Sunday, December 27, 2009

Continuing the dialogue on credentialing

Earl Koteen replies here to Wayne Arneson's post which is, here.

Here are my thoughts on his thoughts:

On the subject of who should be involved in credentialing ministers...
I think that our current system of having ministers, lay persons, and representatives of the denominational institution all involved in ministerial credentialing is the single strongest aspect of our ministerial credentialing process. Many professions attempt to be self-regulating and disaster lies in that direction. All the stakeholders in the health of Unitarian Universalism should have a part in the creation of the standards and in the examining process.

I have my doubts about regional credentialing, since few ministers stay in one region for their career. I would prefer to think about dividing the massive MFC workload in another way. Currently one MFC deals with all levels of credentialing, from setting the standards in the first place, through overseeing the RSCC, through the Preminiary Fellowship Process. It also does all the work (increasing) of granting waivers to MFC rules (whether an intern can remain for a time in the employment of the internship church, for instance), deals with the renewals of Fellowship during the probationary period and granting of Final Fellowship, and finally, deals with complaints about ministers and the disciplining of ministers.
It seems to me that this could be broken down into as many as four areas; the standard-setting itself, the admission into preliminary fellowship (and waivers needed up until that time), the probationary period leading up to admission into Final Fellowship (and waivers), and the disciplinary process. Yes, once upon a time it made sense to give all this related work to one committee for the sake of consistency and buy-in. With a ministry twice the size and quadruple the complexity of a generation ago, it is time for a change. This would have the additional benefit of getting more people involved in this important process.

Earl writes:
3. The broader question is the following: Should there be a substantive review/examination before a candidate is accepted for preliminary fellowship, or should a candidate automatically be accepted for preliminary fellowship when the candidate has successfully completed all the requirements (M.Div., CPE, internship, etc.)? This question revolves around whether this examination is worth the resources expended. Without going into a long argument here, let's just note that some ministers have reported that getting a "3" (do "X" and come back for a 2nd interview) helped prepare them for ministry.

Two issues here...
First, there's no question in my mind that we need a substantive review before new ministers are allowed to serve churches. It is quite possible to get an M.Div but with such poor grades that one's fitness is in question, to complete a CPE or internship but with major red flags raised in evaluations. Someone, staff or volunteer, has to go through this material and make recommendations and decisions. The question in my mind is how this gets done. Interviewing might not be necessary, at least not in most cases. On the other hand reference checking, (by phone and email) something that is not now done, might be a much more useful and cost-efficient way to get a picture of the candidate.
As to the issue of folks who got a "3" finding the work they were required to do useful, hopefully, that is what mostly happens. If you've got to spend a year you didn't anticipate preparing for a career, with the shame, the financial costs, and the family issues it often raises, then the strongest candidates will find a way to make that year useful and will be smart enough to say so to the committee. (That doesn't mean that the extra year and work were necessary, only that they were useful.) But it also does happen that people who must return for a second interview are basically told, "it just wasn't a very good interview. We don't have any real recommendations, you seem to have a lot of strengths, we just want to see you again." This, as a matter of fact, is what happened to me, lo these 30 years ago. And I've heard of it happening since, more than once. It's actually inevitable with this system of a high-stakes interview. Sometimes the candidate will have a bad 45 minutes, sometimes the committee will have a bad 45 minutes. Sometimes the committee will have helpful suggestions, sometimes they just "don't see a minister", and leave the candidate with this baffling information and an invitation to, in a year, try again. Maybe it's the only way. Useful as it may be for some, it is dreadfully expensive for all.

I was struck with Earl's recommendation that during the probationary period of a young minister that a more independent evaluation be made than currently. At the moment the MFC relies on the minister's self-evaluation and two evaluations from within the congregation; usually the Board and the Committee on Ministry. Ministers in preliminary fellowship live in fear that some rogue person on one of those two committees will get enough licks in that their application for renewal will be denied. It seems to me that the fear of this is heightened in the past 30 years, but perhaps I was so isolated from most of my colleagues during my preliminary fellowship years that I missed this. At any rate, I would note that District Execs often have a more holistic view of a ministry/congregational relationship than either party and their wisdom should be a part of the mix of Preliminary Fellowship renewals. I also wish that the mentoring process for new ministers was much stronger; that mentors made site visits and the relationship was something more than 9 or 10 phone calls a year. But that's another subject.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

What Would I Do About Credentialing?

