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MTU closure first step in ministry training review

By Paul Titus

Financial constraints and low student numbers have led the Methodist Church to close Trinity Theological College’s Ministry Training Unit (MTU).

John Hinchcliff

The decision to close the MTU was made by Methodist president Rev Brian Turner, based on the recommendation of commissioner Dr John Hinchcliff. As commissioner, John Hinchcliff currently holds the governance responsibilities of the Methodist Church’s Board of Ministry, which oversees Trinity College.

The MTU was set up to train students for the Diploma in Practical Ministry, and it was housed at Pitt Street Methodist Church in downtown Auckland. Its existing students will complete their training at Trinity College’s campus in the Auckland suburb of Meadowbank.

Brian Turner says the closure of the MTU stems from the mandate Methodist Conference 2006 gave to Trinity College to consolidate its Auckland-based ministry training at one site.

“In arriving at his recommendation, the commissioner canvassed a cross section of advice from within our Church. The critical issues he considered include the inability of MTU to attract sufficient students and the projected budget deficit for the MTU in the present financial year.

“Only five students were enrolled for the MTU. No students entered the programme last year and only one new student enrolled for 2008. Of the four existing students, two must complete a single unit of their Diploma in Practical Theology, and the other two are finishing ministry formation.”

Trinity College retains accreditation to deliver the Diploma in Practical Ministry, and Brian Turner says components of it may continue to be part of the training the Church offers.

“The MTU and its talented staff have served the Church well. Its graduates are contributing significantly in both Church and community,” Brian Turner says.

“It is important to remember, however, that MTU is but one facet of Trinity College. Ministry education, training and formation will continue through the college and the wider Church.”

After he received the commissioner’s recommendation, Brian Turner says he consulted with key stakeholders including representatives of Taha Maori and Tauiwi sections of the Church, and staff at MTU.

John Hinchcliff says he has been impressed with the way the leadership of the Methodist Church has dealt with the issues surrounding the closure of the MTU.

“I come from a career in city government where people tend to go for the jugular. It has been a joy to work with church leaders who are responsive and responsible. They have approached the issue with care and concern for the MTU staff, and the MTU people have been very dignified in their response.

“The Church is not wealthy and it could not sustain two small struggling theological programmes. It is necessary to develop a single strong programme. The future of the church depends on it,” John Hinchcliff says.

The closure of the MTU is the first stage in the commissioner’s review of the Church’s ministry training programme. He is now preparing a questionnaire that will be distributed throughout the church to get feedback from parishes and synods about the issue.

Former Trinity College principal Rev Dr John Salmon is concerned about issues arising from the closure of the MTU. He notes that student numbers are small in all mainline churches today, largely because churches are no longer central to society and ministry does not have a strong career path.

“Small student numbers will always mean high cost when churches require a focus on their denominational priorities and ethos. This means their programmes cannot readily be 'bought' from other institutions and students cannot readily access relevant education for themselves.

“Neither the cost of a programme nor the overall size of the student group is a good indicator of the actual value or worth of a residential programme. These programmes are inevitably small, with a relatively high per-student cost.”

John Salmon says debate in the Church about ministry training mirrors debate in the wider society about education.

“There are threads in the Church that support what the MTU programme stands for educationally and theologically, but they are not necessarily represented in the Church's formal leadership.

“On the one hand are approaches that believe education's role is to pass on agreed values and ideas. On the other are approaches that say education should provide insights and skills to enable people to critique what is received and to imagine new possibilities.

“Naturally, there is a tendency for people in positions of authority to hold views of education that support existing values and structures. This should be recognised as we work towards a Church and its ministry that affirm justice-focused leadership in the name of the gospel.”

Former Trinity College faculty member Robyn Brown is also concerned about the closure of the MTU. She says more consultation and analysis should have taken place. She believes those who understand the MTU programme know it is more than a number of academic papers and that the life of the unit was an integral part of the programme.

“It is my view the work done through the MTU was at the cutting edge of theological education and provided a glimmer of hope for the future of the Church. No doubt care was taken to ensure the closure of the unit was made according to the law.

“This does not necessarily mean justice was done to the current students or staff or that the closure is in the best interest of our Church. I am concerned for the students yet to complete the programme when the staff qualified to teach it have been made redundant or not had their contracts renewed.”