For the past nine months, I have spent a great deal of time considering the word “formation.” This isn’t a subject for contemplation that I chose — I much prefer to ponder my next walk in the Welsh mountains — but is due to my participation in the Church in Wales’s redevelopment of its program for ministry training. You won’t be surprised to learn that in those discussions words like “training” and “formation” recur frequently, though, interestingly, the word “education” rarely does so.

By and large, we who are in the business of preparing people for the ministry think of our work in terms of forming — rather than training or educating — men and women for the ministry. I have used the word often myself; indeed, I wrote a theological piece on formation for the Church in Wales and was rather pleased with the result (if I do say so myself). But, after countless hours of conversation and anxious sweat about ministerial formation in theological college, I’ve reached the conclusion that the idea of “ministerial formation” is mostly a load of crock.

Here’s why. When most people in the Church say “formation,” they use it as shorthand to describe a process whereby people are prepared theologically, psychologically, and pastorally to fulfil their vocation within the Church: ordinarily, the priesthood. Thus, seminaries or theological colleges spend two or three years forming otherwise “unformed” men and women into budding clergy and lay ministers. And to achieve this, they are given remarkable latitude, not only to teach ordinands but also to attempt to shape their character. Here in the UK, all theological colleges and dioceses have been working towards the Hind Learning Outcomes (though these will soon be replaced), which provide a checklist of knowledge, faith, skills, spirituality, faith, and character traits that should be fostered in ordinands. So it’s not uncommon for new ordinands to be subjected to dire predictions that run along the lines of: “They’ll break you down and then build you back up as a priest.”

Now, on one level, I have few problems with this. Especially in a post-Christian culture, many of the men and women who begin theological training have very few deep roots within the community of the Church or the normative narrative of Scripture. Equally, many of them have quite strong beliefs that have largely been shaped by forces outside of the Church that need to be challenged. And even their identity within the Church is often based on aesthetic taste rather than theological conviction, whether they are an Evangelical who prefers contemporary music and non-liturgical worship or an Anglo-Catholic who adores Solemn High Mass and reams of lace.


I get all that, and in my role as a dean of residential training I spend a great deal of time attempting to achieve a miraculous transformation of my ordinands, whether they like it or not. Why then my doubts?

On the one hand, if formation is as necessary and holistic as it’s often billed to be, can it really be achieved in the two to three years of ministerial training? More to the point (given the pressures on the Church today), can it really be achieved through non-residential training, which generally leaves ordinands in the midst of their old lives, trying to squeeze their studies into their limited leisure time?

If formation is as serious as we say it is then it must be immersive, of the highest quality, and of sufficient duration to embed the vision, character, prayer-life, practices, and routines deemed essential for the conduct of the ministry. This, it seems to me, leaves us in an intolerable predicament: either the process of formation is really as profound as we claim, but we think it easily and swiftly achievable, or else it’s just another example of church-spin, sounding all the right notes but not meaningfully directing policies. Either way, when we promote the formative experience of ministerial training, I suspect we engage in a little false advertising along the lines of: “Be transformed in three easy steps or your money back.”

And that brings me to my second doubt: do we actually see that transformation occur? Do clerics actually demonstrate any greater depth of character and moral fiber than the laity? I see little evidence for that claim. Clerics are as likely to post strident political messages on Facebook, tear into those who disagree with them, engage in unseemly politics, take criticism with immature sensitivity, chase after the latest smoothly-marketed initiative, and neglect their prayers as anybody else. All of this suggests to me that formation, at least as it’s normally portrayed, is largely a myth. If theological colleges are supposedly focusing on character development, then all indications are they’re failing miserably.

Finally, the unspoken implication of formation is that those who experience it are somehow morally or spiritually superior to those who haven’t. If formation is as important as we claim, then why aren’t we doing more to offer something like it to all baptized men and women? Because we don’t, we regularly end up with clergy who ooze pious superiority. Fortunately, those people are few and far between (not least because of the essential vocation of the laity to knock clergy down a peg or two), but I think the idea of relative spiritual maturity underpins quite a number of relationships and power dynamics in the Church: everything from the often difficult relationship between stipendiary and non-stipendiary clergy to the way some ministry officers and senior clerics meddle in the private lives of their charges.

What then am I contending? Do away with theological colleges and perhaps lay hands suddenly on all sorts of people? While that might solve the problem of clergy shortage, it would fall a little short of producing the kind of clergy and engaged laity that the Church desperately needs. For my part, I think I would begin by rehabilitating the word education and resituating the word formation. I’ll explain what I mean in reverse order.