David asks what I would do. The most important thing I would do is study, talk to people, and learn, not only in our denomination but from other faith communities, for the potential for unintended consequences in any changes to our credentialing processes is very large. I have loved this creative conversation...I think it's the "out there" ideas that will help us thread our way through the many aspects of our needs and hopes.

I do have a list of things that I think warrant further study and conversation.

  1. The impact of credentialing on the time it takes to prepare for ministry, and the cost/benefits to Unitarian Universalism and individuals of that time.
  2. I myself am biased against the idea that the best way to figure out who is qualified to be a UU minister is a brief, high stakes interview. Maybe this is the only way, but it disadvantages the people who don't perform well and those who fall outside "the norm", whatever that happens to be at the moment. And really...isn't it basically out of sync with ministry, which is a deep, relational, long-form career?
  3. There have always been interesting congregational polity issues when the denomination "keeps the list of ministers" who are deemed qualified to serve congregations-who-are-free-to call-whom-they-wish. It seems to me that this issue comes down to two points. Firstly, there are some things that congregations just can't do very well, so denominations do them. Publishing RE material is an example. Doing the hard work of ministerial credentialing is another. But what exactly can denominations discern in ministerial candidates that search committees can't? I think we should give that a hard look. In his piece, Wayne talked a lot about what congregations want and need, but actually, I think we're both guessing on this score and doing some wishful thinking. I also think that there is a legitimate reason for denominations to care about the quality and preparation of "its" ministers, irrespective of what congregations want. Most congregations really don't care whether their ministers know how many districts there are in the UUA, or how the MFC is selected, but you could make the case that a denomination should least that "its" ministers can generally answer and quickly find the specifics of these questions. However, I think that it would be best to be clearer and more transparent about who needs ministers to know what.
  4. Speaking of factual knowledge, I think that if we decide a certain level of factual knowledge is important, that written, comprehensive exams are much fairer to candidates than hit or miss questioning in a high tension environment and I think that this should be looked into.
  5. If ministry is one of many careers in which you can't really predict success until someone is actually doing it, (see this very interesting article) then our three part credentialing series is out of whack. Let's talk about that!
  6. Finally, any system we create has to be doable by the ordinary volunteers and staff that we can afford. At the moment most UU's couldn't possibly serve on the MFC; the work load is massive. Overworked volunteers making pressured decisions....this is not a recipe for quality. And I would like to see processes in place by which the process could be evaluated. Records, statistics, and open reporting is the friend of the excellence we all strive for.

A Modest Proposal on Credentialing

I am remembering back about 15 years, when John Weston re-worked the settlement process. When I first entered ministry, the process could only be described as paternalistic. The Settlement Director, using his knowledge of ministers in search and of congregations, created lists of applicants for each search committee. If the settlement director didn't think you were an appropriate candidate for a particular church, you could submit your name without recommendation, but that put you at a huge disadvantage and was rarely done. If the settlement director thought you should broaden your search horizon, your name might appear on lists you had not imagined. (That's how I got to Albuquerque, as a matter of fact. I had limited my search to the east, but my name was submitted in spite of that. I got over my anoyance, I was wooed, cupid struck, and 22 years later, here I am. I was also not permitted to apply for a church that I and others felt I was qualified to apply for and had to appeal that decision to the director of the Department of Ministry. By the time my name was actually sent, that search committee had made it's choice of pre-candidates. I tell these stories not because I'm mad but to illustrate the power that position once had and how it was used.)

There is no doubt in my mind that those who liked that system could have written many paragraphs about how it had developed very logically and sensibly and with the needs of search committees, applicants, and the denomination as a whole, and why it was the best possible system but for reasons I don't know, other than John Weston's passion for congregational autonomy, it was changed.

