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forming contemplative leadership

This is the fourth post in a series that I started by saying that I know in my heart what I mean, but I may express it so poorly that I will be misunderstood. I have been trying to write about communities that focus more on prayer than on programmes, more on God than on gimmicks. I struggled to find a word for such communities, and settled on contemplative communities – the concept matters much more than the term.

The first post in the series was on contemplative community.
The second post in the series was contemplative community 2.
The third post in the series was contemplative leadership.
I suggest you read those as a context for this post on forming such leadership.

The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia is intent on keeping no statistics, but estimates are that about 7% of those being ordained have been to residential formation. Ie. 93% of those being ordained have no residential formation.

One fifth of our diocese’s parishes are looking for a vicar. There is no shortage of ordained people, but there is clearly a shortage of ordained people appropriate for these positions as parishes advertise overseas for months, sometimes closing dates more than once.

This has been the development for about two decades.

Two decades ago the norm was: if you were called to ordination you (and your spouse and family) moved to Auckland to the national residential theological college. You (and your spouse) resigned from working and were provided with a living allowance during your, normally, three years there. There was a required discipline of prayer, community life, study, and pastoral formation. Now that has normatively been replaced with a meeting day once a month and distance study.

After seminary there was a period as curate, two to four years of being closely mentored by a very experienced priest.

The RC Church still follows that traditional pattern. Seminary for RCs begins with a strong spiritual focus and continues that discipline by requirement.

In the 1980s the Anglican Church went through the lengthy process of General Synod discussing and passing a motion, all diocesan synods voting on this, and finally General Synod passing it again to… remove the requirement that clergy pray Daily Prayer!

In the RC Christchurch diocese there is a pre-seminary, Good Shepherd House. This is a residential spiritual year with three offices daily, an hour of silent prayer, daily Mass, lectures, retreats, and some pastoral work.

I have already mentioned the Eastern Orthodox tradition of only drawing bishops, the primary leadership, from those with monastic formation.

What can we dream, what can we brainstorm, what can we imagine – no idea being too extreme to be put into the discussion, to help us think outside the box – in the hope that we come to a way of forming contemplative leadership in our current context?

Here’s some points to start the discussion:

  • A (residential) year devoted to spirituality, a month retreat, four offices daily, daily eucharist, an hour of silent prayer, lectures on spirituality, worship, liturgy…
  • Rescind the General Synod motion and expect our leaders to have a daily discipline of scriptural prayer (Daily Prayer)…
  • Use contemporary technology to encourage and enhance spirituality. Sites like this should be the norm, not the exception; skype, youtube video series, video conferencing,…

What are your ideas…

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27 thoughts on “forming contemplative leadership”

  1. My comment is off-topic in terms of your intentions here; but the training issue is something I think about. The issue, IMHO, is that since 95% of the congragation only touches the church experience during a Sunday sermon, it seems that delivering the sermon is a much bigger impact/skill than leadership or any other issue. The cults/ evangelicals can teach us something there.

    It seems to me that a pastor thinks that there goodness/christianity is sufficient skill and that the congregation must just suffer the messenger because the message is worthy.

    But how do you tell a pastor/priest that his delivery sucks?

  2. Hi Bosco. This is a subject somewhat dear to my heart. I am a spiritual director for a large number of priests, and quite a few ordination candidates, and the subject of formation is one that is at the top of my mind a great deal.

    One thing I notice when priests come for spiritual direction is the refrain “I feel dry” (this is not, of course, limited to priests). When I ask the questions designed to elicit some information about their intentional faith life, I find, pretty universally that there isn’t one. Because of busyness, and I suspect because they’ve never learned patterns of prayer, meditation, reflection and silence (pretty basic tools on the Way), they are simply not praying. Clergy retreats become times to read novels, or catch up on work for theological college. They’ve been poorly formed, and, I think, poorly led. This contributes to the dryness and lack of growth in their priestly vocation. So my work there is to help them to a disciplined life of prayer.