In spite of my general tone above, I believe deeply in formation. The Cistercian idea of the schola charitatis where men and women are formed deeply by love, through love, and into love is one that resonates powerfully with my Augustinian heart. But this formation is not the result of educational policies, well-managed theological colleges, or psychologically adept clerics and tutors. It’s due entirely to the graceful experience of God’s love through a ministry of Word and Sacrament, as well as service and fellowship within the Body of Christ. Formation, be it of ordinands, clergy, or the laity, happens within the Church and amidst her members. It begins at baptism and ends somewhere on the other side of the grave (though even there, in the words of the Prayer Book, we’ll go “from strength to strength in the life of perfect service”). Moreover, this formation is first and foremost about the Church being conformed to the mysterious image of Christ and only secondarily about individuals developing particular virtuous character traits; formation isn’t a fancy word for personal development. Finally, this formation is due entirely to the grace of God. To speak of the formation of clergy as somehow separate and different from the formation of the Church and of its members is, therefore, misguided and not a little pompous. Really, formal preparation for the ministry is but a brief episode in a lifelong formation into divine love within a Church constantly struggling to grow into and manifest that divine love in a fallen world.

It’s within the context of corporate and lifelong formation inside the Church that the education of people into their ministry occurs. Without losing sight of all the essential elements of formation, this frees theological colleges from having to perform miracles: i.e., achieving priestly formation of men and women within a very brief span of time. They can get on with the important business of introducing students to the theological ideas and Scriptural understanding that will deepen their reflections, engage their imaginations, and equip them for their vital role within the Church as sacramental mediators of corporate formation (what has traditionally been termed sanctification). It will be through their conduct of worship, their administration of the sacraments, their teaching through sermons and classes, and their pastoral care that God will shape his community into his love; that is also where clergy experience their own richest formation.

But for that education to be effective, it must be situated within and permeated by God’s formation of his Church. This means that churches need to be much more intentional about how they form their people so that, among other things, those selected for the ministry are already in the midst of their formation before they ever step foot in a theological college. It also means that their corporate life within theological college should itself be formative; it’s by living, praying, studying, dining, playing, and struggling together that formation continues within the context of their ministerial education. In other words, ministerial education flows from earlier formation and will, upon graduation, give way to lifelong priestly formation through service to Christ’s Body. At the same time, part of the faculty’s own formation is their daily struggle not only to teach well but also to allow God through their own supervision to form the college community into his love.

Formation, then, is properly the business of the Church, and ministerial education is the business of seminaries and theological colleges. Unless we get both right, no amount of new ministry training schemes or (horrors!) leadership models will make a blind bit of difference.

But, you will say, that is hopelessly idealistic. The Church generally does a terrible job at forming men and women into mature members of Christ’s Body. And with Sunday schools collapsing, confirmation classes becoming rare, and few alternative avenues for teaching the faith being explored, there is little prospect for this getting any better. How then can theological colleges hope to produce the kind of clergy that the Church needs?

Well, I’m glad you asked, as it provides me with a topic for a further reflection for the Covenant blog…

The featured image is “And the left over” by Sanjeev Kar. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Mark Clavier is Canon Theologian of the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon in the Church in Wales, Bishop’s Chaplain, and Vicar of St Mary’s Brecon.

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13 Responses

  1. Garwood Anderson

    Mark, I’m a little surprised the Comments section isn’t more abuzz from your gauntlet thrown down. (Maybe we are all thinking . . . maybe penitent . . . ) On the whole, however, I’m in substantial agreement, and where I disagree, in substantial sympathy. As I sit here in my Nashotah office, I’m writing from a context that is, by today’s standards, exceedingly communal, intentional, and “formational” — at the same time I’m a rather late and reluctant convert to what we do here and relentlessly (I hope, self-)critical.

    You are absolutely correct that the rub is with the formation that precedes the pre-formal training of aspirants to ordination, formation in and around the church. That pool is simply too small and too shallow, with, of course, some marvelous exceptions. Speaking as a lay person, this Church simply expects far too little of us. In its patronizing politeness with respect to our meager religious appetites and capacities, it insults us.