Now the process is much more open and search committees have much more responsibility to discern for themselves who will best serve them. All information about churches is posted, any minister who wants to apply can apply, and then the vetting begins. Among the consequences that I am aware of; some of our large churches are served by young and new ministers, ministers who would not have seemed to the "powers that be" to have earned the right to apply to a prestigious pulpit. Some of our fastest growing large churches are served by these ministers who otherwise would not have had the opportunity.

As we look again at the ministerial credentialing process, I think we should start, not with how we got to where we are, but with what congregations actually need and expect from beginning ministers, and how we can maximize the openness we espouse for congregations while carefully doing whatever examining and gatekeeping we feel we need as a denomination both for the good of the whole and for the good of individual congregations. As a for instance, I think that search committees are often not able to discern the presence of some kinds of personality problems which can wreak havoc in ministry. Things like psychological testing and in depth reference checking might be best done for search committees at the denominational level. As another for instance, we as a whole denomination have a stake in a ministry which is well-grounded in our history and polity; issues of relatively small import to search committees which have much more local concerns in mind. Therefore a credentialing process which looks at a candidate's knowledge in these two areas is important (though I believe that this should be done mostly through written comps, not through the hit and miss spot checking of factual knowledge in an interview process.)

As we take a hard look at our, lets face it, paternalistic credentialing process, I think we should take a good look at what happened when we did away with our paternalistic search process. We might find some cautionary notes, but mostly, I think, that hard look will give us the courage to imagine change.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Yet More Voices on Ministerial Credentialing

Polity Wonk has an interesting, extensive reform proposal here.
Calling Ministers asks the crucial question, "What does a minister look (sound, feel) like" ( in a credentialing interview?), here

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Blogging, Facebook, and Collegial Conversations on Credentialing

This Blog appears automatically on my Facebook page, and I have noticed in the past few months that there are more comments on my blog on my Facebook page than on the blog itself. So, if you want to read more, join up with Facebook and ask to be my "Facebook friend."

The march of technology is marching on..

The next three blog posts are from Wayne Arnason and are meant to be read in reverse order, so skip ahead and read back for the greatest understanding of the points he is making about ministerial credentialing. Some good comments have been left here, too

How We Got to our current ministerial Credentialing System: Wayne Arnason

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.

Wayne Arnason

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Ministerial Credentialing: Four Questions from Wayne Arneson

My perception is that there have been four major questions about the architecture of the current accreditation system mentioned on this web discussion so far.

1) should the UUMA be responsible for accrediting ministers or should the UUA? Several people posting have suggested that it should be a UUMA responsibility although without much elaboration on the practical difficulties of that proposal. Clyde Grubbs has noted that the position of the UUA Board always has been that credentialing must be owned by the congregations, not the ministers, and their view is unlikely to change.

2) should there be a centralized credentialing process or should it be done by regional systems? Some colleagues posting believe that a regional system would be inherently more intimate and authentic than a national system and that there would be no issues with consistency among regionally based systems.

3) should there be an interview? So much anxiety seems to focus on the interview. Would our credentialing process be just as effective without it? Steve Eddington argues it would.

4) should there be preliminary fellowship? or should those who complete the documentable requirements be ordained, allowed into settlement, and then evaluated for fellowship one time, after three years of service.This is a possibility that Christine Robinson has explored.

Wayne Arnason for the MFC has thoughts to share

This guest post from Wayne Arnason comes in multi parts. Keep checking in!

I've hesitated to join in on this very engaging thread about ministerial credentialing, because as Chair of the MFC I run the dual risks of being seen as a defender of the status quo, or being seen as the spokesman for the MFC or the UUA (as "owner" of the MFC). In posting these thoughts, I hope I am neither. I affirm Christine Robinson's appreciation for the quality and tone of most of this conversation. I do appreciate and believe in the many assurances from colleagues who are sharing their opinions while noting that critiques of the current process are not intended to reflect personally on the individuals charged with implementing and overseeing it. Thank you! The delay in posting this was brought about by this week’s meeting on the MFC which demanded all my attention.

