Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Starting Ministerial Education from Scratch

What a heady idea!

Here are a few things I've been thinking.

I've been thinking that our current model of: go away to theological school-go away to internship-leave internship for a fresh start as a new minister just has to go. It's a model that only works for the young, unattached persons for whom it was created. It worked great for me but doesn't work for persons whose spouses have careers, it doesn't work for people with school-aged children. This pattern means that many interns leave their spouses and even their children for nine months of internship, a situation that, I submit, is contrary to our values and to our best interests. Developing what amounts to three different support systems in the span of 4-6 years is extremely stressful even for footloose and fancy free seminarians. All this moving adds hugely to the expense of an already expensive education.

We're already starting to develop things like Modified residence and distance-learning experiences for Seminary, and this is helpful to many students. I think we should also start to develop some training-in-place options such as doing an internship in one's home church and allowing interns to remain on the staff of the churches they intern in.

There are two crucial and difficult keys to success at these innovations. The first is that we have to find ways to help people grow into ministry among people who know them as lay persons or as interns. Our current theory is that if a congregation has known you as a lay person, they'll never really treat you like a minister, and, if the congregation suffered through your internship clumsiness, they'll never really respect you. You have to move away to leave your old role behind.

Well...I've recently had experience with helping an intern move into a staff position (with all requisite special permissions etc.) and....it had its tricky moments. (Also tricky; I've been an internship supervisor who became, with a break of only a few weeks, the colleague of my old intern. There's no doubt about it...it was a transition.) But 15 months later, I think I can say with confidence that that's done. The transition has been made. I think others could figure out how to do this. And I think that it is even more likely that a person could transition from lay leader to seminary student to intern within one congregation. (I know...one issue is getting more models of church in one's experience. But many seminarians already have that in their life experience and anyway you could get that experience with well-planned trips and short residencies, and most of all from listening to colleagues and fellow students.)

The other, probably more difficult issue of allowing "in-place" transitions into ministry is the issue of boundaries. Can the home church be real with the seminarian's weaknesses? Evaluate their "favorite son" accurately? (I gather that most internship supervisors and committees don't do that well already, so perhaps this is a difference that makes no difference.) Will churches which have enjoyed their interns and need a new staff person be honest with themselves about what they really need for that new position and do the painful work of saying "no" to an intern who wants to stay? Our experience as UU's with these kinds of issues is not that good. But we already make so many exceptions to these rules that "granting waivers" is a significant part of the MFC workload. Perhaps we could simply develop some new policy that would aim to reduce the moves a student was required to make from 3 or 4 to 2 or 3.


Jodi said...

Thank you for this post. I want to reflect on your questions more. I also wonder how Community Ministry fits into this whole picture. I know reducing the number of moves would make a big difference for my little family.

ogre said...

That would be interesting--radical. Issues to wrestle with would include that this would make seeking and choosing an internship very different if it was seen as a maybe-sometimes-we'll-see nine month probation for a permanent position. But if it's already not-quite normal... maybe it's time to stop pretending and just permit it--perhaps with some sort of required review with the assistance of the appropriate office to help the congregation and new minister be sure that this wasn't just a safe and convenient and conflict-avoiding step.

Not that I'm looking for it (though my family might be happy with it), but at this point I don't really doubt that I could make the transition from lay member/leader to seminarian in residence to intern to minister "here." Personally, were that the case, I'd like to do my internship elsewhere for the experience, but that's preference. Heck, back when we were in search, several of the people who I think might be most problematic for our minister now (and might be for me...) suggested that *I* could be the minister. At the time I was quite certain they were entirely mad, but that's another story. Issues? Sure. Boundaries? Sure.

But you know what? The nearly two years our minister spent stressed to the gills about some of the handful of opposition and some other issues that had to do with being the *new* minister with some questions about role and authority... were probably as problematic.

Shorter: I wonder how many first ministries don't present a couple years of challenges and issues around boundaries and such. Differently, perhaps, but still very real.