    Ordination candidates are much the same. The sort of formation of lay people that used to be common is gone, mostly, and those who present for ordination seem to be lacking an inner life, except for vague statements that seem to push the buttons of those on vocation panels (who, by and large, seem more interested in whether the aspirants will be ‘good leaders’, whatever that means). I feel, then, that my work is, again, to help them build a disciplined life of prayer.

    I’m often struck by how little interaction there is between theological reflection and prayer in the lives of the priests who come to see me. That prime ground for prayer is lost. It is quite sad.

    I’d like to say that all priests should say the daily office, preferably with someone. The recovery of monastic tools for maintaining a faith life would be a good way of helping priests to grow.


    1. Dennis, I don’t think your comment is really that far off topic. We might not agree on the percentage you quote – but certainly I heartily agree with the importance of preaching (and teaching) being done well. Again, this is a training and formation issue – as well as, as you are suggesting, part of ongoing reviewing. In terms of the context of this thread, preaching as expressing the result of deep prayer and relationship with God is IMO qualitatively different to any mechanical talking that follows even the best rhetorical methods.

      Thanks, Colin, for also so concretely and passionately kicking off the discussion here. You have been here long enough to know the enthusiasm I have for bringing out (again) the monastic tools from behind cloister walls (newer visitors here – start by looking at the links from the front page).

      Colin’s website is also a wonderful starting place. Especially his list of tools.

      The Anglican tradition IMO is founded on Benedictine, monastic, and desert insights, and grounded in an approach of shared spiritual disciplines. The loss of that insight is IMO what is behind the current search for an alternative ground for unity. The Anglican Church in NZ, as you mention, Colin, similarly for Australia, does not provide the office online. In fact when one site offered a simple NZ Night Prayer online, they were written to sternly by our General Secretary to remove the offending posting as he had breached copyright.

      From my own not dissimilar experience I totally affirm what you write, Sande. In my experience, priests extrapolate from the narrow part of the young people spectrum that they find in church to that being what all young people seek and in the process alienate the majority of youth. They do not look to (monastic) places like Taize where thousands of young people gather weekly to openly share their lives, pray intensely, simply, with a stress on silence and symbolism. There are no gimmicks, no power point, no band, no sermons, no lists and lists of doctrines…

      I only don’t think it is quite as much of an ask as you suggest 🙂

      ps. in how many conversations with priests when you talk about the office is their first understanding that you are talking about the room with their computer in it? I was not long ago speaking with a very experienced priest who argued that a successful priestly ministry is one in which the parish is “surviving”…

  3. Yep – I’m with you Bosco on this. My experience in two school chaplaincies was that young people were instinctively drawn to the mystical and symbolic. In both places I introduced or reintroduced a strong liturgical framework that included an emphasis on music/chant and the ability to be involved in the ritual process even if that was as simple as lighting candles. Along with this was an added emphasis on teaching stillness and silence through intellect and practice.

    Add to that my conversations with people who have either left the church, or never been, who consistently say they want to be able to connect at that kind of ritual level. Where they are not being overwhelmed with words (and right words!) but allowed to find their path within the mystery. I think we’ve covered over the contemplative tradition with words, words and more words.

    To do all this requires, as you say, that the minister is immersed in the vulnerability of it all – able to pray, reflect and ‘be’ without constantly being expected to invent multi media entertainment to attract ‘youth’ or be the person who maintains a model of church inconsistent with what you are pointing to.

    And essentially, the minister has to be able to interact out of this space on contemporary platforms like Facebook Twitter and the like. It’s quite an ask but doable.

  4. Bosco, thanks for this series of posts. What I hear in these is the need to return and establish spiritual formation as the center and focus of parish life. I absolutely agree with this. Spiritual formation is the one thing that only the Church can do. However this must be more than just Christian education. It must be about the transformation and healing of lives. It must be about growing, supporting, and nurturing a life of discipleship that is expressed and lived in and through our families, schools, work places, and community. In this regard the early church spoke of the priest as a “physician of souls” who is to lead others to deification, making of them what St. Basil called “complete Christians.” This assumes, however, that the priest is intentional about and committed to a life of prayer and spiritual growth.