Last spring the MFC requested an outside review of the UUA's credentialing process by the UUA Board because the demands of our routine tasks allow too little time to undertake a comprehensive self-evaluation. As this review gets under way, with the review team still to be named, I will suggest that Tamara Payne-Alex, the project manager appointed by the Board for excellence in ministry work, follow this discussion on the iminister blog. Tamara is a lay leader who does not have access to the uuma chat. The “Calling Ministers” blog written by Early Koteen also has reflections on ministerial examining and interviewing that would be of interest to all reading this thread.

Despite our time limitations, the MFC is routinely undertaking evaluative continuing education at each meeting that brings a particular aspect of our process or our required competencies under scrutiny. This year our work has been focused on the interview itself and the way we ask questions. We are also reviewing the possibilities for a competency for ministers in sexual health.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ministerial Credentialing-What I Notice

What I notice in this discussion, in the several venues that it is taking place, heartens me about our faith.

Firstly, it's been a serious, creative discussion, as if this issue of ministerial credentialing matters deeply to the health of our faith and is therefore worth wrestling with.

Secondly, that there appears to be a consensus that all individual persons within the system are doing the best they can with that system. There's been no blaming, there have been plenty of kudos, and there's a lot of curiosity and hope.

Finally, there has been no suggestion that there is no need for the MFC, for credentialing in general. No one is advocating that we do for credentialing what we did in settlement, which is to open the system to several kinds of free choice. The longing is for us to do a better job of discernment in credentialing, not that there be no credentialing.

Some of this is to protect vulnerable churches with their volunteer search committees and boards, but I think another part is deeper; for all that some hesitate to call us a "denomination", that some are anti-clerical, that some are radical individualists, we all seem to want to be proud of the people who have the right to call themselves Unitarian Universalist Ministers.

And I think that that is a good thing.

Ministerial Education; Ideas from Clyde Grubbs

A guest Posting from my colleague Clyde Grubbs

The UUA has since the merger maintained a list of ministers in fellowship and the Board of Trustee's has appointed and exercised oversight over its Ministerial Fellowship Committee. The mandate of the MFC is maintain the list of ministers in fellowship. The UUA Board of Trustees jealously guards its fiduciary responsibility over ministerial fellowship. I recall when I was on the UUMA exec there were discussions with the MFC of the UUMA being involved in panels that would work with ministers seeking specialized ministries that would be recognized at Final Fellowship. The UUA BoT said no way, the UUA has sole responsibility for Fellowship. (No outsourcing.)

My observation of the UUA is that an attempt at fundamental change to the principle of a unitary MFC overseeing the whole process would meet massive institutional resistance. Such a proposal would need a broad and committed constituency to enact such a radical change. Since, I do not see that constituency, I think that it safe to assume the MFC will survive as long as the corporate UUA survives.

I think the discussion has indicated that present process is dysfunctional (works with pain) and not user friendly (seeks objectives unrelated to the perceived needs of the students.)

We could compare our credentialing system to other professions, and conclude that ours is just as terrible as others, but that does not help us seek some possible reforms that might make the credentialing process work a little better and with a little less pain.

1. First, our present system is trying to do too much with too little funds. So proposals must be redistributive, take money from somewhere and put it somewhere else. We can't add on to the present system, without cuts.

1. When the Regional SubCommittee(s) on Candidacy was proposed in the early 1990s it was supposed to function as a UU version of an in care system. The advocates talked of retreats and getting to know the students and finding ways to discern who should continue and who should not. By the time the RSCs were actually instituted in the late 1990s the vision had been watered down to a way to discourage unlikely aspirants to the ministry before they acquired to much debt. The RSCs have failed even this more modest goal.


