My colleague Dan Hotchkiss writes this very interesting comment to an earlier post, which I thought I'd bring up to the front page:
Your suggestion of waiting till a candidate has three years of ministry service before evaluating fitness is an interesting one. My experience as UUA settlement (now transitions) director, 1990-97, was that the search committees not only gave more time and attention to candidates, but also were the only part of the system that consistently had the spine to say no. The seminaries had a financial incentive to say yes; the MFC caught flak whenever they said no, and so did I. My impression is that the MFC says no a little more often than it did then, but that the Department has relinquished the gatekeeper role. So more than ever, the search committees are the place where the buck stops. When they make a mistake, though, three years' bad experience is a high price for the congregation.
My first thought is that a congregation evaluates a minister's performance, up close, personal, and continually and is perfectly free to part company with that minister long before preliminary Fellowship is over. For the MFC, a pattern of short tenures would surely weigh very heavily against the granting of Final Fellowship, just as it does now.
However, since the main reason...I believe the only stated reason.. for the whole credentialing process is to try to prevent the high cost (to congregations, although ministers and their families bear a hight cost, too) of inept, unprepared, or unsuitable persons getting through the search process and doing harm to congregations, I think we should ask ourselves (and probably gather real data on) the kinds of ministerial issues which do real harm to congregations. Because, as any HR director will tell you, every time you hire somebody you take a risk, and even pros have a considerable failure rate. No credentialing process will make ministerial settlement easy or foolproof.
It is my impression (based on 30 years of cursory observation and in depth knowledge of two church histories and lots of anecdotal evidence...but I know of no real statistics on this matter) that there are two kinds of minsiterial settlement "mistakes," and that that have different costs. The first kind of settlement mistake happens when someone is called to a position that they don't, in retrospect, have the skill or interest to hold. Their preaching may be just not up to snuff in the long run, they may lack real understanding of church systems, they may not be able to muster the emotional energy or emotional intelligence to cope with the situation, they may discover that they can't cope with the social situation, hate the landscape, or have health or family issues that keep them from focusing on their work. The cost of this kind of problem, when it is bad enough to require the minister to leave, is considerable, there's no doubt about it; money and lost momenteum on the part of the congregation, and the need to move to a more appropriate job or line of work for the minister (and their family.)
But almost everybody adjusts and moves on from this kind of situation and lives happily ever after.
The settlement "mistakes" that I think of as terribly costly and damaging, the ones which come up over and over again in histories of congregations are not simple matters of lack of skill or focus, they are instead matters of poor ministerial mental health, personality disorder, leadership style, lack of emotional intelligence, and inability to maintain good boundaries. (All of these problems can become predominant in the lay leadership of a congregation, which also causes settlement failures but that's another subject.) It may be that others have a different take on this issue, but if I could wave my magic wand, I'd give us a foolproof tool for weeding out candidates with the above issues. Lacking the magic wand, I'd focus ministerial credentialing on doing a better job on this part of the score.
For the past 30 years, ministers have been screened for mental health and fitness in a psychological exam (the old days) or Career Center Screening (current practice). There is almost always a psychologist on the MFC. But it's clear to me that these tools are not adequate to the task and people with significant problems slip through. Fewer now than in the old days, and there's less damage done now that, as a society, a denomination, and a professional organization we've become clearer about the incredible damage that sexual misconduct can do and are quicker to report it and act on it. Still, I wonder if we are using state of the art tools. (Actually, I'm pretty sure that we are not). Because my observation is that this is where the rubber of preventing harm hits the credentialing road.