Reimagining Ministerial Formation

As a former principal of a theological college I read with considerable interest Reimagining Ministerial Formation (SCM, London 2021. 181pp: £25) by David Heywood, who has had many years of experience of working in ministerial formation.

Heywood’s fundamental thesis is that the old patterns of training for ‘the ministry’ are no longer “fit for purpose”. Instead a new approach is needed which from the very beginning is ‘hands on’ and has theological reflection on practice at its heart, and which is not separated from the wider ministry of the church in which all God’s people are called – as has often been said, confirmation or believers’ baptism is a form of ‘lay ordination’.

I liked his emphasis on the way in which ministry cannot be separated from its roots in discipleship: “The participation of all is rooted in lives open to transformation and the confidence that arises from the experience of God at work in the warp and weft of everyday life”. In this regard I am impressed by the way in which in the Oxford Diocese encourages all those who have been confirmed to adopt a ‘Personal Discipleship Plan’ and to meet with a trained encourager every few months to think about their life and faith. In such a context preparation for ordained ministry begins long before candidates are accepted for training.

As regard to the training of ordinands, Heywood is right that “the academy typically fails to connect to connect theology with life experience”. Instead, he argues that the practice of ministry is best learnt from reflecting on experience: and in that regard I thoroughly agree that the art of preaching and the conducting of funerals is not best learnt through a series of lectures but through reflection on practice.

I welcome too his emphasis on formation for ministry as a life-long pursuit, where reflective supervision is a constant. For Heywood the local church needs to be the place for ministerial formation. He argues that residential training distances ordinands from the joys and challenges of mission, and that by removing ordinands from their local church and committing a disproportionate percentage of resources compared with those dedicated to locally based training, “the Church signals its lack of vision for the potential of the local church as a learning community”. He suggests that the future for residential institutions is limited to being

a space for reflection, the availability of resources and opportunities for teaching staff to be mutually enriched and engage in research.

Yet much as I found this book refreshing and stimulating, I found it strange that, Heywood nowhere engages in any reflection on the experience of those theological colleges who have made church-based training a priority. As long ago as the 1970s Michael Taylor was developing what was then called ‘alternative patterns of training’ at the Northern Baptist College in Manchester. In the early 1980s under the leadership of Barrie White at Oxford the ‘Regent’s In Pastorate Training’ (RIPT) became the norm, while almost as soon I became principal at Spurgeon’s College in 1986 we developed the Spurgeon’s system of church-based training alongside college-based training. Today there are relatively few college-based Baptist students. However, unlike what Heywood proposes, most Baptist church-based training still does involve most students attending college for one or two days a week – and to my mind rightly so. My own experience is that theological colleges still do have an important role in ministerial formation, not least in enabling students to expound the Scriptures faithfully and relevantly, which is absolutely foundational to the ministry of the church’s ordained leaders. Yes, there is much to be gained from ongoing spiritual direction and theological reflection on the practice of ministry, but without the rigour of theological education we are in danger of ‘dumbing down’ the foundations of ministerial formation for future generations of leaders in God’s church.

On a personal note, as I look back upon my own experience of 43 years of full-time stipendiary ministry, I thank God for my six years of full-time theological education. In that period, I never lost my passion for mission. I would also take issue with the suggestion, made by Perry Shaw of the Arab Theological Seminary (ABTS) and quoted with apparent approval of Heywood, that “the more training churches demand of their pastors, the less their churches grow” – indeed the most effective minister I know in Lebanon, where the ABTS is situated, is an Arab with a PhD. My own experience of leading churches which grew substantially is that there are real advantages of a mind trained to think!

One thing for sure, although I do not share in every respect Heywood’s reimagining of ministerial formation, this is an important book and needs to be read far beyond the confines of those engaged in forming today’s and tomorrow’s leaders. There is much here that needs to be debated and thought through.

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