What is the future of ministerial training?

theology-for-christian-ministryOne of the important issues coming up in this session of Synod is the reconfiguration of ministerial training as part of the Renewal and Reform programme, under the title ‘Resourcing Ministerial Education.’ I commented on it last year, and had an exchange with Steven Croft, Bishop of Sheffield, who is leading on this.

In view of the proposal coming to Synod, the principals of the residential theological colleges circulated a briefing paper helpfully identifying their concerns, and also wrote to the Church Times outlining the issues. Perhaps the most important response to this should be to welcome it. How can we possibly consider any changes to ministerial training without the active and positive involvement of those responsible for delivering a significant part of it? We don’t want to make the same mistakes here as Jeremy Hunt is making with doctors in his handling of the NHS.

On the specific points, Steven Croft has again offered a reply. It is helpful, in that it suggests at one or two points some revision to the proposals, and sets out some reassurances about future financing. I am not quite sure, though, that it actually addresses the concerns being raised. Two of the smaller, specific concerns illustrate this. The principals’ paper notes that it will be hard for those in the 40–55 age bracket to train residentially…

The report states that the ‘Standard grant is age-related to reflect typical choices for each age band’ (para 15). However, the proposed standard grant for age band (c) “40-55”, reflects the current choice made by only 47% of those in this age bracket. And the the proposed standard grant for age band (d) “55 and over” reflects the current choice made by only 45% of those in this age bracket. This does not seem to us ‘typical’

And their letter claims that the banding will disproportionately affect married women, who tend to come into training slightly later than married men, and so will be less able to train residentially under the proposed funding pattern.

We believe that one of the proposals will disadvantage one particular group, and another will disadvantage one particular form of training.

The group that we believe will be disadvantaged is women. On the basis of detailed research in November 2015, we fear that the age-related standard grant, by giving a bigger grant for those aged 29 or under, will enshrine an inbuilt and systemic bias against women and in favour of men in financial terms. This is because the existing pattern and profile of ordinands shows more men than women in that age bracket entering training. While we support an increased effort in encouraging younger women to explore ordination, we cannot endorse a system of funding which reinforces such a bias.

Croft’s responds to these concerns as follows:

RME is not discriminatory against any group, including older candidates or women: dioceses receive a block grant to spend as they see fit in relation to the requirements of each candidate.  The age-related grants which make up the block grant are not allocated to an individual.  Bishops will have greater flexibility than in the present system to direct a higher level of funding for individual older candidates and women to promote equal opportunity.

This response does not actually engage with the issue being presented. The complaint is not that the proposed changes are deliberately discriminatory, that anyone is making discriminatory decisions, but that the structure of the proposals has an in-built bias for the reasons that they have set out. Of course, bishops could choose to spend more on these two groups—but given that their total finances will be limited, that would mean reducing allocations of funding to another group, and why would they choose to do that? The issue not addressed is the proposed structure itself.

But the much bigger issue is the underlying proposal that decision-making should be de-centralised and regionalised—and I don’t think I have understood where this impulse is coming from. I have had some very interesting conversations about this in the last couple of days, and one person (involved in national training) commented on the strength of anxiety within with dioceses about the falling number of clergy, and how they are going to be replaced. Do those delivering training really appreciate the strength of feeling about this?

Perhaps we have reached the point, either permanently or temporarily, when three years of residential training to level 6 academically is just too expensive or time-consuming. If we really are in need of a 50% growth in ordinations, the same level of commitment to the ‘traditional’ route is not going to be possible. But if this is the case, then less just say it honestly. And on what grounds is addressing this regionally, rather than nationally, going to be preferable? If we wanted to fix or cap the number training residentially, and grow other forms of training, then this would be much better done through central planning and decision-making. The alternative to that will be a growing north-south divide in terms of training, resources, and clergy numbers—and it is a divide which doesn’t need to get any bigger.

I’ve received various other comments as well. ‘Bishops’ regulations are 100 years old and out of date.’ If so, why not update them, and even rename them as training regulations? Why is regional devolution of training standards preferable to revised national guidelines and processes? ‘Training institutions are not responsive to the needs of dioceses as they would like.’ That is an odd comment. It is the institutions who have often innovated and proposed new patterns and new syllabuses. As academic dean of a college, I spent a good deal of my time planning tailor-made pathways for candidates (within the template of the bishops’ regulations) in order to meet training needs by building on previous study.

