Friday, December 05, 2008

Supporting (xxxxx) Ministry

I had a meeting with the head of our local Sustaining Pastoral Excellence project leader today and told her about the conversations we're having here about excellence and about how my participation in her Lilly-Funded programs gave me a shifted attitude from what I was finding among my colleagues. (shifted from, "my God, how can they expect more of me," to "somebody cares about what I do and wants to help me do better.)

She said that even in the highly funded Lilly world, where resources flow like water, there was quite a bit of controversy about the word "excellence" as applied to ministry. Too business-y for most people, and that's in spite of the words from Paul's writings, "I will help you find a more excellent way." turned into a land mine, this word, excellent. When you find a land mine, the most noble thing is to step around it in service of the larger mission.

The larger mission is supporting (good, solid, competent, creative, satisfying,) ministry. It's fun to think about what that would look like, but even short of definitive definitions, we know enough about what prevents (XXXXX) ministry to begin thinking about better ways.

So let's think about what prevents (good) ministry. Let me start a list...please chime in!

1. No real recruiting leaves us relying only on those who feel called.
2. Limited opportunities for real Lay Ministry deprives people of the opportunity to experiment with their sense of call and encourages people who have "done it all" in their local church to take an unrealistic leap to ministry.
3. The cost of seminary. Perhaps we should put it this way:
5. The length of the ministry preparation period
6. The perceived capriciousness of the RSCC and MFC experience and how much a bad experience with one of these bodies can add to the time and cost of ministry preparation.
7. The (dreary old) fact that Seminaries and Certification processes have not entirely compatible goals.
8. Student Debt
10. The need of most people for some kind of accountability structures throughout their careers to motivate them to stretch themselves.
11. Churches that would find a (XXXX) minister to be waaaay too challenging.
12. The generally low salary, benefits, and continuing education packages in this career.
13. The fact that most ministers by necessity work in isolation from colleagues and rarely see other ministers at work.
14. The fact that in any career where the reward scale is fairly flat and opportunity to excel is limited, excelling is viewed with suspicion.

Please do keep going....


Anonymous said...

As one who has felt "the call" for quite a few years now, and is finally making the leap to enroll in a masters program (Seattle U's STM, probably), I have to say, it seems to me that the UUA makes it almost ludicrislouly difficult to pursue a ministerial vocation. The cost, for one, has been a real hang-up for me. I'm not concerned about how much I'll be making as a chaplain, but I am concerned about being able to scrounge together the dough to get into the chaplaincy to begin with. Are we purposely looking for only independently wealthy ministers, or does it just seem like that to someone who has only once broken the poverty line once in 15 years of working blue-collar jobs.

I know what I want to do, what I'm called to do, and the SKSM people at GA a few years ago were very encouraging that I should pursue it. But as for actual support, beyond just words...well, I'm still waiting. My concerns about the cost of ministerial education have been met with a 15 page booklet and not much else. Where is the support? I've yet to see it. I currently give every available dollar to the Community School in Nepal that I helped start. For me, it comes down to a trade off between a peice of paper and sponsoring more Nepali kids to get a basic education. Every dollar I have to spend on schooling is one less I can use to do actual "good-works" in the "third" world. This conundrum has failed to move anyone in the upper echelons of the UU ministerial educational programs.

It's almost enough to make me want to go be a Hindu or Buddhist or Catholic monk! At least in those traditions, they seem more concerned with the validity of your calling and not at all concerned with your ability to pay for schooling. Why is it that UU's seem to treat an M.Div just like a MBA? I'm not in this for the money. I'm not pursuing an advanced degree to improve my "lifetime earnings potential," I'm doing it because I want to provide compassion and care to the sick and dying, of whatever religious or spiritual background. Why is that not enough for the UUA? Should I just say f*#k it go back to Nepal and stay at the Ashram? Kali Baba has never asked me for money for the spiritual guidance and instruction that he's given me.

Until we can figure out a way to get those, like me, who are genuinely called to the ministry, the necessary education, without putting up a bunch of financial roadblocks, we're going to continue to struggle with finding and retaining good people in the ministry.


Josh Davis
Helena MT

ogre said...

Good questions, Josh.

I'm in the system... but I'm troubled by the fact that we affirm that there are many paths to spiritual well-being and enlightenment--but essentially only one path to UU ministry.

I find it intensely ironic that the minister I love can sit and talk with us about how the obsession with what degrees someone has and the assumption that essentially all of "us" have a college degree is elitist and damaging to people who come to us -- and don't have one -- and to the movement and the congregation... but she just HAD to have a D.Min, and displays a certain envy (IMO) of those pursuing PhDs.

Repeatedly I've been asked what degree(s) I have for bios--to be printed to inform people about me as a new member, for elective office in the congregation... and as a guest speaker. I boggle. Do we really believe that the degree confers some authority and insight? I don't. Not for a moment. It's an affirmation that other people have concluded that one is well educated about some subject. But I've known too many horse's asses with piles of degrees, and people who felt that their PhD in field made them somehow "more" than someone else, or meant that their opinion on an unrelated subject was nevertheless privileged.

There's more than one path to education. My grandfather--who got himself expelled from high school...--made himself one of the best read, best informed, best educated people I've ever met, on topics ranging from history to philosophy to agronomy. Didn't even have a high school diploma.

The current system overvalues formal education.

Not that it's probably not right most of the time to require it. I'd argue that the alternative track(s) that don't exist ought not to be treated lightly as a way to let people into ministry just because.... But the idea that we've permitted one path and only one path is disturbing. We could have St. Francis (or someone else--just an example) among us and yet... not permitted into fellowship in the UUMA.

