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Ordinands should not have to live in hardship

10 May 2024

It is no wonder many are avoiding residential training. A more efficient and fairer system is needed, argues Mike Edwards

MANY reasons have been offered for the decline in the numbers of those in training for ordination in the Church of England: the effect of Covid, uncertainly about the Prayers of Love and Faith, and the change to bishops’ advisory panels, which makes it difficult for families to uproot themselves in time for a new school year.

All of these obstacles can be overcome with imagination and the will of the dioceses, though these are often lacking. I heard recently of one diocesan director of ordinands who was expected most residential colleges to close, and was therefore reluctant to send ordinands to them: a textbook definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I would argue, however, that financial concerns rank highly among the reasons that fewer people are putting themselves forward for training, especially to train residentially. There may well be concerns about the level of support that the clergy are needing from the Clergy Support Trust (News, 3 May); but these concerns are even more acute among ordinands. They cannot fall back on the Trust for support, unless it is for a health condition.

THE current maintenance-grant system is not working. Last year, more than 50 per cent of ordinands who took part in a survey reported a negative impact of their finances on their mental health (News, 3 November 2023). The same survey found that 43 per cent had gone into some form of debt during their training. More than ten per cent reported regularly skipping meals because of a lack of money.

Although the National Ministry Team’s (NMT’s) review Resourcing Ministerial Formation (RMF) recognised three years ago that the system needed to change, change has been delayed for a second year. This means no changes again until at least 2025-26.

The issue is complex. The diocesan pooling system, the NMT’s grant calculation, and the new RMF funding models for theological-education institutions are among the mysteries of our faith. But, essentially, each June, the NMT produces a booklet listing the maximum accommodation costs and maintenance grant available for ordinands. Each diocese is left to carry out the means test and pay its sponsored ordinands.

The primary problem is that, currently, the grant is not enough to live on: a family of four receive a living grant of £16,684, if they are entitled to the maximum amount allowed. This amount, in 2023-24, is only six per cent higher than in 2017-18. In the same period, the minimum stipend has risen by 11 per cent to £28,670.

There are other issues, however. One is that each diocese is left to make its own calculation, based on an ordinand’s declared income and expenditure. One ordinand discovered halfway through training that the diocese had a formula error in its spreadsheet, and that they had been paid £2000 a year less than they were due. Presumably, several cohorts before had also been underpaid. A final-year ordinand was told by email that the diocese had been accidentally double-paying one part of their grant, and that £5000 had to be repaid.

Another issue is the NMT’s decision to reclaim 75 per cent of all external income over a certain threshold. This includes anything over £595 in charitable donations or grants, and £2800 in partner’s income or any tax credits or benefits, including Universal Credit. In essence, after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), having determined that your training grant is not enough to live on, tops it up, the dioceses are asked to claim this back from the recipient at 75 per cent.

Some dioceses choose, either implicitly or explicitly, to turn a blind eye to these income figures, or to report them and shoulder the cost of supporting their ordinands themselves. Some, however, are in no financial position to do so, and regularly have to ask ordinands to report and repay income. A handful of dioceses, such as the one that is sponsoring me, have made ordinands eligible to apply for the triennial hardship funding released in 2022.

THIS system currently propagates hardship, for many ordinands, or a significantly depleted amount of savings, for many others. It is no surprise that there is a general decline in the number of those putting themselves forward, but especially of those going for residential training. Candidates choose, instead, to remain close to their family, their partner’s work, and the sending church’s financial support.

While the obvious answer is to provide more funding, some other changes would help ordinands. The first would be the introduction of a transparent centralised process for grant calculations, to stop subjective treatment and errors in calculations. The second would be a scheme by which ordinands’ rent was paid directly, making conversations about their income with the DWP over Universal Credit, or with HMRC, easier. The third would be a national policy to make ordinands in all dioceses eligible for the triennial hardship funding.

The bigger picture requires a rethink of funding overall. Eyewatering sums of money have been released to fund projects and posts to enable church revitalisation and growth across the country. Some of this money should be deployed to resource sustainable training — if there are going to be any nationally deployable clergy available for these posts and projects in future.

Mike Edwards is an ordinand at Ridley Hall, studying for a Cambridge M.Phil. in theology, and formerly a tutor and ordained minister of another denomination.

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