The claim that needs careful exploration is this one from Steven Croft:

There is already significant and legitimate variation between the ministry needs of, say, a rural diocese and an urban or metropolitan area.  These differences are reflected in the differences in training offered by regional courses and to some extent by residential colleges, where context determines the placement experiences available and informs theological study.

Here is the $64,000 question: what is the relation between the shared view on the theological and ministerial (priestly) formation of a candidate, the goals in growth in theological understanding, including the inhabiting of the theological tradition of the Church, and the more diverse practical and pragmatic needs of ministry in a particular context? I suspect that the differences of view on the practical issues above do, in the end, come down to differences of view on this, much more fundamental, question. Steven reports on ‘a major piece of work to develop a common theological statement on formation for ministry’  which has commanded ‘a broad consensus…as a common statement of the endeavour of forming disciples and ministers in the Church of England’. I cannot help feeling that the differences on RME—and the tetchiness in the discussion?—won’t be addressed until we can find the broad consensus on the theological vision.

Perhaps we need to do our business in the reverse order?

Follow me on Twitter @psephizo

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

16 thoughts on “What is the future of ministerial training?”

  1. “There is already significant and legitimate variation between the ministry needs of, say, a rural diocese and an urban or metropolitan area.”

    1) We are in Exeter diocese … supposedly rural. Yet 2/3 of the population live in urban areas, some of which are the most deprived in the country according to the church’s own statistics. There is little (diocesan) understanding of the needs and challenges of inner-city ministry … we may only be a few miles from the open countryside or Dartmoor, but we have high rise blocks, high unemployment, far more than the national average of people with mental health issues, marital breakdown, addiction and adults living in supported accommodation.

    2) Will someone coming into ministry from a ‘rural’ diocese always minister in a ‘rural’ diocese?

    Training needs to focus on biblical literacy etc … the context and enculturation only come with experience.

    • Lynda, thanks—yes I agree with you that it is hard to make generalisations about dioceses in that way. I used to be in Salisbury Diocese, and geographically it was rural and liberal catholic–but the population was in towns, and many of the churches were evangelical of one sort or another.

      Yes—I worry that people are thinking the most important issue around training is future context, rather than theological and ministerial formation which is relevant to every context.

  2. Perhaps Min Div should look in its archives for the previous pieces of work on ministerial formation? Dan Hardy’s in the mid 80s foe example…he ” invented” the idea of formation…..The C of E has a short memory and loves re inventing the wheel.The problem is work comes and goes because it proves difficult to implement anything satisfactorily.Not surprising in a Church pulling in so many different directions and strapped for cash.

      • I don’t think it was ever published. I saw it because I had to precis and present it as part of the interview procedure when I was interviewed for the post of Theological Sec of ACCM in( I think) 1986. The job was offered to Brian Russell( which I was glad about as after a day in Church House I had succumbed to Ronnie Knox syndrome….although a RC concert he never visited Rome as he felt a quesy sailor should never visit the boiler room)
        It made the case for integrating academic, spiritual, personal etc into Priestly ” formation” rather than ” training”.I remember it particularly because it said the C of E had reached the point where it had to decide what Priestly ministry was….and what it was for….as a Church.
        I felt at the time this was a tall order when Mirfield was turning out Second Vatican Priests, Oakhill turning out preaching and teaching leaders and all points in between.
        It is surely the diversity of ecclesiologies, understandings of Priestly ministry, liturgical ( and anti liturgical!) styles etc which impede a shared understanding of ministerial formation..It would be nice to think some degree of consensus might be possible….. But having been in the C of E for 66 yrs things seem to me to be more fragmented than they seemed in my youth…….

