But it’s formational!

The explanation of “It’s formational” has been code, throughout my training before and after ordination, for “This is very unpleasant / inconvenient / unreasonable and we aren’t sure why things are this way, but they always have been, so please put up with it.”  When I have yelled “this had better be formational”, it has been code for “This is so £*&$ing stupid but I don’t seem to be able to get out of it.”  

First example – a week’s residential at Easter School for three years.  Yes, here’s a group of people, many of them with children, let’s take them out of circulation during school holidays.  Never mind that they’re having to take annual leave, and now have the additional stresses of childcare.  It is necessary that they experience the worship of the Triduum (that’s the period from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday, the astute among you will spot that it doesn’t last for a week).  Let’s not consider the impact on their spouses, parents, children or friends.  Because the training requirement is that you will have a residential week and it’s formational.

Second example – the Deacon’s Retreat.  It is necessary that those to be Ordained Deacon should have time apart, to consider the step they are about to undertake, and to spend time in silence before God as they contemplate their step.  Because they’ve just moved into their new Diocesan houses, are trying to settle their children into new schools, learn where to buy milk and cable clips.  They haven’t spent the last three or more years contemplating what they are about to do at all.  And silent retreats are so very wonderful when you are in a new Diocese and can’t even remember the names of those with whom you will be ordained Deacon, and that’s without the Priests of your Diocese and possible Deacons and Priests from another Diocese thrown into the mix.  And partners are very understanding about the fact that they’ve had a couple of days off to help with the move, and so have loads of ability to take more time off to cope with children and with the shower which has chosen to drain through the dining room ceiling (and has been for the last three years, but no-one has really used it much until you moved in).

Third example – the Annual Retreat.  It is good that members of the clergy should take time out for renewing themselves and their relationship with God.  Think of it as an MOT for the soul – it doesn’t alter the need to do regular checks, but it does enable a more thorough review.  However, retreats are often used to catch up on sleeping, and reading.    Has no-one noticed that people sleep better in their own beds, and that carting books about is bad for backs?  (Yes, I know, Kindle, but not that many of my books waiting to be read are e-books).  Has no-one noticed that a good Spa Day has pretty much the same effect?  (In fairness, I have traded my week’s retreat for several separate Quiet Days instead, so this isn’t as Formational as it might be for me).

You will notice that these examples all involve being away from home.  The prejudiced among you will be sniffing about the fact that I trained part time, not full time.  You will be complaining about lack of academic rigour (I wish), and about the lack of Formation because of not living in a college community (been there, done that, different life).  But I trained to be a parish priest (stipendiary in my case), so I get a house in the parish to live in, not a room, so the Formation of living in a community doesn’t seem all that relevant.  Worshiping together, eating together, sharing stories together, all these things are valuable sources of support.  But taking me out of my home, adding to the stresses on my family, now that really is Formational.  


13 responses to “But it’s formational!

  1. Ah, yes. Formation. It's amazing how college college and CME/IME timetables still have difficulty in allowing for the “distractions” of home/family life. Perhaps why the RCC still insists on celibacy for its clergy. I'm grateful to my ordaining bishop that spouses were invited the night before to hear the bishop's charge to us all before the big day . At least it acknowledged, if only in a samll way, that we had our personal contexts and circumstances.

    I've chosen to do my annual retreats at Jesuit houses. On the first day of my first AR my director told me that I'd come there to listen to God, not to what some author thought, and “suggested” I put all the books I had brought away and stick to my Bible. When I did the Ignatian exercises last year we had 30 days of no other reading. It sent my brain screaming for reading material for days! But definitely formational!

  2. I do sympathise. Just think, when we get women bishops, perhaps this is one of the dusty corners of Church practice that might be revolutionised?

  3. This demonstrates that the Church, despite it's profession of family friendliness, remains male orientated. All of these things that you describe, are suitable for Single Men (and perhaps Single Women) but take no account of married men or women.

    For working fathers, who might, like you, have trained part-time, time away from both family and job may cause as much disruption and distress as the absence from home of a mother (who also might be working).

    The Church needs to be alert to their lack of pastoral care for Ordinands in your position and also Clergy who are married to each other. They just don't have a clue about the pressures on families with young (or even older) children, about people who might be making a major sacrifice to undergo training, or even for shared ministry for married clergy.

    They seem unwilling or unable to change or to adapt their methods to make adequate provision for those who don't fit their single, male, template.

    It's sexist, unfair and in my view, outdated. Someone needs to take a huge broom the those who design these course and sweep them into the mid-Atlantic.

    I will be praying for you.

  4. I'd go rather further than that. The church needs to understand the that spouses/partners are autonomous beings in their own right, who may or may not have anything to do with church or ministry. There is very little understanding at all of the amount of disruption partners have to withstand within the processes, even though the people who operate the processes try to be sympathetic and helpful.

  5. Hmmn….Not sure I can fully agree, honey. I don't think I would have coped with deaconing at all, even as a mega extrovert, if I hadn't had those 3 days of silence, particularly after the stress of moving from large farmhouse to box like curatage…And as for doing without a retreat – it TAKES me at least a day to stop chattering in my head so anything less than 3 days there and I'd never listen to God at all. But it would be a boring boring church if we were all the same…Clearly I need silence alot more than I think I do.

  6. I think, having read the comments (which for some reason have only just shown up here) I was SO desperate to be something other than mostly spouse/mum that it was really important for me to get away BECAUSE of the family.
    I too trained part time & Easter school was, each year, the time in which I felt I was actually being changed as opposed to just gathering a body of knowledge. I know my children were older (14,11 &9) which probably helped too…but I really would have crumbled if I'd had to do my full time job, continue running B&B, Readering AND squeeze in formation on a Thursday night!

  7. UK Viewer has it spot on. Although labeling these things as formation is a little unfair. Formation means the shaping of the whole person and as you recognise there are others ways to do this.

  8. I think there's a danger of equating formation with allegedly “character-building” experience (of the sort you describe). Formation. as I understand it, is about turning you into the sort of person God needs you to be as a deacon or priest in his Church. Stressing you out does not necessarily achieve that, IMHO. Being with God in the silence, and serving him in the world, almost always does.

  9. Must be retreat season – took hours to get here, a day that exhausted me. Yet it does have the advantage of a change of scene, breaking routine and I am doing some thinking. But see my blog for thoughts on the home or away debate…

  10. Thanks all so much for your comments, here and on Twitter/FB. You are right to point out the total misuse of the word “Formation”. We are all formed by our experiences, which are necessarily diverse – and we are all called to our vocation (of whatever kind) out of that experience. Being away from our homes is another experience which forms us, I suppose my question boils down to “is that particular experience necessary?”

    And an unwilling part of me has to admit that it is, to some extent. Full time ministry in a parish becomes very woven into the fabric of life (which is wonderful), which can mean family taking a back seat from time to time (which may be less wonderful). The formational experience prepares us for that. However, my caveat to that is that as someone who held a full time job of r20 years, I already had plenty of experience of work and family clashing. But I guess the same may (just may) not apply to others, and so the discovery of the unresolvable clash is better made sooner than later.

    I really don't what to seem to be underestimating the value of retreats – particularly for those who take time to become still. As an introvert, I seek silence a lot of the time, and become still quite quickly. The joy is that we are all different – for me the stress of being away tends to outweigh the benefit – the equation will solve differently for others.


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