Are we being honest about ordination training?

51OS4A5FI+LThere are some compelling arguments for the (relatively new) pattern of ‘contextual training’ for ordination. Steven Sherman, in his snappily titled Revitalizing theological epistemology (2008), argues that the historic separation of the seminary from the local church has created major problems for our whole concept of how we grow in the knowledge of God. His primary target here is the North American scene, and the sense within evangelicalism that knowing God is comprised of grasping the meaning of propositions about God’s identity, so not all of his concerns translate across the Atlantic.

But the older reflection by Robert Banks hits some targets nearer home. In Re-envisioning Theological Education, he reflects on his own, highly traditional, experience of seminary education, and finds little to fault with it. Certainly, some lecturers were better than others and some placement experiences were more useful than others. But overall, at the time, he felt there was little problem with it. But looking back, his most immediate conclusion was that ‘my theological education had required me to learn too much too soon.’ He is clearly not alone in this. Every now and then I am contacted by someone I taught at theological college, who asks about a particular aspect of biblical interpretation or preaching, and my response starts with ‘Do you remember that lecture/seminar/discussion we had?’ After a pause, the next question is ‘Could you send me the handout again please?’.

Banks goes on to review the ‘classic’ model of theological education in the light of his observations about how Jesus went about the task of theological and spiritual formation in his disciples. He wants to reclaim learning as a missional activity, which of course is not unrelated to the series of issues around the notion of discipleship. And so it is not surprising that Banks’ text has been influential for those promoting ‘contextual training’ in the Church of England, and I was recently recommended it as reading to reflect on new forms of training.

Having previously taught on a course, been a visiting lecturer in colleges, and spent nearly a decade at a residential college, my experience of teaching on a contextual training scheme has been fascinating. Despite the good arguments for residential training, there is no doubt that extended exposure to the class room creates fatigue, especially for those who feel called to the practice of ministry. In contextual training, the motivation for learning is clear, as the class room is such a contrast to the rest of the week. Encountering a theological perspective on ministry seems fresh, and students can immediately see the implications of new ways of thinking in the ministry they are engaged in.

But there’s a problem, and it is highlighted when we ‘do the math’ (to coin a cliché). The third years I teach are taking a 20 credit module, which according to Higher Education standards should involve 200 notional learning hours. The ‘notional’ bit means that 50 of these are ‘other learning’ which I take to be thinking about life whilst drinking coffee. Another 50 are given over to the assessment task. I have 24 hours contact time, which leaves another 76 for preparatory reading. This means that, over the eight weeks of teaching, they should be doing around 9.5 hours preparatory reading for my module, and the same again for the other module they are taking. It is difficult to imagine anyone with ministry responsibilities outside the classroom achieving this consistently.

The situation is worse elsewhere in the country. In the institution I have been teaching in there is a very clear statement of expectations, which requires students to set aside three days a week for their study (one in class contact, the other two as independent learning). They also have a very detailed learning agreement which models both good practice and excellence in communication. But a more typical pattern for contextual training elsewhere in the Church is one day a week in class; another day a week in private study; perhaps seven residential weekends; and one intensive study week a year (this is an actual pattern). At the most optimistic reckoning, this adds up to 632 learning hours—and yet this is to earn 120 credits, which involves 1200 notional learning hours. Supervision in context will supplement this, as might personal study over the summer. But there is no denying the fundamental reality of this approach: we are trying to pour a quart of training into a pint-pot of learner availability. This is not a sustainable method of training.

I am happy to be open to correction if I have missed anything—but I am baffled as to why quality assurance processes from either Church or University (in the form of External Examiners) hasn’t picked this up. Let me be quite clear: I am not here being critical of any individual institution. I know full well from my own experience that institutions can only operate within the framework that they are given. It is the framework that is at fault, and in three notable ways:

1. Competition

Since the ‘Hind’ report more than a decade ago, theological education has operated more or less as a free market. The advantage of this is that it prevents the centre having to make any difficult decisions about resourcing and planning, leaving the market to decide whether any one institution needs to close—as indeed it is doing right now. But the serious problem is that it pushes education to the lowest common denominator. This means that those offering contextual training are not able to create courses that lead to better but lower qualifications (a contextual diploma compared with a residential BA) since few will choose that in the context of a competitive market.

