Search our archive:

« Back to Issue 33

Training Ministerial Students in Spirituality

By Paul Goodliff.

Head of Ministry for the Baptist Union of Great Britain

The Hind Report on theological education has re-envisioned ministerial formation with an emphasis upon the competencies required for effective ministry. In theory these competencies are assessed, but how does one evaluate competency in developing and sustaining a personal spiritual life and appropriate disciplines? Spiritual vitality is more than just one competency amongst others, but can it be evaluated in those terms, alongside, for instance, the ability to communicate in public settings, lead in public acts of worship or engage in effective and safe pastoral care?

Among the various aspects of ministerial formation comprising the contemporary training for those seeking ordination, the development of spiritual disciplines for the personal growth of the student minister or ordinand can be minimised or even absent altogether. Allied to this is a suspicion among some ordinary churchgoers that theological education destroys a person's spiritual life, and some are deterred from pursuing this because of a fear that a simple and real faith will be compromised by the process.

It is clear that in the course of a thoroughgoing process of education and training for the clergy there is a proper place for the kind of questioning of simplistic assumptions about the Christian faith and the development of a healthy scepticism (if not cynicism) about some aspects of faith. For instance, it is important to question both theology and praxis if the problem of human suffering is to be wrestled with in some depth, a vital ability in the experience of all ministers in pastoral roles if they are to avoid either the kind of simple, and even damaging, answers that minimise the reality of suffering or too quickly seek to 'explain it away,' or allow a slow erosion of the minister's own faith in the face of human suffering that ultimately robs the minister of the ability to give any kind of account of a good God who is personally and intentionally present (that is, the God of Theism that is usually presented as the God described in the historic Christian faith). These questions are questions of spirituality and faith that are existential in the ordinand as much as theoretical. They are also the kind of questions that some churchgoers would prefer the young adult Christians in their congregation to avoid, lest they 'lose their faith.' Better to just read the Bible and believe it, as if it were that easy.

However, these questions, and the spiritual disciplines that inform and undergird them, are precisely the kind of questions that are frequent in the tasks of apologetics and evangelism. In a post-Christendom culture,1 it is precisely those tasks that increase in importance, and the supposed threat to the individual's faith that arises from the study of theological questions must be faced if both the laity and the clergy are to be equipped to give a good account of the hope that is in them (1Peter 3:15).

If fear of the questions that a theological education raises obscures the spiritual development of ministerial students, then others, perhaps, see that development as incidental to the educative process, something that is more caught than taught. Here there is an intentional separation of personal faith development from academic questions, in part driven by the values of the secular academy, and an indifference to the mechanics of an existential appropriation of aspects of Christian discipleship and spirituality that is rooted in pietism, holiness theology (and its modern offspring, pentecostalism) and an anti-intellectualism of an earlier generation of evangelicals.


We need to define what we mean by this slippery category, 'spirituality'. John Hull defines it thus:

"Spirituality refers to the achievement of true humanness, and religions are the instruments for doing this in the presence of the ultimate. .... Faith is the positive response to the issues raised by spirituality or religion. In the larger sense, in which faith is a human potential for response, we may speak of faith without religion, but not of religion without faith. When faith is understood in the larger sense, faith is the attitude of acceptance directed toward the transcendence of the human, and faith in the narrow sense of religious faith would be directed towards the symbols of ultimacy." 2


"We must not forget that there are forms of the spiritual which are not religious...... When we speak in this way, we refer to the way in which art, literature, music and science contribute to the lifting of our human being above the merely biological. We must distinguish that which extends our humanity from that which transcends it." 3

Chris Ellis defines spirituality as "the interaction of theology, prayer and practical Christianity - what Christians think in respect of God, how and what they pray, and how they act as Christians." 4

In particular we are referring to those aspects of the minister's life that have to do with a personal faith, a living appropriation of the Christian story and practice that nourishes and sustains the work and witness of the minister, including a personal rule of prayer, the regular reading of Scripture, and so forth.

Broader Educational Philosophy

The secular theories of education might broadly be categorised into those whose purpose is the pursuit of knowledge5 (knowledge-centred), those which see the purpose of education as an induction into adult society 6 (society-centred), and those which emphasise personal growth and development 7 (child-centred).

How might spirituality be conceived within these categories? In a knowledge-centred approach, the purpose would be to learn about the study of spirituality, its history and its theology. In a society-centred approach, the purpose of training in spiritual development would be to equip student-ministers for their role in the church, giving them skills to fulfil appropriate professional tasks, or to ensure competence in this area of ministry. In a child/person-centred approach, the purpose of spiritual development would be to see the minister grow personally in spiritual maturity. In our evaluation of the current provision later, we shall return to these categories and analyse that provision in those terms outlined here.

