Designing the Training Experience

Yesterday, I wrote a bit on whether the emphasis on the “student experience” is an appropriate focus for institutions whose purpose is training people for ordained ministry. Today, I’d like to elaborate a bit about what I think the proper emphasis should be.  Students should have a good experience of training, but “good” is not to be measured in whether they have a great time during their seminary years or memories so fond as to encourage financial generosity to the insitution in the future.

A “great student experience” delivers, in exemplary fashion, a solid preparation for the first few years of ordained ministry.  Realistically, it cannot prepare anyone for every situation and demand which could be encountered over decades. No training can do that–doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers know this.  Getting five years out from seminary and then realizing you weren’t “prepared” for some of what you’ve encountered is just plain silly.  That’s why I’m a firm advocate of the Church of England’s curacy requirement. The new minister works with an experienced priest (often someone with a reputation in the diocese as being a good supervisor for early-stage clergy), who allows the novice cleric to make some errors in a protected and supportive setting, gives increasing responsibility as appropriate, and offers constructive observations about the progress the protege is making toward readiness to take charge of a congregation. In the Church of England, this (usually 3-4 year) period is also the time in which something happens called IME 4-7.  IME means “initial ministerial education”, and yes, that is seven years:  three pre-ordination, and (three or) four post-ordination, the post-ordination usually being one day a week (or the equivalent), counted as working time.  It’s required prior to a new minister being seen as ready to take full responsibility for a parish.

We don’t require curacies in the Episcopal Church–indeed, many parishes can barely afford one paid cleric, let alone pay someone to learn how to do his or her job.  This means we need to prepare people even better, if they are going to go out and be solo ministers for congregations.  Newm inexperienced priests are often sent to what I’ve heard referred to–disgustingly–as “under-performing” churches, at risk of being closed.  The diocese puts a new, inexperienced minister (sometimes still a transitional deacon) in a congregation, without mentoring or supervision by a more seasoned cleric.  Short of a miracle, it’s a recipe for failure–and shame on any bishop or deployment officer who does this without fully admitting it’s a strategy for closing a congregation.

At any rate, a great student experience is not about football games with another seminary, or late nights dicussing arcane theology over pots of coffee or bottles of wine.  A great student experience, in ministry training, prepares the student for the first few (maybe 3-5 years) of ordained ministry.  And the best judges of whether the institution has done its job are not the students, but the people among whom the student is released to minister. As a lay person with a seminary degree, a PhD in theology, and who has trained people for ordination, I’d like to offer what the “view from the pew” says is the necessary “student experience” for those preparing for public ministries in the churches.

There are some things the training institution–whether full-time and residential, part-time/non-residential, with or without online components (I don’t really think any should be fully online)–must offer.  These include, but are not limited to:

  • Instruction by competent, properly qualified and experienced persons.
  • An appropriate balance between theoretical learning and practical application, including discernment concerning what knowledge is appropriate for which situations.
  • Adequate understanding of the Christian theological tradition, including the commonalities across and distinctives between denominations.
  • Reflection on how all of one’s learning is tied to, and will influence, the practice of the ministry to which s/he has been called and for which s/he is training.  Tying some portion of assessment to the ordination or licensing vows, or denominationally-mandated criteria, is helpful.
  • Exposure to, reflection on, and participation in, various forms of worship required and accepted by the denomination in which one is preparing for public ministry.
  • Diverse experiences of church (even within a denomination), usually accomplished by placements (“field education”, “internships”, “practicum”) to acquaint students with unfamiliar ecclesial settings and the variety of needs and demands they may encounter upon deployment.
  • Timely and useful feedback concerning academic achievement and personal development according to clearly-articulated criteria, consistently applied across the institution and adjusted appropriately for the stage of study.
  • Opportunities to develop collegial relationships with fellow students, instructors, and more senior clergy.
  • Properly accredited programs recognizable by and acceptable to any denominational authorites for whom the institution is training future ministers.

These are things which the institution must provide.  Additionally, it is desirable for an institution be able to at least direct people training for ordination to other things, such as:

  • Support for those with learning or physical challenges, so that the widest range of students may be accommodated.
  • Access to the print and electronic resources of an appropriate theological library, and communication with a qualified theological librarian.
  • Spiritual directors, retreats, and other opportunities for personal growth.
  • Experienced ministers willing to advise and mentor candidates for ordination.
  • Counseling services if appropriate.
  • Necessary training such as certifications of having passed training for diversity, child/vulnerable adult protection, or background checking.

This is the minimum necessary to provide a great student experience resulting in good beginning ministers, but it is often sorely lacking when “student experience” becomes the focus of the institution. But when we focus on the real end users of theological formation for public ministry–the laity in the pews and in the congregations–it will become evident why these things are more desperately needed than wonderful experiences of prayer and sharing within the seminary walls.

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