3. We must conclude that the RSCs have devolved to just another hoop for students to jump over, granting candidate status based on an interview and paper work. They function simply to prescreen aspirants and while that function takes some burden from the MFC it does not change the quality of the ministerial formation process at all. Students are screened rather than nurtured and formed. Like child abuse victims many survivors enter our ministry resentful and regard the good people who serve on the RSCs and MFC as "strangers," "people with their own agendas" and other language indicating alienation rather feeling collegially embraced. For me, the Unitarian Universalist Ministry belongs the community of Unitarian Universalists and we together serve that community. Our process of credentialing must be part of a process of formation for full participation in that Unitarian Universalist Ministry.

4. Based on the above, I propose we seriously think of phasing out the RSCs and instead building an in - care system for formation, discernment and support closer to the students. I pray for a in care team made up of ministers in final fellowship and experienced lay folk who would work with a aspirant through the candidacy process and to the point of appointment with the MFC. The MFC would extend candidate status when the local in care team recommend that the aspirant has the potential to pursue fellowship. The student would make an appointment with the MFC when the local in care team recommends that they are ready to see the MFC. Since these local structures would not need funds for travel, hotel and what not they would free up funds for program costs. (Things we require students to do like CPE and Career Evaluation should be paid for.) The MFC could also meet more often or be expanded so it could meet with students on a timely basis. Long waits are cruel.

4. I am convinced that theologians need supervised clinical practice and reflection on that practice. But we do need to find ways to help pay for the cost of taking Clinical Pastoral Education.

5. I think theological education must evolve away from expensive residency programs toward on line and week long intensives. This would mean students would be less concentrated in Boston, San Francisco Bay, Chicago etc. and could continue deep relationship with congregations. It would mean in care and formation would be shared by a larger cadre of ministers in the vicinity.

6. The above wouldn't work for everyone. Lots of folks go off to theological school to discover themselves and end up in our ministry and would find the long time nurture and more intimate locality of an in care system an imposition. They would long for the day when becoming a UU minister was just a series of hoop jumping exercises. But one can't please everyone.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cookies for My Readers

Christmas in the Robinson-Baker household is not complete without these cookies. I made them early so my son could take them back to college with him. Ah, the sweet smells of Christmas...

I share this easy but very distinctive recipe for beautiful cookies about which people will say, when you take them year after year to holiday events, "Oh, those are so good...I remember them from last year!"

Sepculating on Ministerial Formation

These are the thoughts of my colleague Steve Edington of Nashua, NH

Say we take a population of 100 individuals who have prepared for the UU ministry and have all met the following criteria at approximately the same time:

*Have an MDiv or equivalent degree

*Have completed the requisite CPE requirement for Fellowship

*Have done an internship and received a favorable evaluation from their supervisor

*Have taken the required psychological evaluations and been declared sane enough, and emotionally fit, for the UU ministry

*Have completed any of the other requirements for Fellowship that I've overlooked, short of the MFC interview

We divide this population into Groups A and B with 50 in each group. Those in Group A each go before the MFC and those who get good numbers go into the search process as per usual. Those in Group B bypass the MFC and go straight into the search process. Enough persons in each group (say, at least 30) get settlements in parish or community ministries and launch into their ministerial careers.

Now, (for you who are still with me) those conducting this experiment devise a set of criteria for measuring a successful ministry, which I will not spin out here. We track the ministers in each group for, let's say, ten years to see how they measure up to the "successful ministry" criteria; and at the end of those ten years we see how many successful ministers/ministries we have from Groups A and B.

And the question is (if you haven't guessed it already): Do you think there would be an appreciable difference in the successful ministers in Groups A and B?

My answer, based as I'll admit, on sheer personal speculation, is No. This does not mean I'm opposed to any kind of a credentialing process, only that I have some serious reservations about how well the one we now have in place is serving our ministry, and by extension, our liberal religious movement.

Final caveat: Nothing contained in this post is in any way meant disparage, diminish, or demean the fine, competent, and dedicated individuals who serve, or have served, on the MFC. I'm only asking if there's a better way. Got some thoughts on that too but this has gone on too long as it is.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The cost of credentialing "mistakes"

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.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Eliz Curtis on credentialing

This is a guest post from Eliz Curtis. She blogs at Politywonk

My political science undergraduate training emphasized what was called

"small group dynamics" and "group think" as a pitfall in decision-making.