  3. At a recent meeting of the Northern DDOs not one person spoke in favour of RME, and the general feeling was that this highlights the North-South divide in the Church of England with RME being imposed for the benefit of the larger and wealthier southern dioceses but against the interests of the medium and smaller northern ones who will struggle to make it work. Interestingly when I posted this viewpoint on the DDO network there was a response from a colleague in a very large southern diocese saying that even their senior staff had ‘very significant concerns’ about it. This begs the question of just who is going to benefit? If both the dioceses and the TEIs are not behind this then just why are we doing it? Like the slide to war in 1914 can virtually everyone see the drawbacks but all feel powerless to stop the juggernaut which has developed a momentum all of its own?

    • Thanks John. You are not the first who has mention the north-south divide to me, as I note.

      I am struggling to work out exactly where this momentum is coming from, especially on having regional and diocesan variations. Who is asking for this? Where are the complaints that existing patterns are not flexible enough?

  4. Very interested in your article. Puzzled however, at the specifications for training. In Salisbury Diocese, for example, and presumably this is not unique – the training is part-time, with residential weekends over a period of 3 years.
    This is not a demanding schedule, and is a fraction of the cost of full time residential training, yet is apparently counted as sufficient.
    I am puzzled at the different requirements: who ‘must’ be in a residential Theological College ? Why is a p/t training considered of equal merit in preparing for Ordained Ministry?
    Others may be equally baffled by this, and glad of your insight.

  5. I trained full-time at a fine Midlands Theological College (now a School of Mission, whatever that means). I was in my late thirties with three children, and I have no idea how we coped financially, but I did the two years, I got my diploma, and I’ve now been in full-time ministry for nearly 22 years – in a variety of contexts, all in the South and East of England. I can’t imagine having the confidence to take on my current role, and especially my curacy in post industrial urban Kent, if I had trained regionally with a rural emphasis, which would likely have been my pathway as I was selected in a rural East Anglian diocese. My view is that this idea is madness – we need to prepare ministers to be flexible, deployable, and able to flourish in whatever context God calls them to. This is particularly vital if ordained numbers are likely to remain low, and the role (of the stipendiary minister in particular) will be episkopos as much as presbuteros. The only way for this to happen must be for a national strategy for nationally agreed training pathways for nationally deployable clergy – or are future clergy to be marooned in the region in which they train as they lack the skills to minister elsewhere?

  6. In response to l f buckland…..

    Three years part time is actually quite demanding if you are working full time. Our students find it demanding in this way but also intellectually and formationally. They get weekly evening classes and 6 weekends a year plus summer school of 8 days each year. There is also substantial placement experience and reading alongside this. Colleges and courses each have their strengths but neither is a soft option.

  7. By all means let’s have wholly regionalised training when we have a wholly regionalised church. Let’s have training for “most of Norfolk and those bits of Suffolk that we call ours”, when we have a “Church of Most of Norfolk, and the Waveney Valley”. It just seems to me that there’s a bit of a clue in our name: “Church of England” – or is there a quiet plan to make us the “Church of London and a few other bits”.
    Of course, for those of us concerned with the Diocese in Europe, it WOULD be rather appealing to have a “Church of Europe” with appropriately regionalised training! Perhaps Florence in the summer and Klosters in the winter. With summer schools and weekends in St Tropez and Stockholm.