    Peace be with you,

  5. Thanks for the kind words about the website, Bosco.

    Intentional formation of leaders has to be the norm, not the exception. But I suspect I mean something quite different when I write that than does, for example, the leadership of my home diocese. I’m not primarily interested in whether or not the future leaders of the church can run meetings, apply the legislation flowing from synod, troubleshoot human resources problems and so on. I’ve been very involved in leadership training, and I know you can train almost anyone to do those things. What I mean isn’t even a theology of leadership, because in the Christian church we have a well developed one of those (whether or not we like it, take notice of it, or apply it).

    What I’m talking about is formation of who the person is in God. I get into trouble, a lot, because I say things like “Who cares if [person X] has an MBA and a higher degree in theology. Does he pray?” People look at me blankly. Of course we need a priest in charge of a parish of 40 people in a seaside town to have an MBA and a higher degree. They’ll grow!

    But the reality is that if our priests don’t have a deep, vibrant and real relationship with God, they have NOTHING to offer the people they shepherd. Nothing. You can only give what you have.

    Instead of teaching about relationship with God I hear sermons that seek to address questions of existential angst in a pop psychology way (similar to some of the rubbish coming out of the mouths of the Osteens and Meyers of the world). And then priests despair that their parishes aren’t growing, that the people aren’t hungry for God. Thank goodness, I mutter. Because what would you do if they were?

    I’m absolutely convinced we’re at a pivotal moment for the Western church. We can either recover the fundamentals of the formation of the past, applying new insights and new methods, or we can begin to put up the ‘for sale’ signs. The monastic traditions are still alive, vibrant and used – even if they’re not residential monasticism for the most part.

    I like your idea, Bosco, of a year of intentional residential formation living in community. I think it would provide a lot of balance and sound teaching for the future. It would also, I suspect, connect new leaders to established leaders for mentoring. It might also end my need to have a stack of copies of ‘Christian Proficiency’ (Martin Thornton, 1959) to lend to priests and ordinands. I’m sure Fr Martin never thought his book would apply to priests 10 years in orders!

    Finally, to end my rant, I’d like to recommend that people revisit Eugene Peterson’s ‘The Contemplative Pastor’. Surely a classic, and a much needed reminder.


  6. Bosco, I strongly agree with your discussion starter points. Formation in prayer, lectio divina, meditation,and particularly in the Church’s daily prayer, is essential if clergy are going to be constantly formed and brought to maturity in a spirituality that is sustaining throughout the course of a ministry. It is a prayer for all seasons, and in this regard I recognise Thomas Merton’s “It is essential to experience all the times and moods of one good place.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)

    Colin Thornby’s comments resonate with my experience at almost every point. When I was working in diocesan ministry formation I was frustrated but not surprised to hear one priest describe meditation as a bit like dozing off for a light sleep. Somnolence it is not! But I fear this (minority, I hope) misunderstanding will linger until there is a recovery of praying the daily office, and it is seen as normative, along with formation in personal prayer and meditation.

    I would add a further point to your discussion list, Bosco, echoing in part something Sande Ramage recently wrote on another site’s discussion of clergy training: “one of the outcomes of being immersed at a theological college ought to be that it undoes you.” I believe anyone who is not open to being dismantled and reassembled (so to speak) with the accompaniment and assistance of wise and discerning formators, runs a high risk of spending their ministry avoiding, evading, deflecting, projecting and ducking for cover, when their unfaced and/or unresolved issues of personal formation are not brought into resolution and maturity. People cannot be formed by priests who are unformed. And great harm may be done.

    I hope that in due course my embryonic work on a model of spiritual formation for ministry – pre and post ordination – through an application of the Eight Thoughts/ Afflictions tradition of Evagrius and Cassian may have something to offer the church. In any event, today’s 28th anniversary of my ordination as a priest is a good occasion for reflection on my own formation – strengths, distortions, consequences. Whatever the context in which I am a priest – pastoral ministry, formator, long-term sabbatical student – the constant and malleable thread of prayer, office, eucharist remains.

    Preparation for ordination is more about formation than training. It is nice to see (Colin Thornby) that Martin Thornton is remembered a little. His insistent themes of Proficiency, New Encounter, have been well superseded by others, but the point remains of this as a core area of formation for mature contemplative leadership.