To be honest, right now... the concern that I've parked on the back lot (it's not really an issue for a few years, for me) is whether we will be able to leave. We have a mortgage tether, and the economy may end up meaning that moving would create a staggering financial nightmare. We're fine, now, and for the foreseeable future. But if the housing market gets bad enough, most people who didn't buy 20 years ago will find that to leave where they are will cost them huge sums; in high priced regions, that could be a bill for a couple hundred thousand, even if you had a responsible mortgage and down payment and can afford the payment. It'd be bitterly ironic to be unable to pursue parish ministry because one had to go elsewhere--and to go elsewhere one would have to go bankrupt first.

But that's not a concern that the MFC or others can really wrestle with, I think.

Margaret said...

I appreciate your thoughts on this. I agree that this whole system needs to be re-imagined.

One thing that isn't pointed out in your post is how little internship pays and comes with no benefits. A congregation gets a full time person for a fraction of full time salary. I think this issue has to be a part of the discussion!

Christine Robinson said...

I agree that interns should be supported better...at least enough that they don't add to their student debt that year. When people are willing to move for their internship year, they are more likely to find a better paying internship.

Although I love having interns and am very aware of how much they give to the congregation, I don't agree that an intern is the equivalent of a full time staff person. For starters, they spend a month getting oriented and two weeks leaving, get a week of vacation; that leaves just over 7 "productive" months in that nine. They have lots of learning issues that cut...appropriately...into their "productivity" and need a lot from their supervisor and committee. Further, the tasks they take on are the ones they need to learn from, not necessarily what the congregation most needs done. Having had 4 interns now, and all of them very good, I'd say that when there's a good match between needs they are the equivalent of 1/3 to 1/2 time staff person in net work accomplished. Beyond that, they bring energy, a fresh voice, and contribute to congregational pride in being a teaching congregation, but all those things are a bit ethereal.

Elz said...

This would actually not be that hard to accomplish on a polity basis. Looking at the secular history of our country, the drive for democracy was located first in the various legislatures set up in the Thirteen Colonies. Only when they failed in negotiation among themselves on national issues did the Federal Constitution set up real central power. I would take a next step of democratizing Regional Subcommittees of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, giving them a negotiating/supporting function with member congregations containing aspirants, and making them respositories of open paperwork on these journeys. Let the Ministerial Discernment Committees in the congregations do the tough work of wrestling with aspirants' calls, supported and sometimes backed -- by the RSS with whom the aspirant is in conversation.

How does this help? Well, these secret committees, from top to bottom, are tremendously subject to group-think. They will be challenged by the congregations, who see value in candidates that don't match the prevailing model. At this point, I suspect that when candidates are controversial, horsetrading ensues among different RSS subgroups. "We'll give another pastoral care specialist if you'll pass that musician we really like."

Elz Curtiss said...

Here is something I didn't post right:

My experience is that if a congregation has trouble seeing one of their members as a minister before they declare themselves, that problem will continue once the declaration is out. Conversely, congregations can usually tell who is suited for divinity school by the spiritual quality of their lay leadership roles. I am sure I am not the only minister who got started because congregational leaders encouraged it first.

On the other hand, congregations who have aspirants who DON'T emit ministerial vibes are in a horrible position. An Episcopalian friend of mine was on a Discernment Committee for such a person, and I've seen the same pain in UU circles -- you really hate to squelch somebody's dream.

This would be the function of the RSS-- not to substitute for the congregations, but to support and document these Discernment Committees as they share the aspirant's explorations.

At this point, all too often, this function falls to the parish minister, and sometimes contaminates Nominating Committee decisions as the aspirant moves from job to job testing their call.

Sian said...

I am deeply appreciating all of the conversations around excellence in ministry. I am a seminary student from a non-UU seminary and feel both the excitement and the burden of going forward in my call.

It seems to me that much of the desire for "excellence" in ministry and our current model of theological education is meant to protect our congregants and ministers. This seems to me to be coming from a place of fear, rather than love. Rather than trying to legislate or codify how we do things in the name of what-might-possibly-maybe-go-wrong, what about opening ourselves up to creativity, giving our leaders (clergy and lay) the strength and skills to deal with whatever might arise - conflict, joy, expansion, pain, etc.

I very much enjoyed Christine's ideas and they seem to embrace more of that attitude than our current system. If we truly believe in the "dignity and worth" of all, then let our people stumble, but also let them sore!