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The work of God within his servants

06 November 2020

How do colleges see ministry formation, particularly in the light of increasing awareness of mental-health issues, asks Johanna Derry Hall


LST students on campus. Click for more images

LST students on campus. Click for more images

IT IS a familiar verse to many: St Paul’s instruction to the Christians in Rome to be formed into the likeness of Christ: “Be not conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

For those training for ministry, for ordination or to serve in a lay capacity, this process is foundational, and underpins the idea of formation for service. With a growing awareness of issues connected with mental health and emotional well-being, training institutions are giving attention to a duty of care for the mind, besides supervising a process of “transformation”.

Historically, the term “formation” described a very specific process: for example, in monastic communities, where a novice was formed according to the rule of a particular Order, such as Benedictine or Franciscan. In contemporary theological training, however, as at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, for example, formation is taken more broadly to mean the development of a Christlike character.

“Very firmly for us, it’s about the formation of Christ in the individual rather than squeezing a person through a sausage machine,” the Principal, the Rt Revd Humphrey Southern, says. “There isn’t a template character we’re trying to draw out. Rather, we’re seeking the emergence of the person God is bringing into existence.

“This takes place through a combination of academic learning, spiritual practice, and vocational skill building. One of the core modules at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, for example, is Spirituality and Discipleship.

“It’s linked very intentionally to the idea of character formation. It’s not spirituality as an academic idea — different traditions of prayer and the like — but an encouragement to students to reflect about who they are, through the whole process of their training.”

 LSTThe London School of Theology’s library, in the former chapel, houses more than 50,000 volumes  

AT THE London School of Theology (LST), the formation process is very much focused on the practical: 70 per cent of the core formation module happens in placements.

“We’re trying to ensure that what students learn in the classroom they’re able to put into practice, to live out in the real world. We believe it’s really important for students to learn what it is to be a serving disciple within a local body of believers,” the LST director of vocational services, Emily Smuts, says.

”Formation is not something you can just do purely from a classroom,” agrees the associate minister for women at St Paul’s, Hadley Wood, the Revd Dr Kirsten Birkett, who was, until last year, lecturer in ethics and philosophy at Oak Hill Theological College. “It also takes personal mentoring of students to know their characters, and the ways they need to and want to develop. It’s about qualities, rather than a particular type of personality.

“Part of this is encouraging people to know how they will continue their spiritual practice themselves, once they’ve finished training; how they will continue listening to God’s word and studying it, so the Spirit will work through the word to transform people.”

At both LST and Ripon College, alongside the academic theological training, placements, and acts of corporate worship, students are encouraged to develop their own reflective practice with a personal tutor, setting intentions for their own spiritual development.

“That relationship is intended to be one of deep reflection,” Bishop Southern says. “A place to reflect on how they’re developing their character, what they’re noticing about the experience of training for ministry, how they are, how they think, how they react, how they relate to other people, how they feel about God.”

This element of training is what marks formation out as different from some other kinds of higher or further education, shifting the emphasis away from information and towards transformation, equipping people for ministry in the long term, with habits and spiritual practices that will maintain their formation process long after they have completed their training.

“We help students engage with theology and God’s word so that they can think for themselves,” Mrs Smuts says. “It’s like the adage of not giving a man a fish but teaching him how to fish. We’re teaching people to engage theologically and biblically with the world, which I think equips you for life.”


FOR Sarah-Jane King, a final-year ordinand at St Mellitus College, London, where she is studying for a Master’s degree in Christian Leadership, learning how to maintain good mental health and emotional well-being has been a key part of her training for longevity in ministry. She has been impressed with the care shown for people’s mental health as they undergo formation, explaining that one of the first sessions in her programme addressed this area specifically.

Ripon College, CuddesdonStudents working in the library at Ripon College, Cuddesdon

“I think there’s a growing understanding that people in ministry can be vulnerable to burnout and to mental-health struggles — anxiety, depression, and so on — and that we need to be on the lookout for our mental health.”