The Historical Context for Spiritual Formation in Training

Andrew Louth demonstrates how the origins of what we now call higher education, with universities at its heart (and the sector in which most ministerial education takes place), lay in the education of monks.8 The purpose was to provide them with the tools they needed to sing the divine office, which involved reading Latin. The vocation of a monk was to come to know God through contemplation, contemplatio. The goal of knowing God was achieved through, most commonly, four steps, lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio, (reading Scripture; meditation upon what one had read, which was most commonly Scripture; prayer and contemplation). The contemplation of God was not thought of as some form of achievement, the religious equivalent of a level four qualification, so much as the gift of God received as the monk prepared himself in the place of quiet and reflective prayer to be open to such a gift. In other words, the goal of the learning that monks underwent was primarily the development of their spiritual life.

Louth argues that the distinction between the active life and the contemplative life arises earlier even than Aristotle and Plato. The active life is concerned with doing, with business, commerce and politics, while the contemplative life is concerned with beholding things, a 'sort of intellectual seeing.' 9 These two kinds of life correspond to two ways of understanding: problem solving, calculating and reasoning, (the Latin ratio), and reason as reception of the truth (in Latin, intellectus). Augustine reclassified this into knowledge achieved by ratio and sapientia, the kind of knowledge received by intellectus. The former enables us to do things; the latter is simply beholding, contemplation, knowing reality for what it is, and especially, knowing God.

We might immediately note how much ministerial training is problem solving, the exercise of ratio, reason. The Scriptures are studied to enable the faith to be taught, and especially the Scriptures expounded and preached. The cure of souls requires a working knowledge of those technological disciplines of sociology and psychology, social services and benefit provision, while the management of the institution of the local church requires administrative and human relationship skills, such as conflict management, goal setting and the communication of vision. Even in those areas where spirituality is taught, the suspicion is that it is done so to give the minister the skills she or he needs to become an adequate spiritual director and guide in the spiritual life.

The medieval university was a place where the liberal arts were studied in order to understand the world God had created and in order to make possible a life of contemplation. Somewhere in more recent history all that changed, and Louth cites Kant as one culprit of the change, although probably he was a symptom of wider social and intellectual changes rather than their cause. In place of the quiet reception of the knowledge of things (a quasi-revelatory experience), Kant, in the preface to the second edition of his Critique of Pure Reason, speaks of reason "constraining nature to give answers to questions of reason's own determining."10 The sense that one wrests the truth from nature in accordance with one's own pre-determined categories contrasts with the notion of contemplating what 'is', according to its own criteria.

Another transforming process lies with Marxism, argues Louth, which sought to understand the world in order to change it. The process of revolutionary struggle requires all knowledge to be useful, and all to work to bring about that end of history, the classless utopia. He notes how Scottish theological colleges privilege the saleable courses, the financially viable subjects, and the utilitarian disciplines, producing education that is consumed by students, and their employers! The critique of a modern university that Louth produces need not detain us here, except in this regard. If theological education as a mode of ministerial formation mimics the values of the modern university, then we should not be surprised that the products of that system are equipped to do ministry, with a list of competencies attached, but ill-equipped to be ministers, which requires character and contemplation.

To develop contemplation requires time free from 'work' (in the terminology of the ministerial student, free from essay writing or the placement duties of pastoral care, sermon writing and mission). It requires 'leisure', a stillness from activity, that is rare in our theological colleges today. The English translation of the Psalmist in Psalm 46:10 is rendered 'Be still and know that I am God,' but the Septuagint translates this as 'Have leisure, and know that I am God.' If the contemplation of God, or at least, giving the minister the tools to do so, is a priority in ministerial formation, then either the time devoted to other, technological aspects of the work of the minister needs to be replaced with this leisure, or else the period of time required for the formation of the minister will need to be extended from its current three or four years, familiar in the education of most ministers, to six or seven.

The Current Provision in Baptist Theological Colleges

In order to illustrate these matters, let me turn to the tradition that is my own. There are five theological colleges in relationship to the Baptist Union of Great Britain: Bristol Baptist College, which team teaches with Trinity College, Bristol, an Anglican institution11; Northern Baptist College12, which is wholly in an ecumenical context; Regents Park College, Oxford, a Permanent Private Hall of the University of Oxford and part of the group of theological colleges within the University13; Spurgeons College, London14 and The South Wales Baptist College, Cardiff15.

For contrast, Trinity Bristol, an Anglican College, has a much more fully developed programme of spiritual formation. Bristol Trinity sees the heart of its task to form men and women of spiritual ability to serve as Church of England clergy. There is a combination of courses and seminars, outlined below, and space for personal prayer, reading and so forth built into the timetable.16


It becomes readily apparent that the emphasis is upon teaching courses on spirituality through a two stranded approach: the various disciplines, such as prayer, direction, etc., and a study of the history of spirituality, such as lectures and reading on Julian of Norwich or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Little time is given within the programme of teaching to establish the disciplines and there are no strongly structured approaches to personal direction, oversight or tuition in personal devotional habits. The assumption is made that these are 'personal' and 'caught'.

Returning to the section on wider educational philosophy, we see that the emphasis has been a Hirstian acquisition of knowledge about spirituality, related to a University curriculum that has traditionally tested the understanding of a subject area. All the Baptist Colleges are connected to one or other British University17 and all award degrees from Bachelors through to Doctorates. It is not surprising that this educational philosophy remains dominant.