  7. Hi Bosco, i think that oftimes RC seminary and catechetical formation lacks or does not give emphasis or importance to the spiritual or contemplative dimension ( al la Thomas Merton or Thomas Keating- centering prayer) Many young priests are not encouraged to either use or encourage their people to use this form of prayer. I have personally been involved in Centering prayer groups in my parish and still many people think it’s just a form of Yoga or something weird like that!!! They become too attached to devotional prayer which can be fine but certainly doesn’t bring one to the God-centered dimension that centering prayer can bring one to. as you say, your words betray the cultural bias that centering/contemplative prayer is not action and there for somewhat “less than” other forms of prayer.

    1. I guess, Mariap, that formation may vary from country to country, region to region, seminary to seminary? Within your parish it is good to hear that there are such groups to which people can turn. I imagine that in many parishes not a single such group would exist. And I suppose all you and I can do is encourage people to explore, and to point people to the deeper tradition within Christian spirituality that so often appears neglected.

  8. Yeah well, sleep, musing over a video by Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan and recalling the research in the book, ‘How God Changes Your Brain’ (HGCYB) raised a few more thoughts.

    Plainly put, there’s not much point in contemplative training or formation for anyone in Christianity if it doesn’t result in us challenging the power over structures of society.

    The research in HGCYB tell us that just 12-15 minutes of meditation a day will significantly alter our neural pathways to make us more compassionate people. If we trained our ministers like this at theological college and then got them to train people in parishes and workplaces and schools, we’d have a start. Progressive RE programmes in schools are attempting to do this.

    The struggle then becomes how to transform the institutional church and the organisations that use it, like church schools and the military etc into organisations that are interested in changing the structures of society (read themselves) into the Kin(g)dom of heaven.

    But as someone pointed out to me recently, I’m just so unrealistic.

  9. Caroline Goldthorpe

    Very interesting blogs and replies. I feel that in such a moment of hope it is rather treacherous to suggest that although people would be better off with the closeness and the openness to God that is suggested, they will resist the time it takes. I know myself at the end of the service I like to spend time talking with parishioners that I don’t see at other times, but then I want to go home, and I know that is spiritually wrong, so I feel guilty into the bargain, but generally not guilty enough to stay…

    There are a lot of analogies between churches and museums I think and one of them is “Do we just put on the exhibits that people will definitely want to see, or do we put on exhibits that are also important artistically” “Do we do ‘grossology’ or Aids at Science Museums” etc and the greatest difficulty is that people do get to choose what they do. To return to the church, how do we help people to want to spend more time. How do we motivate them/us to be self-motivated, when even the priests evidently found it a bit of a chore to pray (I did not know that !!).

    I think the point of each person doing their best to be nice as a Christian is how I have always thought of my faith, and I am usually willing to give time and money to be of use in God’s name, but maybe I have been thinking of worship as a secondary level…. (I do think that there is no time to think in our church and I wish the post-communion hymn was sung only by the choir, but that is a drop in the ocean compared to the big issue you are discussing here). Very interesting, thank you.

    1. Thanks Sande and Caroline for your contributions.

      Caroline, I’m not sure why you say that it is spiritually wrong to speak to people after worship and then to go home? Yes, one does need to make time for the spiritual journey – but there are good examples of people of deep spirituality who are very busy. Someone I know is doing research on disciplined Daily Prayer life of clergy and is finding a direct correlation between residential formation and this discipline. Ie. 7% of clergy now being ordained in NZ are most likely to continue with Daily Prayer. I think your parallel with museums very thought-provoking.

  10. Back again! Found this piece on prayer from the Pagan Portal on Patheos.

    If readers can get past any Christian prejudice about welcoming Pagan perspectives into the interfaith movement, you will find delightful synchronicity with the conversation that is unfolding from Bosco’s blog post on contemplative leadership.