Small self-contained groups tend to make decisions based not on discreet

sets of facts, but on the needs and dynamics of their ongoing

relationship. Each player comes in with larger goals and continuencies;

they need these other folks on board to serve those objectives. In

military parlance, this is the difference between "tactical" thinking --

short-term, here-and-now goals -- versus "strategic" -- how does this fit

into the larger objective. We who see the MFC do not want to be cannon

fodder for the larger visions of ministry each committee member brings,

but that can be what happens.

It does not mean any MFC member is to blame. It means they spend tons of

time fashioning their larger visions, rather than listening to specific


Purists among our historians point out that during the heyday of

congregational authority, ordination applied only to the congregation

which bestowed it. There was no such thing as a pure ministerial gift: it

was all relational.

What I like about the pulpit rotation system and learned ministry is that

it formed an early attempt at bicaleralism.

For the record, I STILL support this kind of bicameralism. RSS's would be

more accountable not only spend time with the aspirant, but also to visit

their home congregation for story-telling. There would still be a central

MFC, with powers of arbitration, appeal and review when the local

processes get stuck on particular cases.

All records, being essentially employment records, would be public and

publicly available.

Elz Curtiss

Burlington, Vermont

Yet More Voices on the Cost of Seminary

Can be found here (The Rev. Ron Robinson, no relation) and here. (The Rev. Scott Wells)

Other Voices on Ministerial Credentialing

My colleague Margret O'Neall, interim minister of the UU church in Sarasota, Florida, lately wrote this to her colleagues, and gave me permission to reproduce it here.

I give a lot of thought to our MFC processes, having seen the committee within the past year, and comparing it both to other professional credentialing systems, and to the process one of my colleagues in the UCC is going through (their "in-care" system). I believe that a more relational and grounded process could, if thoughtfully cultivated, be more consistent with our theological and philosophical understandings and commitments, and contribute more fully to the process of formation.

In my own case, both the idea and the actual experience of being examined by a board of strangers, who knew me only from paper and a brief personal exposure under extremely stressful conditions, felt disrespectful of my ministry and inadequate as a pass-fail system of judgment on my preparation for professional engagement with a congregation or community. No matter how they tried to be both objective and relational, those who sat in judgment over me did not know me, some clearly had their own agendas, and had a lot of power over my future.

Much of my career prior to ministry has been invested in community and academic systems. I find that our current process of admitting ministers into fellowship picks up some of the worst faults in a range of systems, and would do well to be re-thought systematically and with a stronger grounding in congregational, seminary and ministerial mentoring relationships. Some good things are clearly happening -- strengthening RSCC's, mentored praxis in seminaries, the Mountain Desert District's "Living Into Covenant" initiative. Perhaps it will trickle up to the MFC, but trickles do not usually run in that direction unless there is a pump involved.

Margret O'Neall

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

THe problem with debt reduction

Actually, I'm all for helping working ministers reduce the monumental debt of their educational expenses. However, this approach has several significant down sides.

1. First of all it is excessively hard on the people who discover in their seminary career, or who are told by the RSCC or MFC that they just don't meet the grade or who don't, for whatever reason get a job, to have amassed huge debt. It encourages...perhaps even requires...people to persevere who are not good candidates or who really don' t like the work. And I sometimes catch undercurrents of the possibility that seminaries and credentialing bodies feel inhibited from helping boarderline candidates out of the ministry track because they are aware of the financial burden they have taken on.

2. Secondly, it is excessively discouraging to prudent people who really look at the bottom line when they are considering ministry as a career. The Ministerial Bottom Line is already more than a little intimidating in our denomination; adding Seminary debt to that bottom line is a real financial deal-breaker. And while we might want to respond that ministry has to be a heart-felt and strong call, devoid of details like financial reality, do we really want our ministry to be completely made up of persons who are either independently wealthy, supported by a spouse, or are inclined to throw caution to the wind when it comes to financial matters? We don't.

