degrees. What they fail to see is that those standards are increasingly inadequate to the demands of the contemporary world. Even accountancy firms like Ernst and Young, one of the largest graduate recruiters, routinely ignore academic classification and instead put their recruits through a much more wide-ranging tailor-made process looking for qualities like lateral thinking, judgement, empathy, adaptability and creativity.

If the education provided by the university is inadequate for a career in accountancy, how much more is it the case for Christian ministry, in which emotional intelligence, disposition and the integration of knowledge in ministerial skills all play key roles. Research in the Diocese of Oxford found curates and lay ministers complaining at the way their training in theology had equipped them to write erudite essays but not to relate Christian theology to the lives of their congregations and looking forward to finding time to read the books that would equip them for ministry rather than those they needed for their assignments.

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David Heywood is Deputy Director of Mission for the Diocese of Oxford. Previously he was Director of Pastoral Studies at Ripon College, Cuddesdon. He is the author of Reimagining Ministry and Kingdom Learning.

Reimagining Ministerial Formation is available to preorder now. Order via our website for a pre-publication discount.