Reflections on my years as College Principal
Rob Ellis retired after 14 years at the helm of Regent's Park College, Oxford last September
It has been an enormous privilege to serve as the Principal of Regent’s Park College for 14 years until my retirement on 30 September. Regent’s is a unique place where students are prepared for ministry in a mixed community of students studying all kinds of other subjects in the humanities and social sciences. It makes for a stimulating place to learn and teach.
Before becoming Principal, I served as the Director of Ministerial Training there for six years - having spent 20 years in local ministry. This gives me a longish perspective on ministerial training, and in that time the move from ‘College-based’ to ‘Congregation-based’ patterns has accelerated - indeed, a student living in College full-time while preparing for ministry is now something of a curiosity! Generally, they are younger students, and Regent’s is a great place for them, offering as it does a fairly ‘normal’ student experience.
Now we are realising again that we need young people to prepare for ministry. Sometimes, waiting until candidates have ‘life experience’ is also waiting for them to have their creativity and enthusiasm dampened, other responsibilities to crowd in, and for bad habits to develop! Younger candidates may also go on to gain precious experience in ministry and mission before moving on to roles away from the local church - but take that experience with them when they do.
It is good that the pendulum has swung back, and that we are seeing the importance of this again. Do encourage young people to explore a vocation to ministry, and send them to talk to the staff in the Colleges about studying theology for their first degree.
That said, congregation-based training is clearly the most appropriate way forward for most of those who present as candidates for ministry today. Learning both in College and ‘on the job’ should be a fruitful experience and means that the head-learning and hands-on reality go side by side. The challenge is to make sure that they really are simultaneous, the one always informing the other. As in other spheres of ‘professional education’ these days, a key idea is that of developing ‘reflective practitioners’ - people who think about what they are doing and where they are doing it, and constantly relate theory and practice in helpful ways. Local churches play a key role in this, and at its best the partnership between College and church is enlivening for all parties and helps shape fine ministers. It has been exciting to be involved in this.
Of course, everyone thinks that the Colleges ought to be including more of this or that in ministerial courses. The pressure on our curriculum is massive. And we also have to recognise that it is impossible to prepare people for every eventuality: who could have imagined, just two years ago, that ministers would need to navigate national lockdowns in a pandemic, with all the new skills that have to be quickly acquired and old ones refurbished? The College course will always include a focus on core skills for ministry and mission as part of theological education, but there also has to be a focus on preparing the type of person who will exercise these skills. That’s why ‘ministerial training’ is often called ‘ministerial formation.’ ‘Forming persons’ takes even longer than ‘training’ them. It requires interaction, time for reflection and growth. It can’t be done in a hurry, and it can’t be done on the cheap.
As a Baptist family, and we are not alone in this, there is a constant pressure to do things as inexpensively as possible. No one wants to waste money, but neither would we want to have a GP educated on a skimping course, or send our children to teachers who had been trained on a pared-down, money-saving budget. Some things cost money, and as a Baptist family we need to think hard about how we support those who prepare to exercise ministry among us.
When I began working with ministerial students the world was already very different from what it had been when I myself prepared for ministry. It has changed again a great deal in the 20 years I served at Regent’s from 2001. It was just as I began there that the 9/11 attacks took place, events that have been so influential in many ways since. Our relationship with technology has changed - and continues to change - at remarkable speed. By the time I finished in College I had been taking classes in which we explored the opportunities and dangers of social media, and tried to think theologically about them. Back in 2001 the smartphone was still a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye, nowadays it seems everyone is glued to their phone, the remarkable portable computer that goes everywhere with us. No one could reasonably have predicted so much of what we now know as ‘normal’ back in 2001, and we cannot expect to know what the next 20 years will bring either - you should be suspicious of anyone who tells you otherwise. All we can do is major on core and transferable skills, theological literacy, and help to form the kind of people called to ministry and mission among us.
It has been a great privilege also, throughout these years, to work in close collaboration with colleagues at the other Colleges, and also in BUGB. From its start I was the College rep on the Baptist Steering Group, but I was first elected to Baptist Union Council way back in 1990 while in local pastorate. Somehow, I never escaped. My continued presence through 31 years seems odd now, looking back - even if the last half of that time I sat on Council as a College Principal. But it does give me a sense of perspective over a long period.
It seems to me that similar issues have kept coming up but with different ‘presenting symptoms.’ The backdrop has been the slow but steady decline in numbers which has propelled us urgently towards fund-raising initiatives (and, sometimes, money squabbles) and mission programmes. We have wrestled throughout with questions of ecclesiology - what it means to be a Baptist and a collective of Baptist churches in terms of our relationships, and mutual responsibility and accountability. Ministry has again and again returned to our agenda - with the Ignite Report being the latest in a long line of such grapplings. We have tried to engage social issues in various ways as have seemed appropriate to the moment. Our agenda has mirrored the concerns of the world at such moments - but a church which failed to address the world’s concerns would be hopelessly out of touch. The travails on human sexuality which engage us now are the latest challenge.
It has seemed to me that there has often been an unwillingness to take theologically-informed decisions, and also to make research-based critical assessments of programmes - which has sometimes led to us jumping on the latest passing bandwagon. Each new initiative has been advocated with enthusiasm by enthusiasts but with no space for ‘critical friends’ to speak without appearing to be party-poopers. Without proper and deeper analysis, it sometimes seemed as though one fad followed another. Or maybe I am just getting old.
Throughout the period there has also been a focus on our organisation: the shape and purpose of Baptists Together. I think this is inevitable in a time of decline, but I am left wondering what might have happened if we had left all that alone and put all that time and energy into mission instead. A great deal has been said about mission, but while it often got onto to our agendas we never quite seemed to be able to agree a broad and liberating strategy we could all sign up to.
As for the organisation, since 1990 I think we have taken a few wrong turns - some I supported at the time, some I didn’t. We have learnt some hard lessons of unintended consequences. Yet, after every false turn and every mistake, we believe that the Risen Lord waits around the corner, calling us again to be faithful and to follow. My following will now take a different form in the next phase of my ministry - and I wish blessings and success to those who follow along the paths I have until recently been privileged to tread.
The Revd Dr Rob Ellis was the Principal of Regent's Park College, Oxford from 2007 until 2021
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