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.
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.
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.