That's simply absurd, and smacks of the over-professionalization of the ministry, and clericalism, against calling and need.

The answer, incidentally, is that there have been bad experiences with people who thought (and presumably others thought) they were ready for ministry... and hurt congregations. So the system is there to protect congregations. That's laudable.

Unfortunately... it doesn't admit that there are people who got through the system, who have the credentials, and have injured congregations anyway. I know of at least one example, someone who injured more than one congregation. I'm not sure if the system ever "solved" that or not. But it makes the claim that it's justifiable because it protects congregations seem less powerful, since it fails....

KJR said...

A lot of these comments are oriented towards entrance into the ministry. IMHO we get a lot of good people into the ministry that don't stay because there is little institutional or collegial support for the inevitable (in a long career) low points. What spiritual resources are available to ministers in crisis? (And is this addressed in the preparation we give our clergy) Even if there is no crisis, what are the opportunities and encouragement to engage in the kinds of education and experiences that develop and rejuvenate one's call? Once the minister leaves seminary, or at least gets into Final Fellowship, we are pretty much on our own with no one much caring about how we are doing unless something terrible happens. I have seen our ministry lose a lot of good ministers because of our isolation and/or because they hit a rough patch and become demoralized. I have seen others of us who were once creative and dynamic, begin to "phone it in" because we haven't had or made the opportunities to grow and rejuvenate our ministry, or haven't chosen well when those opportunities were available.
We blame our congregations for the latter at times (they keep me too busy...), but I am not certain whether that is a real problem or an invented one.

Robin Edgar said...

"The answer, incidentally, is that there have been bad experiences with people who thought (and presumably others thought) they were ready for ministry... and hurt congregations. So the system is there to protect congregations. That's laudable."

Actually it's laughable Ogre. How does the UUA insisting that U*U ministers obtain (or already possess) an MDiv in any way prevent or dissuade harmful and abusive behaviour that hurts individuals, congregations, and the greater U*U World? I am willing to bet that most if not all of the U*U clergy who are guilty of various forms of clergy misconduct possess MDiv degrees and passed the UUA's questionable screening processes. I know of one U*U minister who caused considerable harm to people but was subsequently put in charge of screening ministerial prospects. . .

Robin Edgar said...

:6. The perceived capriciousness of the RSCC and MFC experience and how much a bad experience with one of these bodies can add to the time and cost of ministry preparation.

How about the *actual* capriciousness of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee aka MFC? When the MFC can pretend that obviously unbecoming conduct on the part of U*U ministers that makes a total mockery of the letter and spirit of the UUMA's Code of Ethics aka UUMA Guidelines and Code of Professional Practice is "within the appropriate guidelines of ministerial leadership" there is something seriously wrong with how the UUA deals with *bad* ministry.

Come to think of it maybe the MFC is not all that capricious after all considering how its negligent and effectively complicit responses to unbecoming conduct on the part of transgressive U*U clergy seems to be all to predictable. . .

Berrysmom said...

With the caveat that I have just entered the conversation and not seen previous posts on this subject (but THANK YOU for blogging about this and creating an open forum!), I will add my concern about the cost of seminary education and the huge burden of student debt that seminarians graduate with.

I would like to see the UUA give much more financial support to preparation for ministry, and specifically, to our own UU seminaries. I mean, LOTS of financial support so that people can get their ministerial education at a UU school and not wherever they can afford to attend closer to home.

It looks to me like both of our seminaries (SKSM and Meadville) are re-working their educational plans to accommodate students in residence for a shorter period than in the past. Okay, necessity is the mother of invention... But wouldn't it be great if people really could afford to be in residence at one of these schools, steeped in UU culture and attuned to the grapevine which is an important part of learning?

I hope that the convocation next week will address this one head-on.

ogre said...

Berrysmom, as one of those in the not-fully-residential programs, I can tell you that they can work very, very, very well. The key isn't in getting to sit in the ivy-covered halls (none of which we actually have). It's in the connection and community of other seminarians and teachers. At least at ML, that's been done successfully for several years now. I know of at least one individual who started in one program and shifted to the other (residential/non- -- and yes, I'm being purposefully obtuse), and told me very clearly that the non-residential experience was, in his/her experience, superior--though there are advantages to both.

For many of us in seminary, financial support would be incredibly welcome--and it would be terribly advantageous to ministry in practice, because a $50-$60k educational debt burden cannot help but weigh on and affect the individual/family that carries it. But it wouldn't change the need for the non-residential programs. Many of us have kids and partners and even if we could afford to step out of the job market to go to school full-time (most of us are getting between 1/3 and 2/3 time equivalent in the program), we can't see how--or why--we can disrupt all of that to move to one of those cities to study for a few years... so that we can move again. The modified residency program is growing at ML--and it already represents more than half of the students in the ML M.Div. program. The structure of the program requires us to be integrated in real UU culture in a congregation, as well as in close contact with ministerial mentors and our classmates. Because of the intensive class structure, we get many courses taught by ministers and others who are currently working in the field. I couldn't and would not trade--this is the only sort of program that would allow me to do this now, rather than five years from now (maybe). And it's been great (not perfect, but that's a fantasy, always...).

Christine, I just wanted to observe that you're looking to figure out what it takes to create, develop, foster and maintain quint(XXXXX)entially good ministry.

Less debt/cost is certainly one of those. Figuring out how to create and maintain vibrant connection and community among ministers in the field is another--and that might actually be something that those who've been part of such programs and community in seminary might be able to help with.