Archive for April, 2015

The Revd. Dr Alister McGrath, Professor at Oxford University, and an Associate Priest, offers a reflection this weekend on the proposed changes to theological training and formation for ministry.

I chaired the Fulcrum Pivot^Point Thursday just gone (April 16th 2015), (recording available soon here) looking into this with Presbyter Revd. Dr Ian Paul and Bishop Rt Revd. Pete Broadbent.

I find myself somehow stuck.

I am impressed by visions for simplification, a necessary pragmatism, a being able to see the wood for the trees.

I have to simply trust that this is what simplification, in terms of theological training for clergy, is all about. It is a right clearing of the pathway so that eyes can focus on the death and resurrection of Christ and all the implications that brings.

I have to trust that we will not be throwing any babies out with the water that might seem to be filling the sinking ship.

I also need to bring wisdom, holding dear the academic and spiritual training that I was given as a full time, residential student in those formative years that were my own, towards becoming a Parish Priest at St John’s College, Nottt’m.

I sat under Presbyter Revd Dr Ian Paul with his high regard for this pathway and so I was rightly able to take a more academic approach. I did this consciously because I was also told that curacy would train me for pragmatics.

I was told that the first 18 months of incumbency instil in you further everything that you need to do and be, to fulfil the tasks ahead. It is in incumbency that one grapples with Church Representation Rules, The Churchwardens Measure, Ecclesiastical Law, how to run Annual Parochial Church meetings, how to recruit paid and voluntary people under Diocesan Safer Recruitment processes etc.

I did not cover these aspects as part of my initial residential training for ministry. At St John’s, I learnt about prayer, liturgy, Anglican Communion history and exegetical and hermeneutical approaches to the scriptures. I learnt about preaching and spiritual discipline, I looked at some Greek and Hebrew. I took a module on the Patristic Fathers, learnt how the church over time has articulated the events that are the saving and reconciling acts of Jesus Christ: Atonement theology and the liberation theology born of his resurrection and more.

I was theologically informed, I was sometimes painfully discipled. I was nurtured, my character was formed and chipped away at. It was formation, I learnt to become rightly accountable. I learnt about prophetic edge. I made mistakes, I picked myself back up again, as we all continue to do but I gained a love for the scriptures and came to know them as my life-blood, I became rightly reliant on God.

I am now an incumbent under the lead of Rt Revd. Pete Broadbent, he is my Bishop. I am sure that none of this is just random coincidence.

I want to learn to combine the theological rigour, which I believe the diocese to which I am new, is also committed, with the simplification process that Pete is championing. I have to believe that each complements and informs the other. Together they provide a very hope-filled and appropriate pathway forward through the journey that is Parish ministry with all its knowns and unknowns.

The Revd. Dr Alister McGrath writes about how the Church of England needs a “significant increase in the number and quality of ministerial leaders” to meet this challenging situation. We have to believe that quality and number can be created.

With individual dioceses being given greater autonomy over the training pathways for their ordinands, we have to pray that dioceses secure gifted theological educators. We have to hope that any investment into those who are ‘gifted’ both the educators and the educated, really does recognise ‘gift’ from God and worldly talent ‘pool’. I don’t want to force a split here but it was interesting to begin to explore this with Presbyter Revd. Dr Ian on Thursday with his ‘leaders are born not made.’ How much will the church be able to retain that emphasis, clearly there in the scriptures that this seems to be the case. The church has to hold tight to its development of ‘character’ (together with its approach to the accumulation of technique and approach which can be taught and nurtured.) The great “nurture or nature” debate, that is at the heart of any analysis into leadership, can not be dispensed with.

The Revd. Dr Alister McGrath is right to speak prophetically with his warnings that we are to guard against a purely ‘corporate, management-driven institutional approach to ministerial training.’

I want to know where we really are going to advocate an ‘explicitly theological engagement with ministry’ because indeed this is not something ‘peripheral’ or luxurious. I remember saying to a former colleague ‘By Jove, if God isn’t in it, I ain’t doing it’ because you know what? It’s darn hard at times and sometimes you are only able to keep going because of God’s accompanying presence and equipping. There is no leadership course on this planet that can guarantee me God himself.

The Revd. Dr Alister McGrath puts it like this:

“To be asked to minister without an informing vision of God (which is what theology is really all about), however, is like being told to make bricks without straw.

Give me straw!

