‘Why (not) rush Phase 2 Formation?’—a reflection/provocation for Act2


Rev Nicole Fleming

About the Author

Rev Nicole Fleming is the Dean of Candidates at United Theological College (Synod of NSW and the ACT). She is an ordained minister of the Uniting Church with a background in youth ministry and has served in ministry in Dubbo, the Synod Youth Unit and in Balmain. Nicole is enthusiastic about supporting candidates through their formation program and assisting them to integrate academic learning with ministry practice.


One of the interesting (and slightly frustrating) challenges I’ve encountered in my role as Dean of Candidates, is the notion of fast-tracking—by this I mean people engaged in Period of Discernment (PoD), applicants and candidates, asking: “How long will it take?”, “Can I finish earlier?”, “Why do I need to do 3 years in Formation?” or “Why can’t my previous experience in ministry/study in theology be counted?”. My answers to these questions are, you may not need to do 3 years in formation, and your previous experience in employed ministry roles and study of theology can be “counted”. Of course, it can! I’m left wondering how this, almost resistant, culture has emerged around formation for ordained ministry, particularly among anglo-Australian candidates?

So, why bother with a Phase 2 Formation program for ordination at all if we have a large percentage of candidates with previous theological study and experience in employed ministry roles within the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA)?

We have Phase 2 Formation (formation for ordination) because our theology of ordination in the Uniting Church understands that God calls and sets aside some members of the church for the particular ministries of the Diaconate and the Word. The Uniting Church has taken seriously the need to prepare these people well for these ministries.

As outlined in the Assembly’s Statement on Ordination, Ordination sets people aside in a new relationship with the whole church (not simply the Uniting Church) and with others in the body of Christ. Ordination is usually for life and holds particular responsibilities that are outlined in the Basis of Union:

These will preach the Gospel, administer the sacraments and exercise pastoral care so that all may be equipped for their particular ministries, thus maintaining the apostolic witness to Christ in the Church. Such members will be called Ministers and their setting apart will be known as Ordination.1

To be ‘set aside’ is to enter into a new relationship with God, with the Church and with the other members of the body of Christ. The Statement on Ordination explains that this setting aside for ordained ministry “involves focussing, modelling, supervising, shepherding, enabling, and empowering the general ministry of the Church.”2

The Phase 2 Formation program assists those to be ordained to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for what being ‘set aside’ (for life) might mean. What does it mean to enter this new relationship with the church? What does it mean to ‘safeguard the apostolic faith’? What does it look like to hold particular responsibility for ‘reconciling and gathering’ and ‘dispersing and reforming’—for leading the church in its ‘worship, witness and service’?

One of the tasks for the faculties of the theological colleges across the Assembly, is to provide intentional ways for those candidates to integrate their previous study in theology and experience in ministry into their growing understanding of what it means to become (be) an ordained minister, set aside within the Uniting Church for God’s work in the world.

Each college will have its own way of addressing this. When those with previous theological study and/or experience in employed ministry join the Phase 2 program at United Theological College (Synod of NSW & the ACT), we actively encourage and support those students to integrate those experiences and that study into an understanding of who they are becoming as an ordained minister.

The Assembly Guidelines for Theological Education and Formation: Phase 2 for Ordained Ministries, suggests the Church envisions education for [ordained] ministry in the following way:

  • the Church envisions Education for Ministry which will:
    1. foster the centrality of the Scriptures in the life of the Church and the work of ministry; as described in the Basis of Union;
    2. inspire the participation of the people of God in the mission of God revealed in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit;
    3. strengthen resilience, passion and competence for ministry in multicultural and multifaith contexts of the 21st century;
    4. stimulate lifelong learning and formation in the Christian life for all people;
    5. celebrate the shared ministry of the whole people of God3

The Standards also set 14 attributes to orient the Phase 2 programs designed and implemented within each Synod. Along with the other theological colleges across the Assembly, United Theological College (UTC) takes seriously these attributes. In order to form candidates in these attributes, UTC has shaped a program that supports each candidate to deepen their theological understanding and spiritual life, further develop their gifts and skills for the practice/s of ministry as well as their ability to reflect on their study and ministry experiences and integrate those into their ministry practice, increase their cultural awareness and cultural competency, and expand their understanding of themselves and who they are/will be in ministry.

