Thursday, November 27, 2008

Excellence in Ministry Summit: What's That?

The UUA will be holding a big meeting in a couple of weeks, called the Excellence in Ministry Summit. You can find a little more information here. Not much more information, however. Basically, it's a convocation of a variety of parties who are interested in Excellence in ministry through the ministerial lifespan, from recruitment through theological school through continuing education for ministers in place. Representatives have been invited from theological schools (UU and other) funding sources, UUA staff groups, UU Ministers groups, the Fellowship Committee, the UUA Board of Trustees, and Religious Education interests. The idea is to have an overall conversation about how to manage these tricky and expensive programs and institutions and produce that "you know it when you see it but can't really define it" product called "Excellence in Ministry."

More people wanted to come than could be included, and lots of people are interested or even concerned about the directions that might be discussed in this meeting so I was asked to attend and blog about it. It seems that I have a reputation for being an independent but sane thinker, grinding no axes but in no one's pocket...a designation that pleased me so much that I just had to say a three day trip in Mid December...just the busiest time of a minister's year.

I am crazy. But I do also care...I care a lot....about our denomination and I know of no single more important way to contribute to the health of our ministry than to be a part of discussions about fostering excellence in this profession.

After I said yes, I heard that the definition of "ministry" was expanded to include, not just the work of ministers but everything wonderful that UU's do in the world. I certainly hope that that's not the case. That would be a wayyyyyy to big subject for a two-day summit. I notice that the keynote speech will come from Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools, so I have hope that our discussion will stay relatively focused.

The Summit is a couple of weeks away, but I thought I'd start posting about it, giving others a chance to weigh in in comments and perhaps help me to be more oriented when I arrive.


kgoheen said...

Christine, thanks for taking up this particular flag! While I rejoice in response to the UUA’s investment in healthy ministry, I must confess a real anxiety about a quest for ministerial excellence. The word excellence summons up the sensations of an arctic cold front blasting across my ministerial skin. It is a chilling, metallic word much too associated with the competitive corporate mindset to be so closely associated with the warm, fluid demands of ministry.

Excellence thrives in the abstract world objects. To have meaning it must be contrasted against some standardized value on a pre-determined and fixed scale, for if there were no scale and no readily recognized standard, there would be no way to determine when the measured event/person has gone beyond the standard and goodness who wants to be average or normal when excellence brings the rewards of attention. Of course, everyone can’t excel, because if they did, it would be standard not excellence. Standards of excellence are very effective tools in shaping corporate identities to serve the needs of business enterprises, but they do not feed the soul! By seeking excellence in ministry, we set up the very real possibility for rivalry and conflict. I am at a loss as to how competition will positively impact the love and compassion that bind us into community.

Thomas Moore wisely noted: “The soul is not a mechanical problem that needs to be solved. It’s a living being that has to be fed.” If the real gift of this task force is to clarify how best to feed the soul of Unitarian Universalist ministry by feeding the souls of the professional ministers who serve it in relationship with the people who call us, I would rejoice with twice the fervor!

PeaceBang said...

Hi Christine,
Sounds interesting and potentially very fruitful! I blogged on the subject over at

I scribbled out some of my most immediate thoughts about excellence in ministry (focused on the seminary experience but also including the parish) and invited others to read your column and comment here.


Christine Robinson said...

Thanks, Keith, and PeaceBang for getting us going. I hope you'll keep thinking about these issues and I hope, PeaceBang, that you'll open your comments up again. This is a touchy subject so I think we can expect some outraged voices, but as long as people are civil, I'd be interested in their response to your ideas.

Steve Caldwell said...

Christine -- as a non-minister bystander, I wonder if we need to re-evaluate the academic path for becoming a minister.

Is it fair to ministerial candidates to ask them to go $60,000 or more into debt in order to take a poorly paid minister posting a UU congregation?

I remember reading that our United Church of Christ cousins were looking at alternatives to the traditional M.Div academic path to ministry. This was to ensure they could have ordained ministers to serve in rural and smaller congregations who could not afford paying for a full-time minister saddled with student loans.

Looking at ministerial formation options beyond the M.Div option may be worthwhile for our smaller congregations.

KJR said...

I have read your posts and Peacebang's and find them interesting. After some thought, though, it occurs to me that before looking at excellence it might be good to define "sufficiency". It seems to me that clergy are probably excellent in many different ways because of varying gifts, but that we might make more headway if we were to look at the things that we not only expect each of us to be able to be and to know, but also to look at the things each of us should do without fail. It seems to me that there is a lack of a sense of common expectations for ministerial basics. While congregations can get cranky for the wrong reasons, it is also true that many are more forbearing than they ought to be of ministers that fail in the basics --- often because the ministers are not clear that particular things are a part of the "basics".

One basic seems to me to be an overall attitude towards our work: It seems to me that every minister should have a basic attitude that what comes first in their work is the well-being of the church. An amazing number of otherwise talented clergy seem to forget this at some pretty basic level: holding a church back because we don't want to do the particular things that come next, choosing a church we are ill-suited to because it fits in with personal or family needs, seeing ministry as "self-expression", not moving on when it is time or moving on when it is a terrible time, and so on. When I came into the ministry there was not even a general agreement that ministers should not use members of the parish for sex! (at least that has changed) It does seem a basic that every minister should be mature enough to know that the ministry is "not about me" and have a clear sense of really serving the church they serve.

What are the standards for pastoral care? What is the minimum level that we should be expected to provide? I left a congregation in the care of an interim minister and brought him to visit one older woman in her last months. The situation was made quite clear to him. He never visited again and she died several months later. It seems to me that there should be some minimal expectations as to ministers visiting members who are dying.

I have met ministers who didn't understand the church budget.

There are clergy whose sermons are regularly incoherent.

There are clergy who don't speak clearly and audibly.

There are clergy who don't put time into preparation for worship.

There are clergy who don't read much.

There are increasing numbers of clergy (it seems to me) that don't have much knowledge when it comes to how a democracy operates and what makes for social change.

A great many clergy don't seem to have a very deep knowledge of UU history and theology.

And so on. None of us is going to be good at everything. It does seem as if each of us should have a certain minimum performance in everything. Then we can develop our gifts in the areas in which we can be very good. It would help us get to excellence if we had some common understanding and criteria for suffiency. I know it would have helped me both in my preparation and in my early years in ministry. I have the sense, too, that if we had had more clarity on having mastered the basics, it could have given me more permission to spend time in the areas I have the potential to be excellent in.

That is my main point. However, beyond that, I think something that would be --- would have been --- of use is more access to excellent learning opportunities. Most of the best advanced learning I have had, I had to find myself. The UU stuff (and Alban stuff) I have been to has often been somewhat thin gruel for the time, money, and energy, expended. I expect that may not be the case for everyone since we need different things. I get a lot out of classes that go into something in great depth and have new ideas and I get a lot out of hands on learning experiences that lead to reflection and a change of view.