Sunday, February 08, 2009

Ministerial Authority

One of the interesting turns my career has taken in the past few years is exposure to seminarians, interns, new ministers, and lay persons who are taking on ministry roles. It's given me a new lens to look at my own ministry and has been a very enriching experience.

Among the things that it has made me wonder is whether it is a good idea to expect persons to have developed a sense of ministerial authority before they are ordained.

This is one of the things the Ministerial Fellowship Committee looks for, and when they don't find it their diagnosis often utterly baffles candidates who don't know what to do with this feedback. It's such a "I know it when I see it but can't explain it" item...which is to say, it is extremely subjective, that I've been uneasy with its increasing cachet among students who are, naturally enough, anxious to develop this mysterious ministerial quality.

I've reached a few conclusions about this.

One conclusion is that this quality does exist. It is related to feeling secure in the knowledge that you, in your ministerial role, have something of value to deliver and you know the conditions of delivering it. So you march right up to the boss nurse in the ICU and request the room number for the patient who, she says, won't even know you are there. You know that you and the patient and the patient's family need you to be there and you stand in front of her until she lets you be there. Since you know that your listening ear and someone else's ability to speak freely really has a healing effect, you help someone you know needs to talk to move with you to a private corner. Since you know that this fractious group needs to take a break and a deep breath, or that this scattered group about to eat together needs to be recalled to their gratitude before they eat, you take the risk of suggesting a break for a moment recollection of our deep values or grace and a recollection of our deep thanksgiving. That's ministerial authority.

A second conclusion I've reached is that while ministerial authority is a good and important thing, no ministerial authority is better...far better... than fake ministerial authority. Fake ministerial authority comes from a person acting the way they think they are supposed to act, rather than out of a deep knowledge of the value of their action. At worst, it comes from a person who is so in love with their role that they're over-eager to exercise it. They come across as self-important and give ministry a bad name. In its more common form, fake ministerial authority is an honest attempt to do what one understands one is supposed to do, but since it lacks the inner authority that makes the risk-taking work, it...doesn't work.

A third conclusion I've reached is that I started my career deficient in ministerial authority and I've developed it over many, many years. I started way young in this business, and I'm downright bashful by nature, and in the UU circles I grew up in, "ministerial authority" was not a valued quality...quite the opposite. I was fortunate to have the guidence of a lay leader who came from a long line of Baptist preachers in my early years in ministry, and who several times found ways to instruct me. ("Christine, Lisa (whose husband had died while they were vacationing) is coming home in a private airplane with Joe's coffin. You'll be meeting the plane, won't you? (significant pause) It will be in at 11pm. And then I've invited you both to drop by the house and visit a bit while my husband goes to her home and gets the lights and the furnace on. " Well...no, actually, it hadn't occurred to me that I should meet that plane. I'd been planning to call the next day, after the widow had had a good night's sleep. Clueless, clueless me! But when Frances spoke, I paid attention, learned, and through those experiences came naturally to believe that there are powers of healing and renewal that sometimes focus themselves in the relationship between a person and their minister, and that it's the minister's job to take the risk of reaching out to them and creating the conditions in which they can appear. I hasten to say that in spite of that developmental need of mine, the congregation thrived even with their very young, very green minister.

Therefore....

I'm coming to the conclusion that you don't learn much about this until you are a settled minister in a community. Internship and CPE might give some ministers a taste of ministerial authority, but then again, they might not.

Also.....

I think that one might have a general clue about ministerial authority...enough, at least, to navigate around a congregation, and not be able to come close to dredging this up in what is, for most candidates, the single most nerve-wracking hour of their career, their interview with the MFC. My guess is that very best that most candidates can do is fake it. That requires knowledge of a sort, but I don't think we want people to learn to fake it, or feel that they must fake it.


All of the above and other reflections are leading me to think that we have our whole certification process backward. It's the entry into Final Fellowship that ought to be the nerve-wraking one, where one demonstrates that one has figured out what ministerial authority is all about, can produce references and stories that demonstrate one's ministry as one has actually done it, where one has successes and failures to discuss and reflect on. The entry into preliminary Fellowship should be a much broader gate, perhaps a matter of UUA staff checking off the Candidate's To-Do list. Internship with generally positive feedback, CPE with generally positive Feedback, Degree, UU Experience (we should pay more attention to this than we do.) Reading List. Comprehensive Exam (we really need this!), Background check. References checked at least as well as a new employer would check them (including checking with persons not on the candidate's list.) If major questions came out of this check list process, perhaps an interview, but for most people, the interview would be at the time of entry into Final Fellowship, when one's success in ministry and development of ministerial authority could be more realistically judged.

6 comments:

ogre said...

Having come through the RSCC appointment recently, I think that calm under pressure tends to pass for ministerial authority. Not being flustered when you get the weird question that has no good answer, and not imploding when you give one not good answer that you'd like to take back and revise....

Raw material, perhaps, for ministerial authority, ministerial presence. Understood that way--does this individual appear to have some/most/enough of the raw materials from which he/she can develop and build a ministerial presence and authority--it might be far less stressful for the interviewee (and more comprehensible!), and easier for the committee to see what it's looking for, even when it's not all there--yet. Or to see where there's a serious hole, and be able to label it in a useful and meaningful way.

Christine Robinson said...

I agree, Ogre, that calm presence is an aspect, perhaps even a pre-condition of ministerial presence. And that it's much less mysterious to identify it and talk about it. Perhaps that's the quality that should be looked for in Preliminary Fellowship.

kgoheen said...

Ministerial presence is central element in this profession. It is a profound expression of the nature of our relationships. This expression cannot be taught, only nurtured. The nurturing should begin in the candidate's sponsoring congregation and sparked by their recognition of the raw materials ogre references. This is my real concern. For too many ministers, the trek to fellowship begins in a place of isolation, even disconnection, away from the 'natal' community. With few exceptions, our congregations are poorly equipped for the nurture of a religious calling. Candidates are left to their own devices, like foster children who must figure out how to find their sustenance amid strangers. So the burden for discerning presence is transferred to an administrative body, the UUA's equivalent of the family court, the MFC.

The MFC should be a credentialling body, not a body of ministerial discernment. Unfortunately, they must step in or there would be no consciously discerning presence between the first inkling of a call and a congregational search committee.

I would love to see the UU Ministers Association take an active role in mentoring ministerial presence. Through chapter activities and by mentoring their congregations into the congregations' right role in the formation process, a healthy, empowering environment could be created and sustained.

FYI, moving in this direction would be a great growth strategy, too. It would enrich the relationship be church and minister and create a powerful and attractive congregational presence, the heart of our covenant tradition.

kimc said...

What percentage of candidates don't pass this nerve-wracking interview?

Christine Robinson said...

In the end, including the repeat visits of those who persevere, a very large percentage do pass...probably 80-90%. Whether they all should pass is, a problem which is even harder to talk about than whether some who were given a hard time should have been.

stinal81 said...

thanks for this, Christine. I am going to the MFC on Saturday and feeling a bit nervous... This made me feel a bit more secure...