It is something that the director for formation and professional development at the London Centre for Spiritual Direction, Julie Léger Dunstan, also believes is crucial to the formation process. “Throughout scripture, there’s an invitation to receive love, forgiveness, and healing,” she says. “We have to recognise, however, that people resist this invitation.

“In ministry, people face challenges that bring up areas they didn’t want to have to look at, or didn’t think they needed to. And that’s when professional help is usually necessary, because you’re touching on things that are more complex than the everyday stuff. That needs attention.”

As a trained psychotherapist as well as a spiritual director, Mrs Dunstan has seen at first hand how vital it is that mental-health issues aren’t ignored in the lives and formation of people who are in ministry, she says.

“People are looking for someone who has listened to them deeply, and who can put their faith and their inner struggles in some sort of conversation. It doesn’t have to be a psychological exploration devoid of the resources of faith or the Spirit. But neither should it be a spirituality that has to pretend that everything is all right; that if you’re a minister, you have to be sorted, you have to be holy, and you have to be good.”

Taking space to study and to consider the impact of theological learning and spiritual practice on one’s life can raise unresolved emotional and mental-health issues. “Everybody’s going to have ‘stuff’,” says Alison Atkinson, who, as Chaplain at LST, heads its full-time pastoral team.

“Finding it can seem a bit confronting, and dealing with it can range anywhere from someone giving space to it between themselves and God — as we are expecting God to be moving in people’s lives — and interacting with people who are around to help: placement supervisors, personal tutors, the chaplaincy team, and, beyond them, professional counsellors.”


NEVERTHELESS, while colleges are aware of needing to take care of the well-being of students who are undergoing formation, and of equipping them for a future in ministry, they are also clear that the part that they play is formational, not therapeutic.

“We quite often uncover stuff together,” Bishop Southern says, “but we have to be conscious of keeping clear blue water between what is formation and what is therapy. Our personal tutors aren’t trained therapists. That’s why we have a counselling service available. Together, students and their tutors can decide what can be worked on with more intentionality and focus with a chaplain, and what might need a counsellor or other help.

Ripon College, CuddesdonThe Harriet Monsell lecture room at Ripon College, Cuddesdon

“All of this is very much a part of what is on offer here to help people develop their sense of who they are before God, in ministry.”

Recognising the appropriate place for the right expertise is not, however, considered to mean siloing a person’s experience into the emotional, the spiritual, the physical, mental, and so on. “Sometimes, you need to deal with a mental-health issue in a medical way, but you never stop being spiritual,” Dr Birkett says. “The formation relationship can continue pastorally, exploring how the help for any mental-health issues is allowing someone to think about spiritual things.”

As an example of how she is experiencing formation as a holistic process in her training at St Mellitus, Mrs King regularly talks through the Great Commandment with her formation group: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength’. . . We’ll go through each of those sections, asking questions like: ‘How is your heart doing? How is your soul? How is your mind? How is your bodily strength?’ And then: love your neighbour as yourself. . . ‘How are your relationships with other people?’, because, if you’re not looking after yourself properly, it’s all the harder to look after others.

“People involved in church ministry often continue pouring themselves out for people without paying attention to their own well-being. We’re being attentive to that, and being trained with tools for that.”

Formation will look different for each person being trained, but this is something that Bishop Southern believes should be celebrated.

“At the heart of formation is something that values the range of difference God creates, redeems, and brings into the ministry of his Church,” he says. “That leads us to pay a lot of attention to the individual, whose uniqueness is what needs to be drawn out, worked on, and delighted in, rather than be something we’re trying to manage into a tidy place. We believe that all of that diversity, and the complexity that goes with it, is God’s gift and God’s intention.”

It is not a case of mental-health issues’ being an obstacle to ministry, so much as the Church’s being a safe space where people can become whole, and where church leaders’ characters are trained in a way that allows them the freedom to become whole themselves: spiritually, mentally, and emotionally.

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