2. Split between pre- and post-ordination training funding

There is a financial firewall between pre-ordination training (which is national) and post-ordination training (which is diocesan), so that if an institution offers fewer learning hours prior to ordination, it cannot easily be paid to deliver further hours post-ordination, and so loses out financially. To push all funding (pre and post) into dioceses is no answer; a better solution would be to have a national (rather than diocesan) budget for post-ordination training so that pre-ordination training institutions can offer continuity of learning after the point of ordination.

3. Lack of common syllabus

The failure of the Common Awards process to agree on a shared syllabus means that diocesan post-ordination training still struggles with the variety of training and experience brought by clergy who trained at different institutions with different syllabuses where they have covered different ground in different subject areas.

There is one thing which is not an obstacle to better coordination: the distinctive theological traditions of the residential training institutions. There is no pedagogical, theological or organisational need to merge training into theologically amorphous diocesan or national institutions. The only problem here (if there is one) is a lack of trust between certain dioceses and certain training institutions—but the three factors above are much more significant.

If we are to do some serious—and honest—rethinking of theological education in order to fit it for ministry in a missional church, then it is these structural issues we need to address. Trying to squeeze too much teaching into too few hours whilst loading too much other responsibility does not deliver Robert Banks’ vision of learning as a missional task. Removing the artificial barriers between pre- and post-ordination training, financially and institutionally, must surely be the way forward. This will involve addressing some painful truths. It would mean doing some more honest assessment of different training patterns. It would mean recognising that you cannot provide a theological or pedagogical critical mass by distributing your educators across 44 difference diocesan centres. And it would mean looking honestly at student workloads.

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21 thoughts on “Are we being honest about ordination training?”

  1. Looking back a long way to training, I am astonished about your comment about ‘extended exposure to the classroom’ producing fatigue. As far as I was concerned, the whole experience was a chance to get a foundation for ministry for life. So I loved the classroom, and the opportunity to test and push our lecturers, I loved the library time and the essays and supervisions. It was a huge privilege to learn from world-class people.

    But alongside all that I lived in and was immersed in the life of a parish. All the classroom stuff was explored and refined in the crucible of real relationships. My training incumbent loved to talk theology. Attachments and placements added depth to what I was learning.

    Maybe I was unusual. I had certainly already learnt to work very hard academically at my first university. But rather like learning a musical instrument, it takes a lot of practise to get any good at most things.

    • Thanks Jeremy for this observation.

      Personally, I would agree with you. But I think it is worth noting a couple of things.

      First, you and I were already graduates; college was for us the second time around. The situation is very different for the one third of ordinands who come as undergraduates for the first time.

      Second, it could be argued that the model of education we experienced did not deliver a generation of leaders who were effective in mission…

      Third, culture has changed in many ways. On the one hand, Higher Education then was less amenable to vocational training, and so the situation is better now. But we did not, as a generation, have the same sense of restless missionary imperative that perhaps many entering training have now.

  2. I appreciate this post Ian. You are definitely asking the right questions.

    It bears pointing out that the ‘new’ model is not actually new. What is new is that a mode of training previously seen as appropriate in extenuating circumstances is now being normalized for most (if not all).

    It also bears mentioning that the traditional model may feel like ‘too much too soon’ but this is only a problem if there is (a) no contextual element to the training at all (where one can begin to practice what one is learning and come back to the classroom and the books with new questions), and (b) there is no follow-up extension of that original training (where one can read and learn further, having that base of theological understanding from which to spring).

    The thing is, traditional theological colleges have become way better with (a) than a generation ago, and the potential for (b) is significantly less without that intensive crash-course at the beginning from which to spring.

