Mixed-Mode or Residential? I’ve Done Both

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GUEST POST:// David Taylor is a final year ordinand at Wycliffe Hall. Due to be ordained this summer, before training he worked for a research start-up in science, a school tutor, and was an integrated member of Archbishop Justin Welby’s Community of St Anselm.

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When I first received my recommendation to train after BAP, I was relieved. Having spent six turbulent years working in a small start-up company and being left out of work for several months when that company collapsed, training, for me, meant stability. ‘At least I know what the next three years are going to look like,’ I thought to myself naively. After all, I’d spent over six months discerning where God was calling me to train. I felt pretty confident that the winter had passed, the rains were gone, and the season of singing had come.

Now in my third year, it’s fair to say that my route through training has been anything but stable!

For my first year, everything seemed to be fairly smooth sailing as a mixed-mode ordinand at St Mellitus. I was convinced that I was where God wanted me to be both in terms of college and church placement, I was enjoying training (for the most part!) and I knew that I was growing both in my walk with God and as a minister of the gospel. But then my church supervisor left to take a new job (a move that I fully supported, I hasten to add!) and I began to grapple again with my sense of calling. Being a mixed-mode ordinand in an interregnum is hardly ideal. When so much of the mixed-mode approach is divested in the church supervisor (nearly always the incumbent), it’s no surprise that it begins to fall apart when the supervisor cannot be there.

And in my case, the mixed-mode approach did fall apart. But it didn’t happen overnight. When my church supervisor left, I felt that God was calling me to continue as a mixed-mode ordinand, and I felt that I was still called to that particular church placement. However, knowing the make-up of that context (7 churches; rural area; small ministry team) I felt that I would need more tangible support than St Mellitus was able to afford with its primarily dispersed approach to College life. I needed the stability of a residential community. This led me, for my second year, to Wycliffe Hall, which by that point had grown a small mixed-mode offering rooted in a residential community. It was just what I needed!

But as the interregnum continued, I began to doubt my decision to continue mixed-mode. I had become a curate ahead of my time, and my boundaries were being challenged significantly. Keeping on top of study was proving particularly difficult in the light of growing pastoral needs within the church. Moreover, I wasn’t really being trained. I was just getting on with what needed to be done, learning passively rather than actively. I was helping to keep things afloat rather than enjoying the variety of experiences that training should provide. Mixed-mode training wasn’t working for me anymore. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but it couldn’t continue. So now, for my third year, I’m a full-time residential ordinand.

In summary: three different training pathways in three years; not what I had in mind at all!

These are just the milestones on the journey though. They speak nothing of the paths between them, and these paths were far from easy. There was heartache both personally and pastorally. There was significant grappling with my sense of call and much confusion on my part. There were doubts about whether I had ever heard God right when I started as a mixed-mode ordinand. My perceived external pressure was to minimise disruption, and I undoubtedly felt internal pressures to minimise damage to a fragile congregation; pressures that I ought to have been shielded from as a fledgling ordinand.

It’s certainly been a tortuous journey! However, I don’t wish to downplay all of the good that I have experienced along the way. I don’t doubt that God has been leading the me all along, but it’s fair to say that I’m dissatisfied that my route through training wasn’t made easier and that I have always been the one who has had to take the initiative to discern each step despite my limited experience. If nothing else, it’s given me a desire to make sure that training does what it’s supposed to do: to provide a safe environment in which ordinands can grow into the people and ministers that God has called them to be.

As someone who is concerned for the future of ministerial training and for helping the next generation of deacons and priests to do ministry in a sustainable way, I can’t help but feel the need to share some reflections based on my (admittedly unique) journey as an ordinand, particularly given the Church of England’s developing trajectory towards mixed-mode training. I hope that it’s the beginning of a conversation about how mixed-mode training can learn from residential training and residential training from mixed-mode, because both are needed. As I’ve reflected on my own journey, this key question keeps coming to mind: how can ordination training best equip future generations of ministers in today’s rapidly changing landscape of mission and ministry? Mixed-mode training is undoubtedly part of the answer, but I believe there are lessons that it can learn from residential training pathways that could make it even more effective in the long-term.

