Excellence in Ministry

I’ve spent the last week working on my self-evalution for what is called a “renewal” in the world of Unitarian Universalist Ministers who, like myself, hold what is termed in our world “preliminary fellowship” with the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association.  This renewal needs to be submited to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, a group of colleagues who review it.

Like any honest self-assessment it has been both an enlightening and a humbling process.  At the same time I am working on this I am reading in our Associations quarterly journal UU World about how the Ministerial Fellowship Committee has been asked “to initiate a dialogue about ministerial culture” and that the UUA’s Panel on Theological Education

sponsored a Summit on Excellence in Ministry in December 2008. Sixty-five people attended, including members of the UUA board, representatives of four theological schools, and members of the UU Ministers Association, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC), DRUUMM (“Diverse and Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries”), and the Liberal Religious Educators Association. The summit identified eight topics that it wanted to examine; one of these was “Ministerial Culture, UU Growth, and the Impact of the Credentialing Process.” The MFC, which is a board-appointed committee, has been authorized to begin discussions on this topic with other stakeholders.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ministerial culture lately. I’ve been thinking that UU ministerial culture is largely, if not entirely, entrepreneurial and that this is not beneficial in the long run to ministers or congregations.  My experience is that if one feels called to ministry within Unitarian Universalism, one has to figure out the path all on one’s own.  There is little if any guidance unless you find and map it out yourself. Yes, there are people and structures in place to help you, but you must find them laregely on your own.  There is a mentoring requirement, but no real mentoring program. Mentors are only for folks that are already fellowshipped (what other denominations recognize as ordained).  Mentors are needed from the very beginning of the process, the beginning of the journey toward fellowship.  People need pastoral care on this journey, but we as a religious association don’t provide it. Instead we have a bureaucratic process. If you survive this process or find your way through it, you receive fellowship.  And then you need to provide pastoral care to others? Where’s the modeling?  Take this a step further.  Our Association is divided into districts.  Each district has a district Executive, not a District Minister.  Now, District Executives I’ve met, I would call ministerial people, but when we talk about ministerial culture, we are talking about managerial culture, not ministerial culture – just look at the terms we use. We may have spent some time over the last few years on a languageдивани of reverence, but not on a culture of reverence. We still use a culture of business. Until we use a religious culture, our Association will neither grow, nor will retain people in our congregations for the long haul.

I’ve been thinking a lot about theological education as well.  I received fellowship two years ago now (although I received my Master of Divinity in 1994 while a Catholic layperson).  Throughout all of my theological education in preparation for ministry (in the early 90’s or more recently while preparing for fellowship) no one even suggested I take courses or workshops in things such as nonprofit finance and staff management, family systems theory, or small group process.  Yes, some of these topics are covered on the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee reading list, but not all of them, but reading books isn’t a substitute for more in depth course work or experience.  Yes, there is a requirement of Clinical Pastoral Education for fellowship (ordination), but is that enough?  Or is it the same as the type of systems issues and analysis one faces in the parish as a newly minted minister?  Isn’t something more needed in the formation process?  Maybe that’s what is needed – a formation process.  Spiritual direction was not a requirement for fellowship.  Career coaching was not a requirement for fellowship. Mentoring, as I’ve mentioned was not a requirement for fellowship, nor was there any real program or process to ensure those on the road to fellowship received pastoral care unique to their situation as candidates for the ministry.

The real situation on the ground after fellowship and ordination is that you need fewer classes on the Hebrew Scriptures and James Luther Adams and more on how to make a budget and deal with gatekeepers and identified patients. As email gives way to social networking and even blogs are getting old in the world of video. Shouldn’t technological proficiency be required for those entering ministry? Not only our Ministerial Fellowship Committe and Panel on Theological Education, but Divinity Schools need to consider these things in designing theological education curricula and requirements.

Speaking of theological education, isn’t it all theological education?  When will the days of looking down upon religious educators come to an end?  I spent eight years of my professional life as a lay Catholic religious educator who was not on equal footing with ordained Catholic priests, yet I did much of the same ministry, often having more contact and more influence in the lives of the young people I worked with than their parish priests.   Religious educators are also ministers and they do ministry.  The longer we separate credentialing for religious educators and keep this ministry in a second class status, the longer we perpetuate the idea that religious formation and growth is not a lifelong task. If learning is the chief spiritual practice of Unitarian Universalism, we need to encourage congregations to call their religious educators, to encourage collegial relationships not hierarchical relationships between ministers and religious educators and make religious education a priority of theological education for everyone.