3. Thirdly, debt reduction reduces the incentive for students to work during their formation years. I learned more about being a minister from managing a dorm during my seminary years than I did from my internship (at which I learned a lot...a bow to my internship supervisor, Randy Becker.) There is nothing like being the only occupant of the room where the buck stops to require learning! I learned a great deal from field work, especially at the First Parish of Belmont, MA (another bow, to them and to Marjory Montgomery, then their minister). I could do all of this in part because I was free of family obligations, but I was also encouraged by a Methodist seminary to do them, and I got credit for them. There were fewer course requirements for the MFC in those days. No one would have dreamed of asking how many districts the UUA had at an MFC interview. Believe it or not, there were no study groups for the MFC bound. We had to understand congregational polity and UU history in general, not in specifics.

The overall social issue of student debt is massive in our nation and it is no small part of our national ills. Massive Young Adult Debt reduces choices, creativity, and social responsibility. Massive New Minister Debt does the same thing. We need a better way.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The cost of Ministerial Formation III

One more thought on this topic...

Another think I think we should seriously explore.

Given the fact that it is hard to know who is going to succeed in ministry until they succeed, I would suggest that the major "gatekeeping" function be, not at preliminary fellowship, but at Final Fellowship. At that point, the record of a new minister's ministry can speak for itself. Most will have clearly succeeded or failed and will not even need to be interviewed, which is no small expense for candidates or for the UUA. (The interviewing will have been done by one or more search committees who actually spend a lot more time with candidates than the MFC and whose judgment, in congregational polity, should be respected.) The requirements for Preliminary Fellowship might simply be the passing of RSCC, background check, and careful scrutiny of documents, not for "ministerial presence" (which only appropriately develops in ministry, after all) or preaching ability (congregations can be trusted to judge for themselves whether they want to hear this person) but for psychological health and a healthy attitude towards ministerial leadership.

Persons in preliminary Fellowship would be provisionally ordained and it would be suggested to congregations that they be hired for a three year term, with the possibility of a call extended after Final Fellowship is granted.

The advantage of this is that almost everyone would search for a church in their senior year of seminary and begin to work the next Fall, and when they were judged, they would be judged on their record, and that would, for most people be much less anxiety-producing. Lots of things to think through, of course, but I think this approach (more like what the Methodists do) is worth thinking about.

The cost of Ministerial Formation II

Part two of a conversation about how we might reduce the cost of ministerial education.

Another part of the cost of ministry is the cost of moving somewhere for 9 months to do an internship. This model is nice for the unattached 20-something but it doesn't work well for older ministers or those with families. I have had several applications from interns who proposed to leave small children with their working spouse for nine months in order to come to New Mexico and do their internship. The family finances required that. This is not a good situation at all.

Let's re-think that one-size-fits-all ministerial formation model. How about the possibility of 3-5 year supervised residencies, or allowing interns to take a job in the church they have interned in, or even intern in their home church? While there are reasons all of those are disallowed or frowned on, our frowns may just be too darned expensive in the current climate.

The Cost of Ministerial Formation

There is growing concern in our denomination about the cost of ministerial formation these days, which is up vastly from 30 years ago. (I ended my seminary career $300 in debt, having worked my way through as a dorm manager. This was unusually low even then, but today, it is not unusual for new ministers to have $50,000 debt. This is causing all kinds of obvious and subtle consequences and so...folks are talking. Here's my part of one such conversation.

Here is one thought I have about reducing the cost of ministerial education.

Make it possible for most candidates to complete their preparation for this career in three years, inclusive of CPE, internship, reading list, MFC interview, and job hunting process. That's the way it used to be. Most candidates are taking four, five, or more years these days. Even if they are only paying three years of tuition, they are taking several more to complete their requirements...a lot more time than it used to be, because the requirements have gone up and the anxiety and timing detail of RSCC and MFC interviews has skyrocketed. I have not noticed a corresponding increase in the quality of our ministry in the past generation. I am sure all the new requirements and processes were good ideas, but the total preparation required has gotten out of hand. You can be a physician in the time it takes to be a minister.