  11. I’m a Unitarian minister in England (York) with close relatives in New Zealand and a healthy respect for Anglican Christianity there. Sande Ramage’s name emerged at our chapel recently, due to a member finding her poem about the Christchurch ‘quake. I didn’t find out where she found the poem! It has been included in our April newsletter (hope that’s ok, Sande!) I googled Sande’s name just now and this site has proven the most interesting. I hope no-one minds my entering this blog – it’s not likely to be repeated often, as I’m not into these things at the moment. I’m newly-ish trained as a pastor, just completing further study. As you may know, Unitarians in New Zealand are unlikely to be Christian-minded at all, but in Britain it is somewhat different. On this website, I appreciate much that has been discussed (last December onwards) concerning creating opportunities within a service, for ‘ritual’ and participation of congregation, other than on verbal affirmation.
    We use services in the round, when appropriate, allowing for a thematic participation (please bring something which is special or ‘iconic’ for you) and other ways to value an individual’s own journey. All for now. Myrna in York, England.

  12. hi Myrna and others
    Delighted that the Christchurch quake prayer found its way to York. See, prayers do travel, maybe not up to heaven but around the world. And if the divine is present in all of us, prayers that travel around the world and lodge, for a brief time, in at least one other may be said to be doing their job. Fab!
    Myrna, many more of these kinds of prayers will be available online at prayersdownunder (not yet live!) in October so I hope that you will become one of the users of this new service.
    Now back to my garret to write some more …. regards – Sande

    1. A motion from an individual member of GSTHW at the meeting next year could do that, Eric. Or amending another motion to add that to it. Or it could come from one of, or several, diocesan synod(s) – I think that would take longer. I also think it is about culture and formation: would we pray the Office because we have to? If we are formed in praying the Office people tend to continue doing that. Recently I was conversing with a priest whose training vicar met with him as a curate in church twice a day for Morning and Evening Prayer preceded by meditation. Blessings.

  13. Dear Bosco,

    I have just read your 4 post with regards to contemplative practice. I would say you expressed the inexpressible very well. I have struggled to convey this to others as well. How do you wrap up something which is beyond language, thought and emotion into mere words?

    I would just like to say I have particularly valued the 2 posts on leadership. Having just been through the vicar factory here in England (and we still have full-time residential) the spiritual formation is non-existent or at best pitiful.

    God has blessed me greatly with other mentors outside the system to aid my contemplative journey, such as Richard Rohr and others local to me.

    I think your discussion point are spot on and will be doing my utmost to promoted them into our ordination training. I have already started developing such a contemplative community during my curacy among some open souls in my parish. Our growth into God over the last year has been mind blowing. It’s infectious and others are noticing the transformation. I will be definitely continuing the practice when I am responsible for my own parish.

    Thank you so much again & I get so much out of your posts.

    1. Thanks, Philip, for your encouragement. It is particularly tragic if residential ordination formation is not a place of contemplative formation. I wonder if the St Anselm community in Lambeth Palace will become a model for formation – I would hope so. Please feel encouraged to continue your journey. Blessings.

      1. Yes I have great hope with regards St Anselm’s; we have a great ABC. Like Taizé, it just shows the desire for such hunger there is for this. I hope we can start other such communities. Millennials particularly are seeking authentic faith, not trendy gimmicks.

        I also agree about the level 5 prerequisite for ordination training. Mind you that probably would preclude me. And it might mean many fewer Ordinands. It’s difficult when many selectors are still operating at level 4 or less.

        Many blessings

        1. Thanks, Philip. Maybe I need to blog some time about Fowler’s different stages of faith development. Blessings.

  14. Hello Bosco,
    At our Diploma of Anglican Studies weekend, the merits of distance versus face-to-face in community learning was mentioned.
    Reading your comments above, it seemed clear to me that the predominant reason for the prevalence of distance learning is cost. There simply isn’t the money around to send prospective vicars to St Johns or other residential colleges as there was. But what it is lost in terms of collegial support and forming daily worship practices is great.
    At our weekend, as well as eating and sleeping together we all worshipped together for morning and evening prayer thus increasing our closeness to each other and to God.

    1. Thanks, Stephen. I have no evidence that “There simply isn’t the money around to send prospective vicars to St Johns”. This money comes out of the St John’s College Trust – to my knowledge, that Trust is as healthy as ever. My understanding is that this Trust is in the ballpark figure of $300-350 million, depending on what you include. Blessings.

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