In the 45 years of the brotherhood’s existence, it has seen roughly 600 men go through various parts of its formation program. Some became lifelong brothers, but many moved on, started families and found jobs in various fields. It costs roughly $23,000 a year to train a brother—a significant sum, if you consider that most brothers will spend 4 years in formation. Of course it’s a paltry amount, compared to the training of medical doctors ($230k), Navy Seals ($500k) or military pilots ($6 million).
In this newsletter we try to draw back the curtain a little on our formation process. To give you a good perspective on it, we spoke with two veterans, so to speak—John Keating and David Mijares.
John is former presiding elder of the whole brotherhood and currently regional elder of our Asian region. He has been serving in brotherhood leadership for 39 years and has been involved in its formation process in one way or the other during that whole period. He led the international formation house for a few years, formed and supervised many trainers, and continues to do one-on-one work himself in forming the new brothers.
David is the regional elder of the Latin American region of the Servants of the Word which has 41 members, a third of the whole brotherhood: 9 lifelong brothers, 2 committed brothers, 11 men in formation and 19 affiliates. David is responsible for the training of many of these men.
Why do young men consider brotherhood life?
(DM) We have some excellent youth outreaches in many of our communities. Through those programs men get converted to Christ and desire to serve the Lord as fully as possible. They want to give themselves to a cause. When they meet some of our brothers, they find them to be good examples, spiritually attractive men, and that is how they become interested. Many of their parents and leaders also encourage them in that direction.
How do they get connected, what are the stages?
(DM) It often starts at university. That’s when many men first get to know us. We are present at events, provide leadership programs and vocational retreats. If that contact sparks any interest, then conversations follow to help explain what we are really about. If after that men want to pursue our life, we work with them for 6 to 12 months, after which they can become affiliates.
A little while later, often once they have graduated from university, they come and live in one of our houses, for that is where young men get to know our life close-up (and we really get to know them). Then it is decision time: “Do you really want to become one of us?” If you do, then you start formation.
How would you define formation the way the brotherhood understands it, and how is it different from other educational experiences?
(JK) Brotherhood formation takes place within a strong relational context that encompasses more than just the passing on of information or instruction. It has the specific purpose of helping a young man take on the identity of the Servants of the Word. One chooses to undergo this process because of a way of life one seeks to embrace.
The trainer is there to help in two main ways: to assist a young man to discover himself, his strengths, gifts and weaknesses, and God’s call on his life. The trainer also explains the spiritual vision of the Servants of the Word. This involves teaching, instruction, and coaching, but it is broader than that. By living together in the same house, the trainer can be there at crucial moments to help a man interpret what he is going through.
What are the different aspects that make up the formation process?
(JK) There is a human and a spiritual aspect to the process, although you cannot neatly separate the two. As a man matures and gets to know himself, he gains confidence about who he is and what he has to contribute, but also insight into his vulnerabilities. In the course of that self-discovery, it becomes clearer whether our way of life is a good fit for him or not.
But key to our formation is a personal relationship with the Lord in prayer. This is where a man’s faith, love, dedication and surrender develop. As that relationship with the Lord deepens, so does a man’s ability to offer his life as a sacrifice.
(DM) And you typically take on a heavy load of service: this is where you mature as a man, your gifts come to the fore and your character gets tested. Typically, after two years the brother and his trainer have a pretty good idea whether he should continue.
What are the skills required for a trainer?
(JK) First and foremost a trainer needs to understand well our life as Servants of the Word and grasp the process of how to help others come into that life. There is also a certain ability needed to establish that relationship of trust and confidence which is essential for the process to work. It helps to understand young men and their challenges, and all of our trainers will have had ample experience working in our various outreaches, so that is a given.
A trainer also needs to be a good listener so he can ask the right questions and know when to teach, when to listen, when to correct, when to let the man make mistakes.
Why does formation in the S/W take such a long time?
(JK) We work primarily with men in their 20s and it takes years for a man to mature: you can’t fast-track that. You first need to come to a self-awareness and self-possession before you can give yourself away.
Our ideal is also quite unique: our brothers live a celibate life, ‘out there’ rather than in a monastery, and surrounded by families, and often immersed in secular occupations. That requires a strong base and a deep conviction to live the life well.
And we are keen on trainees undergoing a set of experiences before they make a commitment, such as being immersed in our mission for some years, but also getting a solid foundation in biblical studies, history and doctrine. All that takes time.
Do men who choose not to complete the process still benefit from the experience?
(JK) Underlying the discernment of one’s vocation is a process of human formation, of growth in human and spiritual maturity. As men journey with us, their dedication and conversion to the Lord grows, and so does their sense of their life belonging to Christ. That is an excellent foundation for any life of discipleship, be it as a brother or as a married man. And that is indeed what our alumni regularly tell us, that they still draw on this experience in their family and professional contexts.
Many of our brothers are also involved in other types of formative experiences, such as leadership training in our mission organizations, discipleship programs such as summer households for students and helping young people in our communities grow into mature disciples. So even brothers who have never lived with us as trainees get impacted by the experiences and philosophy which undergird brotherhood formation.
(DM) I have yet to meet a man who regrets his training period with us. Some invested as much as 8 years pursuing our call and then went on to get married, and even they consider those years with us a good investment. They remain great friends and generous supporters. And many of their wives thank us as well!