It’s important to say that what follows is not intended as an attack on St Mellitus or indeed the mixed-mode model. Both the College and the model have proved invaluable for many and have opened up training to those for whom traditional (residential) models just aren’t appropriate. I left St Mellitus after only a year, but I certainly felt loved and supported by both students and staff there, not least as I navigated the difficult decision to leave. I rejoice that St Mellitus is growing and that the mixed-mode model is easing the transition from training into curacy. What I’m urging here though is for the mixed-mode model to be evaluated critically for its long-term impact, and for how it might work better when things go wrong. Because let’s face it, things do go wrong. And the cost of things going wrong, I suggest, falls most heavily upon ordinands in their early ministries and their families. At such a vulnerable stage of ministry, it’s important that ordinands are cared for, especially when things get tough. I might even be so bold to suggest that the future of the Church of England is at stake.

What, then, are some of my reflections of mixed-mode training?

Mixed-mode training is heavily reliant on the ordinand-incumbent relationship. This is not a problem in itself. Think of Paul training Timothy or Jesus his disciples. There is no better way to learn how to ‘do ministry’ than in the context of close relationship, be that church supervisors, or college tutors. One of the challenges of the mixed-mode approach though, as I said earlier, is that it divests so much of the demand of training in the church supervisor.

What happens when that training relationship breaks down though? In my case, it was an interregnum, but what about unexpected illnesses or personal tragedies? How does mixed-mode training work when that vital source of support and learning for the ordinand is removed? Changing the placement church might be an option, but it can also be a tremendous upheaval for the ordinand. In my case, I was supervised remotely by a minister in a nearby town. But in practice, that could only be a short-term solution. It complicated my training, it added travel time, and the supervisor could only offer limited support without being more connected to my church. I could have been supervised by the house-for-duty vicar on our team, but he was stretched with the additional demands on his time that resulted from the interregnum. Supervising my training during the interregnum was complicated!

What I’ve come to conclude is that mixed-mode training works really well in large church environments where ordinands can be given a specific ministry to focus on and where there are other people who can act as supervisors if circumstances dictate. Where mixed-mode training doesn’t work so well is in smaller church environments with a small ministry team and where there are no distinct ministries for which ordinands can be given responsibility. There need to be obvious boundaries for the church in terms of what the ordinand does and clear lines of authority. Without these things in place, I suggest that mixed-mode training begins to break down.

Dioceses and training colleges need to be aware that ordinands can feel small. Most ordinands haven’t got clue about how dioceses and training colleges operate or the various pressures that these institutions face. When things get tough, ordinands often don’t know whether the difficulties they are facing are just par for the course of ministry or whether it’s something that is actually a problem that needs to be dealt with. I, for one, certainly didn’t want to be seen to be creating problems or become a burden on other people unnecessarily. When I faced problems in training, my gut instinct was to endure them rather than say that I was having difficulties. I found it hard to shout out. It’s only in hindsight that I realise quite what a tricky position I was in when my church supervisor left.

When working agreements are drawn up between mixed-mode ordinands, church supervisors and college tutors at the beginning of the placement, it needs to be acknowledged that the ordinand is the weakest party, even though they are the one who is at the centre of the process. They’re trying to get to grips with a new way of living – a life of ministry – and they need to be led and supported well. There is an onus on colleges, I suggest, to make sure that the church placement is working well for the ordinand, and this requires more than an annual visit to the placement. It needs active monitoring, because ordinands aren’t likely to highlight problems with their placements until those problems become too big to handle.

Church supervisors need to be careful about how mixed-mode ordinands are perceived. Managing expectations in churches is never easy. The title ‘ordinand’ means just about nothing to anyone unless they know someone who has been an ordinand. What, then, should an ordinand be called? After all, titles connote responsibilities. If the title ‘ordinand’ is tricky to get the head around, would ‘pastor’ or ‘trainee vicar’ be better? Should the word ‘lay’ be used somewhere to make it clear that the ordinand isn’t (yet!) ordained? In conversation with my supervisor, we opted for ‘minister in training’ thinking it was fairly clear, but it wasn’t long before even that became confused. Some began to call me ‘curate in training’, even ‘curate’. And, of course, when asked what difference ordination will make in terms of what I would be able to do as a curate, the honest answer in the first instance was ‘none’. In many ways, mixed-mode ordinands already operate as deacons, even as they prepare for their deaconing. But there is one key difference. Ordinands have power but no authority, whereas deacons have bestowed upon them the authority of the Church.