    There has been and should continue to be the possibility in some cases to get one’s theological education while employed full time in one’s context. But this should be an extenuating circumstance and not the norm. In making it the norm the only maths being done, it would seem, is short-term cost-benefit analyses. Hopefully the traditional model will still be around when short-cuts have been exposed for what they are.

    • Thanks Jon. I think you are right about the way things have improved.

      The difficulty though is that the Church is unwilling to be honest about the different impact of different ways of training. As I commented in an earlier post, the ‘research’ done on the ‘effectiveness’ of training was ludicrous. Contextual training raises slightly different issues, but these are related. In the end, is there time to do all that is asked for in initial training?!

  3. You are absolutely right about the hours calculation, and the deliberate blindness to the impossibility that students are doing the required hours extends to the university validated IME I was required to do in my diocese. If I had done the hours of study needed, my time as an SSM would have been almost entirely taken up by study. When I pointed this out I was told to stop being such a lawyer (my day job). It seemed to me that no-one was prepared to really think it through, and SSMs were a bit of an uncomfortable bolt-on to the established ‘norm’, in this and other ways. All a bit of a farce, which was a pity as the ambition of the course, and some of the teaching, was commendable. Eventually I left the academic component of the IME – with the strong support of my bishop – and did non-validated stuff, which was more fun and allowed more exploratory learning anyway.

    • I am sure your experience is not a one-off, Simon!

      It is strange, since for those teaching, allocation of hours is one of the first things you have to work out when composing the module handbook. Why does no-one attend to these…? They are there for a purpose!

  4. Of course all those involved in ‘part-time’ training ‘courses’ are in contextual training the whole time, balancing 80 credits a year, or Masters level study with parish commitments, family life and often full time work. It is at least as effective as other styles of training and more accessible for churches who can’t afford interns than contextual training.

    • Well, yes and no. If someone is continuing with their previous profession but training for full time ministry, in what sense is their occupation the ‘context’ in which to work out the issues they are studying? This way of training was, I think, initially designed for those who would be SSM, so did not want or need to study full time.

      But, as you point out, the fact that they are accruing credits at a lower rate again raises the question about the credit allocation for ‘full time’ contextual training pathways…

      And the financial issue is a bit of a hot potato…

      • If ‘mission’ is the church ‘out there’ why is the workplace not an appropriate context for working out the issues being studied?

  5. Ooh, this is such a toughie, and it has taken me some time (and I’m still in the processing) of trying to reflect on this topic critically and slightly more objectively as it has been so tied up in personal experience. But that is really one of the central factors for me, that is *is* about real people’s real lives, and how they are impacted by training in all these sorts of ways.

    I have loved contextual training thus far, despite feeling slightly like the ‘black sheep’ in my diocese occasionally; my college experience has been supportive, challenging and a great community, particularly given I am ‘young’, single and have moved specifically to enter a new context. I have been blessed to have the appropriate time allocated to study and parish time too, and it is a second degree so study hasn’t been as much of a shock or new thing. I think I will be well prepared for my title post having been in a parish for 3 years.

    One thing I think you have particularly touched on Ian is the topic of continued learning – I so often hear pre- and post- ordination expressed as ‘before’ and ‘after’ undertaking study, and I feel a more continuous and fluid attitude towards learning would be helpful – whether that is further accredited academic study for some (hopefully remaining in context with appropriate time allocation) or just a healthy attitude to continued theological reflection. I know the phrase ‘leaders are readers’ sounds cheesy, but I think it’s good advice, and I hear many clergy come across as quite anti-study in talking about how ‘training was useful, but it’s not the ‘real thing” – shouldn’t the two be inseparable?

    I also think it’s important to recognise that theological training for future clergy is also ‘teaching teachers’, I.e. Presbyters who will hopefully train congregations to think theologically also, rather than keeping to themselves.