  8. RME is fatally flawed because, as anyone with basic training in change management in a dispersed organisation would know, you have to take those responsible for implementing the change with you from the very beginning – in this case the TEIs. They needed to have shared indentifying what the issues/problems were right at the begining. What is abundantly clear is that these proposals were developed before true consultation with the TEIs, and without truly understanding the reality of what they will involve if implemented. No valid reason has been given for the way inwhcih this reveiw has been structured. Imagine reviewing a diocese and excluding the diocesan bishop on the grounds that s/he had a vested interest in the outcome.
    The RME plea is for greater flexibility, but the past 20 years have seen the TEIs being ever more flexible and accommodating to the needs of the Church, individual students, dioceses, parishes. Or is ‘flexibility’ one of those words which really means greater power for some at the expense of others? Is it similar to a ‘flexible labour market’ which in practice means things such as zero hours contracts where all the power is on one side of the relationship?
    Also, RME goes down the path of NHS towards a purchaser-provider internal market, and we all know how successful that has been.
    And why remove national regulations if we are a national church? Adapt them, but all ordinands are selected for and are preparing for the same orders, there is one diaconate and one priesthood not a multiplicity according to which diocese you are in or the particular views of your bishop.
    Pragmatically three points for the REM working party to hear:
    1. many people do not stay in the diocese in which they were selected and/or ordained, so to train them for that diocese specifically is short sighted. I have served in 2 episcopal areas of London, Blackburn, Carlisle, West Yorkshire, Blackburn and Manchester. What is needed is not always priests trained for one context but priests who can adapt and read the context they are in.
    2. Regional Courses have been one of the unsung success stories of the Church over the past 50 years but they nearly all serve several dioceses. How will they manage if each diocese/bishop interprets the Bishops’ Guidelines differently, uses its Vote 1 money in different ways, etc. Bishops’ Regs give some consistency across diocses to which bishops are bound – what is the problem with that in a national church?
    3. And under RME when a diocesan bishop moves on training priorities shift and carefully constructed pathways will be thrown out on the whim of a new bishop.This is a recipe for further fragmentation.
    The deeper dynamics of these changes are that , as is so often the case, those making the decsisions and taking the power will not bear the cost of their decisions but will shuffle it off on to others, in this case the TEIs. And no one in the RME working party has asked the question: how will the church ensure that its TEIs are stable, confident and have the long term ability to provide formation? TEIs need some attention, too, and preferably, to be consulted with thoroughly from the beginning, not only at a late stage.

  9. Interestingly the same challenges being wrestled with by many other professions. For example, as medical science is evolving, there are more and more sub-specialties for which training is needed – and that profession is being challenged as to whether there is something that can “give” in earlier broad training to avoid simply adding more material. The same is true of my own in accounting – can we specialise earlier? Across many spheres of life the question is “whither the generalist or wither the generalist?” In the CofE – what about people who feel called to hospital chaplaincy – isn’t the model broken that we make them do four years in a parish (and train them for that!)? I’d argue not, but surely a next logical step?

  10. Most training for Christian youth ministry (which, if you agree with the recommendations from the Evangelism Task Group yesterday, could soon be recognised as a “calling” and a “specialism” in it’s own right) is part time, with placement practice being an integral part of the equipping process. Whether that is CYM, OASIS, Cliff College . . .

    As someone who has been in this “calling” for almost 30 years . . . I am increasingly puzzled at the rings within rings of training, formation, discernment, process and so much other stuff that is attached to pursuing “ordination” this special “set apart” ministry . . .

    I’m longing for “Re-imagning ministry” in the Church of England to do just that – actually re-imagine it, rather than make manoeuvres (whatever they might be) to tweak what continues to be the dominant form “a calling to the priesthood”. Of course, I understand part of the problem . . . whether it is preaching or teaching (happening in children’s and youth groups every week); pastoral care (children’s youth and families workers involved in this a lot); leading on new forms of church and mission (again, often children’s youth and families workers at the forefront) . . . a nagging question for the ordained as they think about themselves is : what is a priest?

  11. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but the paragraph quoted in the article, about differing needs leading to different training in different dioceses struck me as codswallop. I attended an ordination of a friend recently. Fifteen ordinands: Same diocese, same training course (run in any case by another diocese) …but a great variety of parishes represented….rural, suburban, urban, poor, wealthy etc. I do accept that there does need to be a bit of cultural training. I have come across more than one vicar originally from a suburban parish themselves, who struggled with the very different expectations of a small village…..but why not a week of training when someone first takes on a new type of parish followed by periodic meetings with a mentor?

    Another point is that I think that CofE training policies need to be more centralised not less. I know someone (not me btw) who wasn’t even allowed an initial interview for training in spite of their vicar’s strong support. This was because they would have been older than 60 by the time they finished training, and the diocesan policy was quite rigid about the age cut off. Frustrating then to be told that other dioceses are willing to ordain rather later. This person went on to train as a reader, which I believe was a very similar training (though minus some of the pastoral training), probably cost nearly as much, and took exactly the same length of time. This seems a bit batty to me. I’m not making a point about what the cut off age should be for training (I can see that it could be a waste of money to train people beyond a certain age), but it does need to be much more consistent between dioceses, and there needs to be some logic about it too in relation to training for other roles.


Leave a comment