• David Johnson

A Rationale for Local Formation


The Episcopal Church has long seen a clergy shortage coming. The much-anticipated shortage raises questions of deployment and how small churches would be served.

Among the complications which have impacted the clergy deployment scene have been these factors:

  • For several years, retirements have outnumbered ordinations.

  • The rising costs of health insurance for clergy, who are largely an older and more unhealthy lot.

  • Tied into that factor has been the rising costs of full-time clergy support.

  • The changes in marriages, in which a spouse may be unwilling to relocate – out of his or her own vocational concerns – to seminary for a three-year period.

  • The reluctance of clergy and congregations to engage in multi-parish relationships with clergy. “Yoking” – once common in the church – is now frowned upon by many clergy and congregations.

I serve as chair of the overall Iona Initiative Advisory Committee and have been involved with the project since its inception. I also served as canon to the ordinary in the Diocese of Mississippi for 16 years, witnessing first-hand the developing clergy shortage. That tsunami of clergy shortage, once seen as over the horizon, has now coming crashing down on the church.

It is into this breach that the Iona Initiative – and similar local-formation programs – stepped a few years ago. The aim is to provide locally, well-formed and educated clergy for congregations unable to procure full-time, seminary trained clergy. These programs are necessities prompted by circumstances.

It has been interesting to see that the local formation programs, widely supported by the laity, have primarily faced resistance from clergy.

Dioceses determine how they will recruit, train, ordain, and deploy clergy. The Canons of the Church provide certain structures, but the details are left to the individual dioceses. As a result, different dioceses are using these local-formation programs in different ways. One geographically-large diocese in the west has only six seminary trained clergy in their whole diocese. That is because the diocese has only small congregations spread over a vast land mass. Another diocese has more than 20 students in their Iona-affiliated program and will be able to meet the mission needs of their diocese – even in small, rural congregations.

The issues of compensation and subsequent deployment (after the initial posting) are handled in different ways by different dioceses. That is the prerogative of the bishops, the Commissions on Ministry, and the Standing Committees. Different solutions for different circumstances seem to be advisable.

Individual dioceses are hammering-out resolutions to challenges posed on a local level. Many are taking very seriously the task of building community among the students. Solutions for pastoral training have been formulated. Different forms of evaluation and accountability are being tried. Community building for spouses and families – where desired – are being examined.

The reality is the following:

  • The local formation programs are responding to a real need. Clergy are not “beating down doors” to serve small, rural congregations. No one’s “job is being taken”.

  • The three-year, residential seminary training program represents a relatively short period in overall church history. To consider that as a norm is like parishioners considering the 1950s as “the way church always should be.”

  • In an era of challenged budgets, local formation is a cost-effective means of forming many clergy.

  • The challenges of participating in a local formation program are not less than seminary, they are different. Students must balance work, family, and other pressing concerns, along with their schoolwork.

  • Three-year residential seminaries will remain as the presumed path in most dioceses. Local formation will be an additional option for certain circumstances.

  • Sacramental leadership is provided to many congregations which would not otherwise be able to share the sacraments on a regular basis.

  • If compensation expense is minimized in those small congregations, more funds are freed to be expended on the mission work of the church.

  • And very importantly, dioceses utilizing local-formation programs are finding that their local students are performing as well as seminary-trained students on the General Ordination Examinations.

The reality of the Canons of the Episcopal Church is that there is only one “type” of priest. The description of the priest’s selection, formation, ordination, and duties are found within Title III, Canons 8 and 9. There is no other “type” of priest. As the old saying goes, a priest is a priest is a priest. A priest is someone who has met the canonical requirements and has had a bishop’s and presbyters’ hands laid on her or his head.

From that point on, the priest has the same vocation as others of us in that Sacred Order.

David H. Johnson

Canon to the Ordinary, retired Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi Fairhope, Alabama

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