    But maybe I’m young and hopeful, and maybe blissfully naive! I have been told that by older clergy from time to time…

  6. I am, of course, biased. I trained on a non-residential training scheme (1996-1999) in preparation for a stipendiary ministry. For the 3 years of training I was fully employed as an engineer in the Royal Air Force. My employer, graciously, gave me time away from work to attend the weekly tutorials and the residential weekends/weeks. Because the work was spread over 52 weeks of the year (rather than 3 academic terms) there was more scope to spread out the learning time. I kept careful note of the hours worked (which included time spent in the contextual setting – parishes in Oxford Diocese near Maidenhead) and it added up to about 1300 hours per year. Not sure how I managed to combine this with a busy full-time job but I did. Others did too. Some of those on the training course went from full-time work to part-time work to be able to engage with all of the course (often a sacrifice for their families).

    I agree that to have 44 different diocesan centres is bizarre and unsustainable. I trained with people from 7 dioceses across the South of England – it worked well! I am now in a place where within 2 years there might be 3 training centres for ordained ministers within 25 miles…

    • Thanks for sharing your experience James. But I feel obliged to ask: if you were preparing for stipendiary ministry, and spent 1300 hours per year, shouldn’t the church have paid you for your living? What possible argument is there for making you do this in your ‘spare’ time, which must have been at the expense of other relationships?

      Is this a good set of habits to push someone into at the start of ministry?

      • Good question, Ian! I was sponsored by the Bishop to the Forces – who paid my tuition fees through an arrangement with the National Church. The other option I had for ordination training was 2 years residential which would have necessitated me leaving the RAF early, moving my family (I was in MOD accommodation), and foregoing my RAF pay (which was 3 times that of a stipend)! At the start of ministry I felt that my family were advantaged by my non-residential training choice – children could stay at the same schools. The Church didn’t have to pay for my training (funded by the taxpayer – a different moral issue). I think that I saw ministry as something involving sacrifice – I would certainly get more pay and pension if I had remained in the Services! Ministry will always (it seems to me) be at a cost to other relationships. Is the sacrifice worth it? You would have to ask my wife and children, I think…

  7. Very interesting post, Ian. The hours question is not just one for theology. I’ve done music, nursing and education at degree level as well as teaching theology at postgrad level in 5 universities for 10 years and I have yet to meet a vocational course where the hours have ever added up in the strict sense. Modular education is, I think, ill suited to many disciplines and there has long been a refusal to address facts – it’s not in the universities’ interests to do so, is it? As long as we put so much emphasis on measuring everything in a way that can be empirically tested by assessors, and especially by the assessors of the assessors, the best we can hope for is that students take an intelligent look at what is possible and learn to play the game. We are now reaping the benefits of allowing educational style to shape what seems possible in a discipline rather than beginning with the question, ‘What is needed to practise ministry/music/nursing/teaching well?’ Character and virtue (in the MacIntyre sense) have been overlooked. As we all know, no system is perfect and in the end true learning depends a great deal on the attitude of the student and on the ability of the teacher/supervisor to make inspirational and relevant use of the available time. Supervision is an under-rated and under-resourced educational tool in many disciplines. Interesting that of the four disciplines I know, music comes out best in that when the chips are down it’s the quality of the performance and the ability to sustain it that matters. Good teachers work backwards from that and I think we could do with a bit more of the same approach in ministry. What will ministers need to be able to accomplish well and how do we introduce them to life long learning that will support this and allow them to be themselves, be people of God and avoid unnecessary stress-creating attitudes and behaviours?

    • Janet, thanks so much for highlighting this as a wider educational issue: I entirely agree with you. During the Hind process, I clashed several times with Richard Burridge, who wore with pride the role King’s London had had in designing higher degrees in nursing. It didn’t go down well when I pointed out the effect that this had had in nursing—or that it might have a similar effect in ministry.

      In my deanery in Poole, we had one (evangelical) minister studying for an MA in Durham—at the same time as attendance at his church was falling through the floor. It made no sense at all.