    Secondly, everything you say confirms to me that the seductive pull of the expedience of non-residential seminary formation should be fiercely resisted. But the catch-22 reality is that seminaries who choose to resist it, may also be choosing their own noble demise. Frankly, we need a reinvigorated vision from our bishops for this. I don’t say commuting students, distance, hybrid, and extension training cannot be profoundly useful, but we need to be more honest about what can and cannot be expected from these modes of training.

    That said, thirdly, the seminaries that continue, against all odds and trends, to educate students in the context of an intensive experience of worshiping community, need to not be self-satisfied that the powerful tool of residential community life necessarily “does its magic” automatically or even toward good ends. It can just as well work efficiently to reinforce sloth rather than discipline, partisanship rather than charity, hypocrisy rather than authenticity, and so on. This is a high stakes affair, and it requires an administration, faculty, and staff with a huge buy-in if it is going to work.

    Fourthly, if I could wave a wand over this whole process and do it as I would think best, I would wish all of our students had more of — indeed, that they were saturated in — four experiences before and during seminary:

    (1) Evangelism in any and all of its various manifestations. People whose hearts do not beat for the opportunity to see other people come alive to Jesus Christ, united to him in his death and resurrection, and broken lives made whole by the ministry of the Spirit, should love and serve God in other vocations. And there is simply nothing more formative, because there is very little that is more humbling, than to come to the end of one’s own confidences and to rely on God so as to communicate and embody the good news humbly, articulately, winsomely, intelligently, imaginatively, improvisationally — as the circumstances require — to people who had not imagined themselves in need of it only to show them that their broken cisterns had run dry and that there is living water for their souls. Swing a thurible, carry a crucifix, man a torch, read a lesson, officiate the office, sit in on a vestry meeting — all of it is good; but none of it compares to coming to the end of ones own rope and meeting another human soul at the end of his, preaching Christ crucified and risen, believing God for a miracle of new life.

    (2) Instructing in the Scriptures and in the faith. It is the well-known secret of all teachers that we only know what we know because we are made to teach it to others such that they come to understand it. In such instruction–its preparation and execution–we have probably learned most of what we know, or certainly secured it. Seminarians getting to preach a sermon here and there is not even close to what I am talking about. Rather they should, preferably well before they got to seminary, have taught Bible studies, led book discussion, led catechesis initiatives, and so on. Hopefully hundreds of times. (Becasue of my sordid evangelical past, I had taught adult or young adult Sunday School lessons for 23 years running before I taught in my first seminary classroom, not counting, of course, home Bible studies and so on [1,000+ lessons?].) Not a few seminarians have actually never taught the faith to anyone. It may be that nobody thought that a lay person could do such a thing.

    (3) Lead something, preferably many things. Ideally, the seminarian should have already been an accountable and responsible leader of people, initiatives, and organizations before they get to seminary. Some have, and the horse sense of such experiences — mistakes, successes, and longed-for do-overs — make a huge difference. Some may have bad habits to unlearn, chastened by the Son of Man who came not to be served, but it is really, really hard to teach, and harder to learn, leadership if one has not engaged in doing it.

    Finally, since we are carping about “formation,” would it really be so bad if we renewed “discipleship” as a less amorphous term of art, reminding us that self-actualization and personal growth are not the same thing as following Jesus and “observing all things whatsoever he has commanded us”? By comparison, “formation” is vague and, well, kind of lame. One might even say “a load of crock.”

    Thanks, Mark (with apologies for carrying on)

  2. Mark Clavier


    What a fantastic response to my deliberatively provocative piece! I’m in almost complete agreement with you, especially what you say about expecting too little of the laity and the magic produced by the wave of your wand.

    But the trick, I think, is situating more of the formation in the parishes. I think a flick of my wand would produce a church that too catechesis more seriously and subsequently engaged the laity more deeply in the mission of the Church so that those called to the priesthood would already be soaked through with Scripture, the sacramental life of the Church, liturgy and involvement in evangelism and work in the community. At the heart of my critique is the current situation (especially here in the UK) where seminaries are supposed to take people who hardly know Scripture and have no prolonged experienced of parish life or liturgical worship and form them into effective clergy within 3 years.

    The work of James K.A. Smith, a prof at Calvin College, resonates with me powerfully. Do you know it? Drawing upon Charles Taylor (among others) he argues that we are largely liturgical animals whose desires are shaped powerfully by routines, practices, and habits. Knowledge is inscribed into our bodies and minds through these ‘liturgies’ and then dispose us towards certain beliefs, actions, and ways of imagining the world. The problem the Church faces is that at the moment, people are most powerfully shaped by ‘secular liturgies’ (he uses shopping at a mall as an example) that dispose them to imagine the world and desire ends often antithetical to Christianity.