However, in the context of ministerial formation it is not so much knowledge about spirituality that is required as the development of habits of spirituality and the skills and disciplines to nurture and develop those skills personally, and to offer direction and training to others in the congregation and beyond. In other words, a society-centred approach that seeks to provide the churches with men and women resourced with character and discipline to sustain a demanding pastoral ministry, and a child (or person) centred approach that seeks to nurture the 'heart' of the student minister through their spiritual development. These require modes of training other than the acquisition of knowledge, and include the formation of habits of prayer, Scripture reading and worship, that are more akin to an apprenticeship; the ability to offer spiritual direction and the living of a sustained spiritual life as 'an example to the flock,' that also benefits from working alongside a 'master craftsman.'

This is a lengthier process than a semester's course, and needs to run throughout the six or seven years of initial ministerial education (or IME, phase one in College, and phase two in initial pastorate). It requires some assessment, but not through examination, or even coursework. It would benefit from the requirement that a rhythm of prayer and life be adopted, scheduled and monitored. For instance, a compulsory period of time each day or at least once a week, when all teaching activity ceases and the expectation is that personal spiritual development and discipline would be practiced, if at all possible in a College-wide time of silence, as Trinity Bristol welcomes each Wednesday. All ministerial students would be expected to take time for a retreat each year, and the current 'retreats', often a day a term of corporate activity, be replaced by a day for personal prayer and spiritual reading.

There is a need for the best practice from each tradition to be invested in a collaborative endeavour that provides a model of spiritual formation that could be adopted by all, monitored by the Departments and Divisions of Ministry on behalf of the churches of the various denominations, who ultimately are the bodies that are strengthened by ministry that is spiritually sustained, or weakened, harmed even, by ministry that lacks spiritual depth, consistency or development.

By these means over six or seven years it might be expected that a habit of life would have sufficiently developed in most trainee ministers that its continuance as a voluntary set of practices and habits after the completion of IME could reasonably be assumed.

Only by a deliberate re-prioritising of spiritual formation to the heart of the educational process that forms ministers of word and sacrament can the central task of that process be accomplished: to enable men and women to be so shaped in habits of personal spiritual discipline and equipped with the resources of understanding of the faith (its Scriptures, theology and history) and development of skills and competence in the various practices of ministry (preaching, apologetics, pastoral care, administration etc.), that the churches can be confident that they will receive ministers of depth and ability to meet the challenge of pastoral leadership in a culture that is both postmodern and post Christendom.


Arnold, Matthew Culture and Anarchy, 1869.

Bonhoeffer, D, The Way to Freedom New York, Harper Row, 1966.

Ellis, C, Gathering. A Theology and Spirituality of Worship in Free Church Tradition, London, SCM Press, 2004.

Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1980; Freedom of Simplicity, London, SPCK, 1981; Streams of Living Water, London, Harper Collins, 1999.

Foster, R and Smith, J, Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups, London, Hodder and Stoughton,

Goodliff, Paul, Care in a Confused Climate. Pastoral Care and Postmodern Culture, London Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998.

Henry Newman, John Idea of a University, 1854.

Hirst, Paul, Knowledge and the Curriculum, London, Routledge,1974.

Hull, John M Spiritual Development: Interpretations and Applications. British Journal of Religious Education, Vol 24:3 p176

Irwin, Kevin, Context and Text: Method in Liturgical Theology, Collegeville MN, Liturgical Press, 1994.

Jacobs, Michael , Swift to Hear, London SPCK, 1985.

Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith, London: Macmillan, 1963.

Locke, John, Thoughts Concerning Education, 1693.

Louth, Andrew, Theology, Contemplation and the University. Studies in Christian Ethics, Vol 17(1) 2004.

Manton, Jill, Spiritual Formation in Theological Education, British Journal of Theological Education, Vol 9(2) Summer 1997.

Murray, S. Post-Christendom Carlisle, Paternoster, 2004.

Nairn, Penny, When I Needed a Neighbour. Enabling Pastoral Care in the Local Church, London, Marshall Pickering, 1998.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques, Emile, 1762.

Ross, Alistair, Counselling Skills for Church and Faith Community Workers, Maidenhead, Open University Press, 2003.

Schmemann, Alexander, Liturgical Theology: Remarks on Method' in T Fisch (ed.) Liturgy and Tradition: Theological Reflections of Alexander Schmemann, Crestwood NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1982/1990.

Paul Goodliff

Baptist Minister, Head of Ministry at the Baptist Union of Great Britain and tutor in Liturgy and Christian Doctrine at the University of Gloucestershire’s Open Theological College

Ministry Today

You are reading Training Ministerial Students in Spirituality by Paul Goodliff, part of Issue 33 of Ministry Today, published in February 2005.

Who Are We?

Ministry Today aims to provide a supportive resource for all in Christian leadership so that they may survive, grow, develop and become more effective in the ministry to which Christ has called them.

Around the Site

© Ministry Today 2021