Wow, that feels like a lot for the soapbox today.

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4 thoughts on “Excellence in Ministry

  1. Yes, yes, yes! On all your points, including your last paragraph.

    One district — I believe it’s the Mountain Desert District — has a mentoring program for those seminarians who aren’t going to a UU seminary. Sounds great.

    From my experience … if you get the call, and you go to a church without a minister, and go to a non-UU seminary … boy, are you on your own!

  2. I appreciate the basic point made here that we UUs have moved increasingly toward a bureaucratic/administrative view of ministry and supporting ministry rather than an ecclesiological understanding. The bureaucratic/administrative is the secular cultural direction, too, and therefore our church folks come into the church expecting this orientation and ministers schooled in management as first among their skills. The current love affair with policy governance on the UUA Board, in our districts, and in many of our congregations is the best example of this. I don’t mean to dismiss policy governance. However, administrative/bureaucratic policy governance runs amuck when it is not linked to our congregational polity ecclesiology. We all need to be as educated about our 400+ year history and traditions of congregational polity as we are about policy governance or any other passing fancy that presents itself for our consideration. I think that in most people’s minds congregational polity is reduced to the formula that congregations can do anything they damn well please because we UUs are self-governing. Indeed we are self-governing, but this is within a normative understanding of congregational polity grounded in covenant. Covenant is central and essential to our UU ecclesiology- our understanding of the nature of the church. Although increasingly we UUs seem to have amnesia about it, UUs are committed to live religiously by the promises we make to one another and to our understanding of what is holy in life. As James Luther Adams among others reminds us,the arc of our UU covenant is promise-making, promise-keeping, promise breaking, and promise-renewing. Whatever our passing bureaucratic/administrative practice, it should be compatible with this abiding covenantal religious understanding.
    In this article I do find a confusion about the roles of the UUA (fellowship is an administrative/bureaucratic function), the UUMA (a membership organization of ministerial professionals), and the congregations (the only body authorized for the ecclesiological act of ordination). And, of course, there is the fourth body, theological education which takes place in schools independent (but one hopes cooperative) with the other three.
    If budgets and gatekeeping have become more important in church and ministry than “scriptures” (be they Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, poetry, etc.) and James Luther Adams (to name only one), then the bureaucratic/ administrative understanding of church has clearly triumphed completely over an ecclesiological understanding grounded in covenant/promises. And, I would add, we have lost our way as a liberal religious movement. I am bold to assert that technological and administrative proficiency is not the most important ministerial proficiency.
    Thanks go to Tony for opening this dialogue!

  3. With all due respect to Jim Hobart – and I do appreciate his discussion of UU ecclesiology, covenant and polity – I believe Tony’s main point was the need for more mentoring for UU’s in ministerial formation. To which I would add a loud “here, here!”

    As a UU (in a church w/o a minister and at a non-UU seminary similar to LE), it was tough to figure out the bureaucratic maze. And unless you find a few friends who are a few steps ahead of you on the process, it’s easy to get lost. Seeing the RSCC is a good example – send in paperwork, schedule an interview, they give one a green light with a couple recommendations. Does anyone check on those recommendations? Anyone follow up? Anyone offer to listen to you if you have questions? No. It is still possible to go through seminary and internship with only one “how are you doing” check at the RSCC before seeing the MFC. The system is better than it was, but could be improved. Our UCC cousins have an in-care system that requires an annual meeting with a seminarian’s “care committee” (or something like that), and in-care seminarians are assigned mentors. Mentoring, I think, is a minimum for improving our own system. That – and adding seminars on administration and technology as electives.

  4. Just came across this post as I am researching online the maze of MFC requirements. I am just in the stage of applying to seminaries for next fall, and have received a lot of conflicting advice about what to do first, second, third, etc. in this process, just in the few minutes I’ve been able to capture for conversation with UU ministers or others I’ve sought out for guidance. At the very least, it is good to know that I’m not alone in thinking there is too little formalized support for UU seminary applicants and aspirants to the ministry!

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