    That’s a long-winded way of explaining why I’d add 4th ecclesiological ideal to your 3 ideals: i.e., preparing clergy to be the kind of people that can be instruments of corporate formation; who are themselves so immersed in the imaginary of the Church (as produced by Scripture, tradition, worship, liturgical time, daily offices, hymnody, etc.) that they can’t help but foster a formative community in their churches; who can be the sort of people who can be used by God to allow the Church to retain its own identity as it again becomes a stranger in a now post-Christian strange world.

  3. Zachary Guiliano

    Great article and follow-ups, both Woody and Mark. Thank you for your wisdom here.

  4. Garwood Anderson

    Mark, a full-on affirmation of your comment. Two subsequent thoughts of a practical nature: (1) Few parishes have the resources in personnel to offer such a full-orbed catechesis. (I think, for example of the exceptional work done at Incarnation-Dallas and in the ACNA, by St. Peter’s-Tallahassee; but these are rather exceptional — and, not incidentally, wealthy parishes.) And I would believe that many would say, if and when we do it, we don’t get enough takers, and especially not those who stand to benefit the most! A lot of big practical questions there. It makes me wonder if dioceses could not stand to exercise more remediating leadership in this regard. (I’m sure that I don’t understand half of the practical issues and barriers, but where there is a will . . . .)

    (2) I want to be a little “harder” on “us” (seminaries) and a bit more gracious toward “them” (parishes) in the bigger picture. Yes, yes, we want seminarians to be much better prepared than many are; we have grounds for hoping that the church would do better than it does . . . but we do get a full, intensive three years with these folks — which is much more than the aggregate access of most parishes. And we should be able impart some substantial knowledge, wisdom, and values — or at least make them kick against the goads to remain uninformed and unchallenged. Anyway, I’m not keen on overstating what we accomplish, but I’m even less keen to make excuses. I suspect we agree there, or you wouldn’t be giving your life to what you’re doing!

  5. Mark Clavier

    Woody, I think with some imagination it could be done much more often than it is, but it would have to begin with reconceiving the whole purpose of local churches and dioceses and would likewise require our (as in us theological educators) educating clergy better to be deliberate about formation. I suspect that the lack of serious formation in parishes reflects the diminishment of the idea of sanctification in the life of the Church. I can’t help but note that churches seem more likely to speak of the faith in terms of its benefits to one’s life–a kind of baptised personal development–that has not obvious relation to justification or salvation. Too often we have to suggest the immediacy of the benefits of attending church in order to get people to come. That’s a hard one to overcome in a consumer society. I’m trying to address that very topic in a book that fleshes out the final couple of chapters of my Rescuing the Church from Consumerism .

    Also, remember I’m writing from a UK context where, from personal experience, I know engagement with the nuts-and-bolts of the faith (Scripture, doctrine, common practice, etc.) by the people in the pews is often at a very minimal level in comparison with the States. One of the things I never quite got my head around in parish ministry in England was considering my members who came to church only 10-12 times a year as ‘active’! And in many, perhaps even a majority, of churches Sunday School is now defunct, especially beyond the age of 6.

    Finally, I completely agree on being hard on ‘us’. There is much more we could do given the privilege and time we are given to help ordinands become good priests. Frankly, how to make the most of that privilege ought to be a conversation that we who teach in theological colleges and seminaries ought to be having across the Anglican Communion.

  6. The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner

    Wonderful post, Mark; and Woody’s response as well. I agree with all of it, more or less.

    One point to add, another to question:

    1. Seminary (Yale Div., late ’70’s), was indeed transforming and formative for me, in a good sense, I hope. As it was for many others of my colleagues at the time. I can think of four major elements that made that happen, in God’s grace:

    a. Faculty (it was a blessed conjunction of minds and hearts at the time)
    b. Scriptural immersion (this was partly the result of the particular faculty)
    c. Prayer and liturgy — the regularity was key
    d. Peer engagement.

    Without doubt, distance learning, occasional learning, and limited residential learning is a subversion of the possibilities here. But, as Woody writes, seminaries are responsible for their faculty make-up, the frame of teaching, common prayer. Our standards are often too low. Peer engagement is something else, and I think it happens on its own within this context. But maybe not.

