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New ministries need new training

09 July 2021

David Heywood calls for a paradigm shift at diocesan and national level

Ripon College, Cuddesdon

Traditional training for ordination route: Cuddesdon students in a group discussion

Traditional training for ordination route: Cuddesdon students in a group discussion

THE Church is experiencing a far-reaching change in its ministry: from a pattern centred almost entirely on the ministry of the clergy to one in which lay people play a full part (News, 2 July).

The Setting God’s People Free programme has called us to “liberate the 98 per cent who are not ordained for fruitful mission and ministry in all of life” (News, 27 January 2017). Such a fundamental upheaval calls for changes in the pattern of ministerial formation — or, as the Bishop of Croydon, the Rt Revd Jonathan Clark, puts it, “a significant and concerted change in the learning and formational culture of the whole Church” (Ministerial Formation for the Church of England, 2019).

Although lagging behind changes in the patterns of ministry, the kind of changes that Bishop Clark is calling for have already begun: a diversification in the range of lay ministries, the emergence of context-based and pioneer training, official acknowledgement of the centrality of reflective practice in formation, and a broadening of the options for assessment beyond the traditional essay, to name but a few.

To become firmly established, however, a new culture requires a new “paradigm”, a change in the fundamental assumptions that govern decision-making in dioceses, training institutions, and at national level. What are the elements of that new paradigm? And what might the new culture eventually look like?


From ‘sole practitioner’ to ‘shared enterprise’

We are accustomed to think of ministry as something that people do on their own: a vicar carrying out a funeral visit, or leading worship; a reader preaching; an administrator alone in an office. In fact, all these people are surrounded by others exercising their diverse gifts. Initiatives such as Messy Church and Street Pastors have alerted us to the power of working together in teams. Ministry is fruitful when people work, pray, and reflect together, and where leaders enable, equip, and empower others.

In the new paradigm, people will be trained for ministry as a “shared enterprise”. Teamwork will be an essential element in the curriculum. Ordinands will train alongside candidates for lay ministry and others whose aim is simply to deepen their discipleship. The mission and ministry of the whole Church will run like a thread through every area of training.


From ‘one size fits all’ to diverse ministries

Lay ministry is becoming more and more diverse: children, youth and families workers; evangelists and evangelism-enablers; prayer guides or spiritual directors; administrators; members of church-planting teams; chaplaincies to retail centres, agriculture, and sports venues; ministry to care homes; liaison with local authorities; community organising; and this list is far from exhaustive.

Some years ago, I designed a programme for the diocese of Monmouth training clergy to oversee and co-ordinate mission and ministry in large clusters of parishes. To move from one pattern of ministry to another was difficult even for these dedicated clergy, but, when they succeeded, the fruits became obvious: lay people empowered; opportunities for mission and churches beginning to grow.

In the new paradigm, full-time ordained ministry ceases to be seen as the standard form of ministry with all other forms as auxiliary optional extras. Instead, “ministry” will mean the ministry of the whole Church.

The standard form of ministry will be local and collaborative, and the part played by the clergy will be to empower, co-ordinate, and connect this local ministry. Ordinands will cease to be trained to play the part of the traditional vicar, and instead be trained to resource and oversee the ministry of the whole Church.


From ‘front-end-loaded’ to lifelong learning

Since the foundation of the first theological colleges in the mid-19th century, the pattern of ministerial training has been shaped by the need to obtain a professional qualification before ministry. This “just-in-case” model, that tries to include everything that might be necessary for ministry, has led to a crowded curriculum in which there is rarely enough time to study subjects in depth, and much that is learned is quickly forgotten.

In contrast, the new paradigm will be shaped by the insight that both discipleship and ministry consist of a lifelong journey of formation. Formation will begin at confirmation through the long-overdue resourcing of locally based training for the practice of discipleship in everyday life, and participation in the ministry of the local church.

It will consist of “just-in-time” learning for the ministry to which God is calling people at the time. Training for licensed and ordained ministry will be limited to that required for transition to the new form of ministry, and supplemented by an expectation of continuing ministerial development, through which ministers continue to grow in depth and competence.


From ‘theory to practice’ to reflective practice

The fourth and final cultural shift is the most complex and far-reaching, but also essential to the other three. This is the move away from an “academic” or university style of learning.

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 such as Ernst & 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 such as 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 a key part.

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 that they needed for their assignments.

The problem is that their theological learning had been subject-centred rather than life-centred. They had been trained in theological scholarship, but not to apply the riches of scripture and theological tradition to life and ministry. They had experienced the “theory to practice” approach to learning typical of the traditional university: first, learn the subject, then, learn how to apply it.

What is needed instead is an approach from reflective practice: begin from the situation, and learn how to draw on the Bible and theology to illuminate it and discover where God is at work.


SO WHAT might the new paradigm of ministerial formation look like when fully implemented?

It will begin with locally accessible learning for all Christians. The “curriculum” of such training will not mirror the traditional theological curriculum. It will include emotional intelligence: understanding ourselves and others, learning to listen, the skills of teamwork.

It will aim to build habits of reflection: learning to discern God’s presence in the warp and weft of everyday life. It will encourage and enable a rule of life. Theological learning will begin with an understanding of God’s mission and Kingdom. And finally, it will equip learners for the ministry that God may be calling them to in the present rather than the future.

As people discern a call to authorised, licensed, or ordained ministry, they will begin to move from training at local to regional level. There will be no set timescale. The pattern of training will be much closer to continuing ministerial development than our current two- or three-year programmes: a pattern of online and blended learning through a mixture of training days, weekend, and week-long study units; and residential courses and summer schools, allowing students to pursue tailor-made learning at their own pace — for example, a weekend or longer period given over to the study of a biblical book or theme, wrestling with the theology of the Trinity, experimenting with creative approaches to liturgy, or working towards a deeper understanding of bereavement.

Theological colleges will have become regional training centres as well as a temporary home for the minority of students who require residential training. They will be fewer, but with a larger number of staff, allowing for a greater degree of mutual interchange and shared learning. Staff members, trained in reflective learning, will also travel to lead locally based learning, and to mentor local facilitators.

From a focus on the tiny minority of licensed and ordained ministers, ministerial training will have been transformed to equip a whole Church for fruitful mission and ministry in every sphere of life.


The Revd Dr David Heywood was Director of Pastoral Studies at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, from 2006 to 2017. He recently retired as Deputy Director of Mission for the diocese of Oxford. He is the author of Reimagining Ministry (SCM Press, 2011, £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop £17.99)). His new book Reimagining Ministerial Formation (SCM Press, £25 (£22.50) is reviewed here.

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