Yet, Phase 2 Formation is not simply about academic education and learning the practices of ministry. We talk about formation as a spiritual discipline that is more of an art than a science. Formation occurs in relationship with God as well as in relationship with others. Peter Walker, Principal of UTC, has suggested the task of formation is fourfold in which candidates for ordained ministry are invited to participate in a process to:

  • Inform—our minds with Gospel imagination and theological wisdom.
  • Reform—our gifts into an offering to the mission of God.
  • Transform—our wounds into strengths for ministry.
  • Conform—our lives to the way of Jesus Christ.

When we understand formation in this way, we can appreciate that, while formation occurs in community, it is unique to each person. As a result, a certain flexibility is required within our Phase 2 formation program. We have developed a culture of ‘flexible pathways’. While there are commonalities across candidate programs, each candidate has a program designed specifically for them, considering the study and experiences they bring. For example, some of those candidates with prior ministry experience are given specific integration projects. Other’s may complete less field education or have a lighter academic load. Some candidates are engaged in ‘Regional Formation’ where they remain located in regional or rural areas and participate in the Phase 2 program in distance mode. For a number of years we have offered paid ministry practicums where candidates are able to complete their field education while receiving some financial support. Of course, there is more work the college can do in further developing these areas of the Phase 2 program.

Alongside this, there is a kind of internal ‘formation’ that is expected to be engaged in any Phase 2 formation program. These internal aspects of ‘formation’ can be a harder thing to pin down. However, we can understand this area of formation through the formative work we have already experienced through our relationship with God, the one who forms us in our mother’s womb. We must also understand that Phase 2 Formation involves the development of character suitable for representing God and representing the church.

This internal work in the Phase 2 formation program has to do with deepening one’s relationship with God, deepening one’s spirituality, deepening self-awareness, and deepening the way in which one relates to others. It has to do with developing the disposition of a life shaped for the ministry of Christ.

This is often much more demanding and difficult work for candidates than the other aspects of the program. It can be incredibly challenging because it sometimes asks that candidates deconstruct their theology as well as previous patterns of behaviour in order to bring those into new ways of being and relating. It is also often work those who have been engaged in employed lay ministry work or previous theological study have not been expected to do in such a formal and intentional manner. It may feel a little unfair to those candidates who do have those previous experiences of ministry work and theological study, however in my experience it is often those candidates who struggle most with this deeper aspect of Phase 2 formation.

I would encourage those candidates (and all candidates) to be active participants in shaping their program, looking for and suggesting opportunities to extend their experience, develop their craft and grow in their character and spirituality. In doing so, I wonder if those candidates who enter Phase 2 Formation with previous theological education and experience in ministry might feel less frustrated. I wonder if they might see this time as a gift rather than a burden, from the start of their formation program?

I have noticed that it is most often in the second half of the Phase 2 program that something clicks for candidates in terms of ‘formation’. Because of this (unresearched) pattern, I would argue that a 3-year program of formation is necessary for most candidates. Of course, there are some candidates who enter the Phase 2 program with a high-level self-awareness and a deep maturity of faith and relationship. If those candidates are deemed ‘ready for ministry’ in their second year of the program, then we should support them moving toward ordained ministry at that stage.

The specific ‘formation’ aspect of Phase 2 requires openness and maturity. It requires a willingness to enter the formation community with other candidates, with the college faculty and with other experienced ordained ministers. It is a task that often challenges who one is in a deeper way as it provokes candidates to think more deeply about their be-ing—who they are in God, where are they located in relation to the mission of God, how their gifts might best serve the church, who they are in relation to others and how they enact those relationships. It also challenges candidates to work on areas that need to be raised into their self-awareness and then addressed in order that they might engage in ministry respectfully, consciously, and safely. This is often much harder work than an academic program or learning the practicalities of ministry. But it is important work, life-long work, that is essential for any of us who might be set aside for ordained ministry within the life of the church.