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Presbyterians retools ministry training to meet needs of changing church

By Julia Stuart

A rapidly-changing cultural landscape has led to a major re-think of the future of ministry among New Zealand’s Presbyterians.

Last year’s Presbyterian General Assembly agreed to totally revamp the way their long-standing residential School of Ministry in Dunedin delivers ministry training. They decided to replace it with the ‘Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership’, abolishing the current two-year residential course and replacing it with a mix of block courses, distance education and ministry internships.

“We’re facing a complex combination of ageing clergy, new ministers coming from overseas, and difficulty in placing existing graduates,’ says newly-appointed Centre director Dr Graham Redding.

“While most parishes still want the traditional model of a fulltime minister living in the manse, realistically many can’t afford them. There’s also a preference for an action-reflection model of training which utilizes the resources of the wider church rather than relying on the expertise of a centralized training institution.”

The future Presbyterian Church is likely to be quite different from that of a generation ago, according to a report to General Assembly. It is likely to have

- fewer fulltime sole-charge parishes, and greater prominence to large regional churches that set up and fund new community-facing ministries;
- expanded team ministries with ministers specializing in areas such as children, youth, outreach, social service, etc.;
- increased reliance on lay ministry leadership;
- greater collaboration across parish and denominational boundaries;
- greater cultural diversity and non-conventional church groups;
- some continuing small sole-charge parishes ministered to by Local Ordained Ministers and part-time National Ordained Ministers.

These ‘LOMs’, as they are called, offer the ministry of word and sacrament but are ordained only for ministry in a particular parish. They were introduced in 2002 and the first one was ordained in 2004.

True to the strong educational Presbyterian tradition, training involves working towards a certificate of pastoral leadership following at least two years of theological study – making the LOM option more of a response to personal circumstances of the ordinand than a lower level of minister quality.

There aren’t many of them – fewer than 15 in ministry or pre-ordination training – and this programme is undergoing review before the 2008 General Assembly.

Abandoning the two-year residential component for the Nationally Ordained Ministers (NOMS, who can operate throughout New Zealand) carries some risks, among them turning out more skilled but less spiritually mature ministers.

Graham says to minimize this risk trainees in the new programme will have compulsory weekly supervision by a minister outside their parish. This is combined with regional and block courses that include exercises in spiritual discipline.

“We’ve also been heartened by parish responses,” he says. “We’ve had more offers than we expected from smaller provincial parishes to host interns. They’re not going to be going just to the big suburban churches.

“Parishes have to pay 70 percent of the bursary – about $22,000 per year – to support the intern, and we’re being creative about how that can be funded to reduce the drain on single parish resources.”

This new direction is not a trial, Graham emphasises.

“It’s all or nothing, and the staffing, which includes an appointment in Auckland reflects that. Because interns will develop a profile in the church during the course of their internship, we hope it will be easier to place them in ministry positions upon graduation than we’ve found to be the case with graduates of our residential programme. We’re also building in ways of detecting any problems in internships early, with regular monitoring.”

This all starts in 2008, fortunately with low numbers – two interns in Christchurch and one in Auckland - for the first year. Graham is both realistic and optimistic.

“Parishes need to understand it’s not just a way of getting cheap ministry,’ he said. “But we won’t really know until we find out how the daily expectations work out in practice.”