The Association for Theological Schools is working on a major project concerning “new” models of preparing people for ordained ministry (and perhaps some lay ministries). “New”, at least, in the US, because these things have been going on in the Church of England for so long they are no longer innovations; indeed, more than half of students preparing for public ministry (both stipended and self-supporting) are training in venues other than full-time residential institutions. (The first started in the Diocese of Southwark, I believe, in 1960.) English Christianity has been working with part-time, non-residential tranining facilities for a long time, and North America has much to learn. There will be “tweaks” to adjust for a different context of higher education and funding structures. But well into the sixth decade of such organizations, they are no longer “experiments” or “alternatives”, but an important feature of what Roger Ferlo has called the “ecology of theological education”. Indeed, to carry that analogy, non-residential institutions are no longer interesting little plants or insects hidden under the fallen leaves of the “theological colleges”, but are now the dominant life form, with approximately 60% of ordinands studying for ministry while maintaining their homes, jobs, and local church connections. All of these “alternatives”, by the way, are fully validated to the standards of the Higher Education Authority, and successful completion of the program results in a university award (whether certificate, diploma, or degree). This means a student can use this as prerequisites to other university qualifications, and progress toward advanced studies. Most American “alternatives” do not carry this advantage.
Among the concerns ATS has raised in the last few years is the importance of “formation”–and we can argue all day long about exactly what is meant by such a slippery term (which, of course, everbody believes they know the definition). The two major areas of “formation” ATS cites as particularly important are “intellectual” and “pastoral” formation. Formation, especially in these two areas, was the most difficult thing to define, measure and develop with the part-time non-residential students I worked with on the (now-disbanded) Canterbury Licensed Ministry Scheme, wherein we prepared self-supporting lay and ordained ministers.
Part of the problem with “formation” is, it doesn’t happen in the neat little blocks of time in evening or Saturday schools where instructors meet with students. It happens in principal communities of inquiry and worship–the places where our students found themselves on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. Formation was something we had to track, comment on, and make recommendations about whether to ordain/license our students. And with a staff of two full-time equivalents, we could not do that.
Unless we had a lot of help from the people who saw our students daily or weekly, who could tell us what classroom time and marking essays could not tell us. So, we had to develop ways of bringing local church leaders (lay and ordained) into the loop, who could see their personal, intellectual, and pastoral develop as these men and women progressed to where we could confidently make a statement of “readiness for public ministry.”
We met regularly with the incumbents (or sometimes, another ordained person deputized to mentor the student) to tell them the changes to our program (which was in transition due to forces beyond our control), and ask them how we could incorporate their forseeable needs into the training. We developed a system of “local learning groups”, facilitated by other (lay and ordained) leaders , in which students were tasked with taking their theoretical learning from the classroom and turning it into worship and teaching activities for a cross-section of their congregations. We developed a system of local mentors for students to meet with on a twice-a-term basis. A number of students kept these “local groups” going even after their training was complete, and they were licensed or ordained to public ministry.
And, even though our students would be serving the parishes in which they discerned their vocations, we developed a placement module in a parish other than their home. This helped them to see a different form of ministry (even within the Church of England), and to be seen by a congregation with fresh eyes, and (usually) only knew the candidate as a prospective public minister. There was initial grumbling about this requirement, but the majority of students said it was the most important experience they had during their training.
Because, by the time of my arrival, the program had been running for years and lost much goodwill in the diocese, it was not always an easy task. Rebuilding a positive relationship was no easy work, but worth it. Starting with it would be a good thing for institutions moving toward offering local options.
Formation cannot be monitored or assessed–let alone “delivered”–remotely. Intellectual formation is not just about knowledge, but about habits of mind which makes it possible to ask probing and difficult questions. Pastoral formation is not just about being able to lead worship or give advice and comfort, but about being an appropriate representative of the doctrine and discipline of the denomination in which the ordinand is called to serve.
Formation happens incrementally, and over time, and is best assessed by the people who have the most contact with those pursuing a vocation to public ministry. The institution may be ultimately responsible for recommending to the denominational authority whether the person has demonstrated fitness, but in the case of low-residency or remote programs, the institution is at a disadvantage.
Unless good partnerships with appropriate people where the student lives, works, and worships are formed.