Having power without having authority is complicated. In my case, I knew what needed to be done to keep the church moving forwards during the interregnum, but I had no authority to do it. During that time, I had many conversations with priests who spoke about the difficulties they faced when their training incumbents left during their curacies. But that situation is only slightly comparable. Being left without a training incumbent during a curacy is difficult, but at least the curate is able to get on with the job as an authorised minister. Mixed-mode ordinands don’t have that weight behind them. Again, although my situation was unique, it highlighted for me the importance of clarity for the church, if not for the ordinand and supervisor. Perhaps there is merit in recognising mixed-mode ordinands (indeed all ordinands) in a ‘licensing’ service at the start of their training? At the very least, this would remove some of the ambiguity that ordinands face about their involvement in church life. Moreover, supervisors need to be careful about how they communicate about the roles and responsibilities of their ordinands. They have an obligation to ensure that the ordinand is protected during their training and not exploited.

There’s also something to be said here about ordinands not being given too much (or indeed too little) responsibility during their training period. They need to be trusted, but not trusted with everything. Being given too much responsibility too soon can be tremendously damaging if things go wrong, not just for the church but for the ordinand and his/her family. Similarly, being given too little responsibility can do little to encourage an ordinand who is seeking to develop his/her ministry in practical ways. Church supervisors need to be prepared to take risks with their ordinands, but they shouldn’t be unduly hasty in divesting power into ordinands until they have grown in maturity as ministers.

Academic rigour is required if future ministers are to tackle the huge ethical concerns that challenge our society both responsibly and faithfully. The mention of academic rigour is a touchy subject, and I know that it has not been handled particularly well on social media. What I’m not saying here is that mixed-mode is any less rigorous academically than full-time residential training. Comparing the Common Awards mixed-mode and residential pathways, mixed-mode is, if anything, more stretching and more intense than residential training, not least because placement commitments mean that mixed-mode students complete their studies in effectively half the amount of time each week. They still have to complete the same number of assignments. They still have to get the grades. It is NOT a light option, as it is so often perceived. And herein lies the challenge. How can ordinands cultivate a love for study when their loyalties are divided?

For the mixed-mode ordinand, choosing study instead of church commitments can seem selfish, and yet in the long-run, investing in study is going to be most beneficial. Moreover, it’s only by taking time to reflect with others in an environment set apart for learning that we can explore in safety the difficult issues that we will face as ministers. To me, it seems that training colleges are the best environment in which to explore these issues without worrying about how our ideas will be perceived. This is where the benefits of residential training really come to the fore.

What I appreciated most about my move to Wycliffe was that security of the residential academic environment, a space to ‘come away’ to focus on study, a space to explore ideas with others across a diverse student body, an unhurried space to be me. However, I also realised the flip-side for residential ordinands: that it can be so easy to get blinkered by academic study and lose sight of what this period of training is for. There needs to be a balance, and to my mind, DDOs need to work closely with their candidates to ensure that the right balance of nurture and challenge is provided. Likewise, colleges need to be alert to the unique needs to each student rather than funnelling them into a standard training course. This, for me, is where the smaller traditionally-residential colleges (like Wycliffe Hall) come into their own.