      Having said that, I would want to draw one possible parallel between ministry and music. Music does require practice—but excellence also includes the mastery of a considerable body of knowledge. In the same way, I would suggest you need a good knowledge of ‘theory’ (biblical studies, doctrine, history, liturgy) in order to play well the tune of effective ministry.

    • Janet I realise that I didn’t address your final question. I chaired a review of our syllabus whilst at St John’s, and that is precisely the question we asked, though with a rider: what do they need *which they will not get in post-ordination training* which will allow them to both accomplish well and continue in life-long learning. If you have not done some depth biblical studies, you will never be able to pick it up in the same way later, nor build on the basics in continued reading of Scripture in ministry.

  8. Interesting and thought provoking as ever, Ian. But I wonder whether we should be focussing less on inputs and more on outcomes. I’ve become something of a convert to the mixed-mode training offered by institutions such as St Mellitus because it seems to produce good quality curates who are deployable. In particular they are often more willing to go to where the need is than some of those who emerge from full time residential training. Ultimately, and except for the candidates who are our newest generation of university standard theologians, I’m minded to value this more highly than the level of academic attainment that is reached during initial training.

    Your points about the gap between pre and post ordination training are well made.

    • Thank you for the comment David. I think, though, it raises several further issues.

      a. If we are less concerned about the academic outcome, then we shouldn’t have a problem with people who study part-time only attaining diplomas, rather than degrees, if that is the amount of time they are given. Yet the ‘market’ nature of training prohibits this.

      b. I wonder where the ‘deployable’ issue comes in. It would be interesting to plot where graduates go; I was in Wycliffe this week, and they have a chart of where ordinands end up, which included an impressive number (more than the previous year) going north.

      c. I don’t think we can ever detach ‘deployment’ from life stage. If mixed-mode ordinands are younger than residential ordinands, then they will likely have fewer ties in the form of spouse, school-age children and ageing parents. This makes it easier to consider more distant moves. When I was ordained, I judged that I should not be more than 2 hours from London, since that is where my (then ageing) parents were). On this further, see my post from last year

  9. Can I tempt you to a comment re St John’s School of Mission?

    For what it’s worth, I think:
    1. They have jumped the gun – we have to put the RME proposals through Synod first and I think devolving finance to dioceses won’t survive
    2. If everything is mission then nothing is – we need mission-minded clergy (and Readers) but there is more to it than this
    3. Not sure 2 days a fortnight in college is enough

  10. I have found this blog so helpful, thankyou Ian. Wish I found it earlier as my husband is just about to finish his 3 year contextual training course.

    He has had a parish placement, a day of lectures a week and one and a half study days, alongside residential weekends and weeks.

    I feel that your blog echoes my feelings exactly that this is an appropriate model practically and biblically that has given great preparation for a life of ministry and lifelong learning. I’ve seen my husband grow in real ministry skills, people skills and reflective practice and we’ve all had to start learning about making relationships within parish etc as a family. A massive benefit that I have found is that the friends we have made during training who’ve supported us through it have not just been fellow ordinand families, but church families. Teaching us something I feel is important that it’s not just ordinands/ministers who can understand us, as we’ve let people in (the right people) they have been wise and understanding. But… The maths has not added up! The spare hours of study get made up on evenings, Saturdays and having to learn how to work extremely efficiently in the time given. It has been a big strain on family life and it has seemed there really hasn’t been anything his vicar or tutors could do, despite how understanding they are. The expectatations and requirements from different quarters are all currently non-negotiable and seem to be perhaps stemming from conflicting priorities.

    I value that your blog is willing to point this out without using it as a reason to write off contextual training altogether. The free market principle seems to be understandably leading to a lack of honesty as colleges can’t admit that some modes of training are better at some things whilst others offer different a strengths. All claim that they are best for family life. Honest discussions of the drawbacks of either mode of training feels almost disloyal, giving those who think your training inappropriate further ammunition.

    I think we would have still chosen this mode of training had we known what the time commitments would be, but we would have felt much better prepared.


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