Formation for Ministry: A Work in Progress

Formation for Ministry: A Work in Progress

by Grant Rodgers

The Facebook page “Things They Didn’t Teach Us In Seminary” describes itself as “a group for those who have graduated from an accredited seminary who want to share the things that we have experienced in the Church that were not necessarily covered in seminary…” The page is fascinating and often amusing because (as I know from over 35 years experience as a pastor of the Church) there are countless scenarios clergy face for which there is no preparation, not even a warning.

As I have discovered by experience, I was as equipped as I needed to be to face situations of marital conflict, theological disagreement, management issues, programming priorities, liturgical innovations, cattle herding, and countless more. Thankfully, as our tradition so wisely teaches us, we are redeemed not by our acquired competencies, but by the grace of God, and thanks in good part to my theological education, I knew that too.

What is Formation?
Ministry is never a matter of merely imparting information, or telling people what to do; it is never simply a matter of techniques and formulas or having a script. Ministry is never done in isolation, and it is not something done to people, but among people, with people, for people.

Formation involves exploring the relationship between theory and action, reflection and practice, being and doing. It is learning about oneself and about oneself in context, in relationship, in leadership.

Formation is not and probably never can be a fixed format, as the word formation could suggest, i.e. some existing and ideal pattern into which we mould people for some well-defined purpose or role, or a program by which we train people toward a desired end, with the Church (and perhaps society) understood as a kind of constant.

It is about developing attitudes and approaches which are rooted in concepts like the Body of Christ and the image of God in all human beings, and the belief that God is love.

As we continue to seek to come to terms with the legacy of colonial domination and the suppression of Indigenous wisdom and cultures, we are also doing our best to integrate emerging insights relating to gender, sexuality, trauma, ecology, racism, and socio-economic injustice.

Aware of the damage that has been done to people in the context of the Church, and the resulting reaction against both institutional church and religion, the idea of leadership itself and the kinds of images or metaphors we have used to describe or define ministry have had to be re-examined, and educational content and processes adapted to new experience and awareness of needs. We are seeking new kinds of leaders for a different kind of church. With all that has gone on in our time, it is almost a matter of training people how not to be clergy.

Formation more than ever needs to be fluid and responsive, as more variety and new challenges continue to emerge. We are training people not just to take up the torch handed on from the past, but to prepare them for the future and, in a sense, there is no program for that. Certainly, faith becomes an essential part of this process at an early stage!

Vocation & Context
In my class on Vocation, I have typically asked the question “Whose calling is it?” A person’s vocation is not simply between themselves and God (or their idea of God); it has to do with how that calling may serve God’s people. Training for ministry should have in mind the needs of the Church as a whole, so formation necessarily involves an active dialogue and relationship between the seminary/theological college and the Church. It requires faculty who are “up to speed” on what is going on in the faith community.

There is a real need for people with the capacity to learn and also keep on learning, not simply persisting in imposing increasingly dated ideas and information, but responding faithfully and creatively to what they encounter and experience in specific ministry contexts.

Relating to people and motivating and leading people requires a very high level of ability and social intelligence. Competency for ministry requirements from many churches suggest the importance of passion, deep spirituality, excellent relational and leadership skills, imagination, humility, compassion, and (it should go without saying) faith.

Candidates for ministry should be able to “translate” scripture and the richness of church tradition “into the real life of the actual communities and contexts where we minister.”¹

The Summons of the Future
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Wendell Berry – Our Real Work²

Once, clergy of historic mainline churches could expect to be included and consulted as important partners of the professional and cultural establishment. Though that may still occur, it is on an individual, ad hoc basis, and people training toward ministry need to expect to occupy a different kind of place in society, one more on the margins and, in many cases, at odds with the values and power of the elites. Clergy today often feel like pariahs, not prelates, and it can be very deflating to the ego. Leaders today must truly be people foolish enough to believe in the truth of the Gospel, and to recognize that God’s power is actually perfected in our weakness.³

Future clergy are going to have to know how to balance expertise in traditional ways with being change agents, and develop skills in goal-setting, consultation, collaborative, and inclusive approaches to decision-making, rather than simply finding effective ways to impose their own agenda. Clergy will need to be able to discern between merely institutional self-preservation and the larger mission of the Church, so their time and energy (and training) are not expended on things of very little consequence. Future clergy will need to be adaptable and creative, allowing new models to emerge rather than trying to replicate old ones.

Rilke’s phrase “live the questions” has become almost cliché. What we might ask is: Are we living the right questions? Are we prepared to discern the Missio Dei for our time?

With all that has gone on in the Church and is going on in the world around us, a key dimension required for those discerning toward ministry is a deep sense of hope, rooted less in their confidence or ability to fix the problems than in the redemptive, gracious and compassionate nature of the God whom we seek and serve.

Rev. Grant Rodgers has brought extensive and recent pastoral experience to his role as Director of Anglican Formation at Vancouver School of Theology. In his sixth year at VST, Grant’s role includes teaching, mentoring, liturgical leadership, serving as liaison with students’ dioceses, and serving as part of the faculty team on a variety of committees including Admissions, Worship, Financial Aid, Faculty Student Review, etc. He has a lot of experience in mentoring curates, the newly ordained, postulants, and student interns, development of ministries, and serving in other pastoral and supervisory roles in the Anglican Church of Canada in three dioceses.

This article is part of the upcoming book by VST faulty, Theological 10%.

1. The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, Competencies for Ordination to the Priesthood in the Anglican Church of Canada (, 2013, p.7.
2. Wendel Berry, Our Real Work
3. II Corinthians 12: 9