Friday, 1 April 2011

Who is ministry training for?

This is not a question about who should train for ministry. It is a question about who training, and training institutions, are meant to serve. I only have a few years of experience teaching in (and at some level, running) institutions that train people for Christian, and particularly, Anglican, ministry, and some experience of being a degree earning student in another institution.

The truth is, I think there is a lot of navel-gazing as to the purpose of ministry training. Most institutions limit their vision to 'training men and women' for ministry. Well, that's fine, as far as it goes. Yes, that's what they are supposed to do, and they deserve to fail miserably if they don't do that. But the students aren't the 'end users', so to speak, of the work of seminaries, part-time training institutions (an important mode of preparation in the Church of England), or on-line degree programs.

Neither are the faculty. I think some seminary faculties mistake themselves for think-tanks, or for university departments of religion. Those are perfectly good things, and certainly the institutions that train ministers should prove themselves as communities of theological enquiry and innovation. Too often, however, they take on an almost 'tribal' outlook, where enquiry is actually limited by a stated (or more often, unstated) theological position which is held unquestioningly. And sometimes, that position (most often, it seems to me, currently having to do with some very boring aspect of human sexuality), occupies a more important role in the insitution's life than the much broader range of Christian theology. If it isn't a single-issue ideology, it is holding to a view of tradition (often denominational, or even sub-denominational) that is seen to be exempt from examination. What I find funny is that often the claim is made that the view of tradition, or the single-issue, claims to be about 'increasing inclusiveness/diversity'. But, if the party line is not held, a scholar or prospective student will be told that s/he is not going to be a good fit with the institution.

I propose that, although students and faculty are important factors in ministry training, the goal is not either to provide a great experience for the student, or a stable living from which faculty can pursue their research agendas.

The focus on ministry training needs to be the people in the congregations who will be served by those preparing for ordination, licensing, or other service to the Church. I heard, too many times when I was Director of Studies for a Church of England part-time ministry training program, how much our students were giving up to prepare for ministry, how we had to make things 'easier' for them to study, that because (mostly) they were training for non-stipendiary ministry we could not expect the same from them as from those preparing to be full time ministers who were paid and housed for their service. Ministry Division of the Church of England required the same things from both NSM and stipended ministers. However, we could not extend the training period to something that would make it possible to study part-time and non-residentially at a more leisurely pace. S0, the exigencies of the situation required producing sub-standard, inadequately trained people for ordination and licensing as Readers.

As a lay person, who spends most of her in-church time in the pews, I find this completely unacceptable. When a person walks into a new church, returns from a long absence, or comes for the first time in their lives, they do not care if the person leading the service is paid or not, part- or full-time. They care if the service is led reverently, the preaching is solid and thoughtful, and any pastoral contact is helpful. If these three basics aren't met, that person (certainly, if it's me) is going to walk out and not return.

The Church does not need more ministers. It needs a sufficiency of excellent ministers. Our training institutions need to produce people who preside, preach, and care well. Anything else they do is icing on the cake. But the cake has to be in place.

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