Indeed I need to be energised ‘through engagement with the realities of the Christian gospel.’ In fact, more than that, this is my life-blood for the task ahead.

I wouldn’t go as far as Alister McGrath with conclusions that ‘the promotion of the well-being of an institution, and compliance with its culture seem to take priority over the gospel itself.’ I am far more hope-filled than that and from what I have seen of the church’s structures to this point in my ministry, I am convinced that this is not going to happen: there is being modelled to me that vital engagement with the gospel that is surely our mission here on earth.

Alister McGrath insists, rightly, that, as ministers we need to ‘have a personal knowledge of the Christian gospel, to have assimilated its themes, and to appreciate how this informs and stimulates pastoral care, mission, preaching, and spirituality.’

Alister McGrath believes in the local congregation and that their desire, like his, involves their wanting ‘help in reading the Bible and understanding its message. They want help in deepening their faith and their life of prayer (they might not always use the word “spirituality”, but that’s what they’re getting at)… perhaps the people I talk to are not representative. But this gathering of the felt needs of congregations needs to be done, and done properly, before we take new directions in ministerial education which could cause us to lose something vital and irreplaceable.’

I look forward to working with the Church on approaches to how we best gather and assimilate and analyse the desires of our congregations.

I look forward to working with the Church in my own formation of the priest and will share with the Church my desires for what that might look like. I am sometimes also one of those who wonders …. Alistair McGrath captures my internal dialogue with his: ‘To its critics, the study of theology distracts from real life.’ However, I also know that in my own strength and without a thought-through, prayerful, biblically-grounded approach to the tasks ahead, my own personal boat will simply row around in circles, as I had a habit of doing accidentally in the River Wear, as I holidayed in Durham over Easter.

I will watch the training pathways of my future colleagues with interest and continue to pray that my own future and continual development is nourished through that combination of simplification and theological equipping.

Ever hopeful!


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Why is saying no so difficult? How often has someone asked you to chair a committee leaving you with a sense of dread, yet out of your mouth came “I’d be glad to serve,” followed by irritation every time that committee met.

Most clergy serve small parishes where by necessity they function as generalists. They often believe that they have to do everything and cannot say no. Setting limits is complicated for clergy by the survival anxiety driving many mainline congregations. Fearing for their long term survival these congregations put significant pressure on clergy. Congregational pressure increases the probability of burnout and potential misconduct, and decreases the energy available for the pursuit of pastoral excellence.

Our book, Saying No to Say Yes, explores a powerful interaction between the internal needs of many clergy to be liked and validated, and the chronic anxiety of many congregations.

Previous material on clergy boundaries focused mostly on clergy sexual misconduct, the initial cause of mandated boundary awareness training. While helpful, these trainings often do not go far enough to understand the complex interaction between anxious congregations and the internal needs of clergy.

To say yes to the pursuit of excellence in ministry, several issues must be addressed. First, clergy must wrestle with powerful, but often unconscious needs for validation and the need to be liked. The need for validation and the inability to say no often lead to over functioning which can block the pursuit of excellence.

Usually, the need for validation is rooted in old roles from our family of origin where clergy became the over-responsible child, the hero child or the peacemaker. What we may not be aware of is how these roles were validated and praised by family members. Statements like “we can always count on her to come through for us,” or “he is the one who gets us through difficult times” are dangerous because the validation from family reinforces the over functioning behaviour. Congregations become our home away from home as we play out the same dynamics of our families of origin.

Once we begin to see how our roles in our families are played out in our congregations, we may recognize that our “congregational home away from home” is often driven by anxiety. When confronted with chronic anxiety it is easy for clergy to default to old, more primitive patterns of over functioning. Our difficulty saying no is underscored by a powerful interactional effect between our old roles and needs for validation, and the profound pressure from our anxious congregations.

To pursue excellence in ministry, the most important boundary for clergy is to gain awareness of our need for validation, our family of origin roles, and how both are getting activated in anxious congregational settings. Saying no and setting appropriate limits are enhanced as we work through difficult yet practical suggestions for how to increase our differentiation of self. Self-differentiation enables us to thrive as we stay connected to key congregational members, say no, and achieve room to pursue the excellence we dreamed of when we answered God’s call to ministry.

David C. Olsen is executive director of the Samaritan counselling centre of the Capital Region and an adjunct faculty member of the Sage Graduate School. Nancy G. Devor is senior staff psychologist at the Danielsen Institute at Boston University.

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