Ordinands need to be trained for deployable ministry. Nothing is ever wasted in God’s economy. Investing time and energy into a single training church is never going to be bad for the long-term formation of an ordinand, even if the short-term experience is ‘bad’ (some would say that my experience was ‘bad’ though I don’t think in those terms). Ultimately, ordinands need to be deployable at the end of training. Having a go at different worship styles in College undoubtedly helps, and ordinands would do well to enter into those different styles with everything that they have. But what ordinands really need is to see and experience those different worship styles, those different approaches to ministry, and those different contexts with people who truly celebrate those styles, approaches and contexts. For the most part, mixed-mode ordinands tend to choose a placement church that resonates with their comfort zone, and there is nothing wrong with that. Playing to one’s strengths is good. But it doesn’t make for a deployable minister in the Church of England with its considerable breath of traditions. Ordinands need to go on placements that will both inspire in challenge, and they cannot be allowed to spend time in one placement alone. Whilst St Mellitus makes sure that ordinands go on alternative placements, need it only be one? Similarly, is there perhaps wisdom in making sure that individual church placements are able to offer a suitable breadth of experiences? I was in the fortunate position of having the area dean as my training incumbent (at least for my first year!), so I was able to form good links across the deanery. Might training incumbents likewise employ their deanery (and other) contacts to ensure that ordinands are able to experience different traditions?

Using a rule of life as part of formation within a college. I began ordination training having spent a year in the Community of St Anselm (CoSA). That year has left me hungry to explore how quasi-monastic rules of life can be used to shape discipleship at the local parish level. One of the beauties of CoSA is its deliberately ecumenical make-up, and its members embrace a rule of life that works across the resulting diversity of Christian traditions. With that year in mind, I believe that there is nothing like a rule of life for helping ordinands grow as disciples of Christ and be formed for long-term ministry.

A rule isn’t about dos and don’ts; it’s about creating a safe space whereby we can explore with others how God is drawing us into Christlikeness. It’s about cultivating an environment we learn to trust God as we learn to trust others. It’s about helping us to work out what is means to be a disciple of Christ in our particular context. And for those in training, College (and for mixed-mode ordinands, their church placements too) is that particular context. Training shouldn’t be an individual pursuit; formation shouldn’t be an individual pursuit. It should be something that we commit to together as those who are on a shared journey towards ordained ministry. A rule of life helps us to grow not just as individuals and not just as a community but as individuals within community.

Seen through that lens, turning up to chapel every morning isn’t just about God feeding me, or even about me learning how to lead worship in different styles, it’s about me journeying alongside others in our distinct yet shared vocations to ministry. Turning up to small group isn’t just about growing in my own discipleship, it’s about helping others on their journey too. Making sure that our diaries aren’t so full that we are unable to commit time to one another isn’t an added luxury, but a vital part of learning what it means to be a loving community. Formation isn’t just about individual growth and personal readiness for ministry; it’s about learning what it means to be followers of Christ together. A rule of life might be one way that colleges can help ordinands to realise this dynamic.

It’s worth saying that CoSA offers both immersive and integrated pathways, or in ordination training speak, residential and mixed-mode pathways (I was on the integrated/mixed-mode pathway during my year). The CoSA model shows that it is entirely plausible to have a common rule of life across different ‘modes’ of living. Residential and mixed-mode ordinands ought to be able to have a common rule, even if they cultivate different expressions of that rule in daily life. There’s much to be gained, I suggest, from bringing both pathways together in a single training community.

This has been a long post! On one level I’m sorry, but on another I’m not because I care deeply about the future of ministerial training, and I feel that there are ways that it can be done better. Every college is doing the best that they can, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. What I’ve tried to get at here is not that colleges have done anything wrong or that one particular training pathway is better than another. Rather, I’ve tried to delineate some of the things that I feel need to be given attention in light of my own experiences of training. Mixed-mode pathways have been a particular focus because these are newer (and will therefore benefit most from critical reflection) but also because they are becoming the predominant training stream in the Church of England. I want ordination training to provide the safe environment in which ordinands can grow into the people and ministers that God has called them to be, as I’m sure every training college does. The points I have outlined above I believe highlight the particular challenges that need to be considered at the present time. I pray that these might be the basis of an ongoing conversation about how training can best equip ministers of the gospel in today’s world.

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Are you an ordinand? Would you like to write for ‘Confessions of a Trainee Vicar?’ Use the ‘Contact’ page to get in touch, I’d love to hear from you – and I know others would too!


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