    2. I am not convinced by Mark’s worries over the “clergy vs. laity” dynamic. The “formation” of clergy is, I believe, distinct and special; just as the knowledge, wisdom, vision, and virtues of clergy need to be distinct. In the US, anyway, the “we are all ministers” or “we are all theologians” claims, while holding a grain of truth at a deep level, have not helped the accountability clergy need to live with. In any case, one the great problems of priestly (and episcopal) leadership more recently has been the almost complete surrender of ministerial values to the expectations, demands, and culture of lay membership or a certain kind. The fact that clergy tend to be introverts and people=pleasers, for good reasons (spiritual sensibilities and care), has contributed to this surrender — one that has had, as its consequence, the well-known over-enculturation of the church.

    The role of pastors, and hence their character and the lights by which they are led, is simply different from that of the flock. This doesn’t make them better or closer to God. But the distinctiveness of their identity is necessary to the life of the Church. And getting that straight needs to be part of the goal of what is taught in seminaries. I grant that the theology behind all this is tricky. But there’s no avoiding it, it seems to me.

  7. Mark Clavier


    I agree with you on almost all accounts. I believe firmly in a special priestly formation but within the context of the formation of the Church. What I was reacting to (probably worse here in the UK) is the idea that seminaries can take people with few or no roots in a concrete worshipping community of the Church and form them (as a kind of special priestly boot camp) into something new. Often it’s entirely unfair to the ordinands themselves.

  8. The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner

    Mark, you are certainly right in terms of the ecclesial context in which our ordinands are already being formed (or not). But it has become a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Given the character of the larger church’s common life and self-understanding, it would seem, seminary training needs to become a place of conversion as well. That’s not a new notion. I think of the Jesuits of the 16th and 17th century. But then maybe the point is: seminary needs to be longer and wider, not shorter and narrower.

  9. Benjamin Guyer

    Dear Mark, since so much of church time and energy is spent making excuses, I greatly appreciate pieces such as this one.

    As an aspiring educator, I wonder if it might be helpful to look into a group like ISSoTL (International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) and incorporate some of its work into what the seminaries do. I have found that in my own teaching, merely taking the time to do something simple – like writing reflections upon activities, assignments, and the semester as a whole – is an immensely profitable exercise. (If you have any interest, I have a teaching blog portfolio in process.) Of course, there are more quantitative methods of analysis that one might pursue, and these are also worth looking into (and such quantification need not be related to any kind of managerialism). I suspect that these same kinds of reflective tools might be incorporated into the pastoral ministry.

    As both an Episcopalian and a historian, I wonder if it might be helpful to take a longer, historical perspective on the history of Anglican education. The mid-19th development of church parties and their subsequent entrenchment in the seminary system has done much to divide the seminary system from within. Such division not only affects normative or prescriptive content (e.g., what theology they should be learning), but – I suspect – the very standards used to measure competency. If seminaries cannot agree on what to teach, how will they agree on what to test? There is regrettably little available on the history of Anglican education, although you can find relevant materials in the multi-volume histories of Cambridge and Oxford. More than this, Robert Prichard’s book The Nature of Salvation makes the persuasive argument that the divisions wrought by church parties took longer to take hold in the American church because William White, the first and fourth Presiding Bishop, hammered out a curriculum for education which everyone used for almost a century. What if there were a similar “common core” for Anglican education today? Would this not help develop a greater sense of coherence within the Communion, and a greater sense of what formation is for? I can’t help but wonder whether or not the above ecclesiastical divisions, frequently wed as they are today to political divisions, render it nearly impossible to answer these questions – not least because different seminaries, with their different theological and political commitments, are forming different kinds of leaders to perpetuate the very differences that allow each subgroup to maintain its own distinctive identity!

    If you want to change a society, you have to change its educational system. Erasmus understood this in the sixteenth century, and so did Melanchthon. Laud understood it in the seventeenth (as did his opponents!), and plenty of self-identified radicals understood in the twentieth. Maybe it is time for the church as a whole to take a hint and get a clue?

  10. Charlie Clauss

    Ben comments:
    “What if there were a similar “common core” for Anglican education today? Would this not help develop a greater sense of coherence within the Communion, and a greater sense of what formation is for?”

    This reminds me of Parker Palmer’s contention of the intimate link between Ontology, Epistemology, Ethics, and Pedagogy. Taking Ontology and Pedagogy – what you believe is real affects how you teach. Are we not at a place where there is such divergence about Ontology that a common Pedagogy is impossible?


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