The comments made thus far make me want to review my own understanding of the reason we have a centralized Ministerial Fellowship Committee system. As I understand it, it's because the representatives of congregations serving on the UUA Board (mostly lay people, with some ministers) decided that congregations needed some system of assurance that the diversity of ministers who might be candidates for their pulpits all meet some agreed-upon basic standards of competence, apart from and independent of the standards created by the seminaries or the ministers association, neither of which are subject to the control of the association of congregations. The pre-merger system that the Universalists had, which involved accreditation of ministers on a regional basis (more like what the much larger UCC uses) was rejected. My presumption is that this rejection happened in part because of a Unitarian penchant for more centralized control, but I also think that the representative of congregations rightly believed that the different geographic regions of the United States and Canada had different kinds and concentrations of congregations and therefore different capacities for doing this kind of in-care and credentialing in a consistent way. From the beginning, we had the premise that our search and settlement system would be an open continental process, without any geographic limitations associated with the region in which you currently live or were credentialed (as is the case with some other congregational polity settlement systems). The system we created at merger believed that a centralized system for ministerial settlement would work better over time for an association of congregations our size.
So imagine with me a conversation that goes through the logic of the system we currently have. Imagine a group of lay members of search committees being asked to design a UU system for ministerial accreditation from scratch. Let 's assume that they have figured out that a system with most of our current requirements has merit. (This is a big assumption, of course, and the MFC is currently planning to review how we read the Career Assessments and the CPE evaluations,) For purposes of this essay, let’s assume that we agree that a system that requires from candidates an M. Div. or equivalent, a required reading list, a CPE, an internship or its equivalent, and recommendations from suitable lay leaders, teachers, and ministers is one we have agreed on. So after that the conversation might go like this:
"Person A: So who reviews all this to make sure it's in order?
Person B: It would have to either be done by volunteers or a hired staff person. I guess it depends on whether you see the review’s purpose as just to check off these requirement on a list? Or would this staff person or a volunteer group have to go through all the documentation to assure that it was in order and had no red flags?
Person C: I wouldn't want it to just be a check list system. The evaluative materials can have a lot of variation in them. They would have to be read through. So can this be done by just one person? How many of these new ministers would we expect to have to handle in a year?
Person A: Well, over time, as our ministry grows, it wouldn't surprise me if we had several hundred ministers in preparation and as maybe sixty or seventy a year who would be ready to have their preparation evaluated.
Person B: It's more work than a staff person could do. We would need a few of them.
Person C: Is this really staff work? Isn't it likely that the staff people hired to oversee a credentialing system would be ministers? I think we'd need to have significant lay involvement in approving credentials if the purpose of this is to assure congregations that the minister that can apply to serve them have a basic standard of competency.
Person A: I guess ideally you would like a blended group of experienced ministers and lay people. So maybe you could have staff members assemble and even summarize the evaluative materials that needed to be read and send them to readers, maybe one lay and one minister? and if they agreed that the person's written material was good to go, they could enter in "fellowship" with the UUA and be recommended to congregations.
Person B: I guess that could work -- but would these two people never actually meet the candidate? I've been on a search committee before, and we read through several thoroughly prepared packets, but the choice we eventually made for who would be our minister was finally influenced by the interviews we held, and not just by the packet. Don't you think that the persons reading over the evaluative materials should also meet the person at least once and talk with them about their preparation? That's more like what really happens in a search.
Person C: That sounds like a good idea to me. But how would you feel about your minister being chosen by a group of only two people on a search committee? If we're going to create interviews I'm not sure the opinions of two people is enough when it comes to whether we “see a minister” in that person. It’s hard to get much diversity in a group of two! Maybe the interview should be done a full committee of people, at least six or seven.
Person A: A national committee of people? Sounds expensive! Why couldn't it be done by regional volunteer groups? Maybe you could avoid the interview if the people in a regional volunteer group already knew the candidate?
Person B: That could work in a region that has the occasional ministerial candidate coming out of the congregations in a district. But what about districts that contain one of the seminaries that many UU students attend? What about those with large congregations that might have three or four candidates for ministry emerge over a period of a few years? How do regional volunteer groups work when a candidate for ministry has left the area to attend a seminary or where there are many candidates in a small geographic area? Does each have their own in-care evaluative team? How many volunteers would this need? Who would gather them and to whom would they be accountable?
Person B: A centralized national evaluative group would likely be less expensive than the cost of supporting district based committees. If you go with the premise that an interview is valuable, then a regionally based system would still require face to face meetings and the expenses they incur. I guess the cost would depend on how big the regions were. I'd be more comfortable with a system where I knew that no matter where a person went to seminary, UU or non-UU, and no matter what size or style of home church they came out of, they all get reviewed by a group of people who have developed common standards and disciplines from this review.
Person C: When would this review and interview happen? Maybe we could have a local checklist system that allows a person who has completed all the requirements to be ordained and begin working? The congregation or agency would evaluate the person after three years and then the person would be interviewed by a national credentialing body that would grant them final fellowship.
Person A: I'm not sure whether I'd want my congregation to be served by someone whose preparation had only been affirmed by a seminary or regional body. That is, unless it was someone we already knew who had a history with our congregation? I'm starting to get the feeling that regional credentialing would somehow need to be matched with a regional settlement system, and I'm not sure that the UUA is large enough for that to work. The regional volunteer demands on lay leaders and ministers are already pretty heavy."
Here ends this imaginary conversation that suggests to me the way that the logic of the current system has evolved. The values that inform it seem to me to be consistency of standards and good stewardship of limited resources and volunteer time. As we continue this discussion about credentialing, what I’m hearing from the President and the Board is that the reason we’re doing this is to insure we can attract and form new ministers who can not only serve the congregations we have but also help transform and create the congregations we need for the future. While suggestions for reform of particular parts of the current process are and will be welcome, I would like to see them framed by consideration of the resources required to make the change and the payoff in terms of formation of the ministers we need.