I grieve for the many people of modest means who will not be able to afford to prepare for our ministry, and I grieve for what we are missing from them. I also worry that our current situation fills our ministry with people who are so sure of their call from the very beginning, or so heedless of the financial risks that they are taking that they will do this...leading to a ministry devoid of the more humble, frugal, and cautious persons who would also serve us well.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The REAL doctrine behind Pro-Life

The Catholic church has focused, wisely, on "pro-life" as the doctrine that it brings to bear in public when defending restrictions and bans on abortion. Not only does this ring well with us all...who, after all, is "for death?" but it hides a much more fundamental Catholic belief which argues against abortion rights but which, when brought to the light of day, is not widely shared by anyone, including rank and file catholics.

Let's first dispense with "pro-life". To its credit, the Catholic church has attempted in these past decades to enlarge this stance beyond abortion. They Catholic church stands against capitol punishment, for instance, and against assisted suicide as a part of its pro-life stand. Gotta give them credit for attempting consistancy.

However, official Catholic doctrine still has a just war theory, and just war theory says that, if someone is seriously endangering your nation or threatening the freedom of its inhabitants, war with all its killing is justified. The nation at war must have tried all other routes to solve the problem and must attempt to avoid killing non-combatants, but there is a place in Catholic doctrine where, when fundamental human freedom clashes with life, freedom wins.

Well, I have to say, that I know of no more fundamental clash between freedom and life than that which takes place within and around every unwillingly pregnant woman, who is giving up huge chunks of her freedom for the sake of the life of another...for nine months if she can bear to give away the baby for adoption, and for at least 18 years if she can't. The fact that this is never discussed points to the fact that there's something else going on in our minds and hearts,

And it is.

The REAL doctrine underlying abortion restriction is the (old but still powerful) doctrine that sex is for procreation. Since you should never have sex unless you want to have a baby, then if you do have sex and get pregnant, you should accept the consequences.

The newer version of this doctrine is that every act of sex should be open to the possibility of creating new life, which, in a culture in which we don't need any more babies and in which every baby is a significant burden as well as a joy, amounts in practice to the same thing. Shall we have sex tonight, honey? Well...maybe not.

These are the doctrines that lie behind the church's prohibition of artificial means of birth control, which most Catholics and others don't support. But they are unconsciously powerful.

Look, for instance at the fact that, besides an exception if her life is in danger, the most common exception in anti-abortion legislation is the exception in cases of rape and incest. Why those exceptions? Because in that case, the woman didn't choose to have sex and shouldn't be expected to take the consequences.

Now I myself believe that it sex is a part of human life for far more than creating babies. Evolution made sex such fun because it's necessary to keep families together over the long haul of the lives of children and grandchildren, who benefit immensely from intact families and care from multi-generations of relatives.

If sex has two legitimate purposes, it is likely that those purposes will sometimes conflict and that conflict has to be managed. Unwillingly pregnant women are not bad people who were doing something illicit and have to take the consequences. Unwillingly pregnant women are bearing the consequences of evolution's duel purposes for sexuality and need assistance.

Or, we could all agree that sex is for procreation and we should only be doing it a few times in our lives. That, too, would solve the abortion problem.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Crux of Abortion

This quarter's UU World contains this article about abortion by my colleague, Scotty McLennan. It's a well researched article about Christian (and Jewish) positions about when human life begins over the centuries. Abortion rights folks, so often battered by people with their Bibles, do love to see that the biblical and religious view is not as clear cut as conservatives think it is. But UU's don't tend to look to the Bible for advice about specific moral issues, so the article is at best, preaching to the converted and at worst, doing more harm than good to the pro-choice cause by belaboring the wrong point.

UU's look to science for clues to what is right and wrong, and science no longer looks for "breath" to determine the presence of life. It looks to brain waves, heart beats, and genetic science. This has been very problematic for abortion rights. There's no doubt about it...any layperson can see genetically human life squirming around in every fetal ultrasound. If we want to support abortion rights, it just won't do to travel old paths of biblical argument or parse out the ancient meanings of "person". If we want to support abortion rights in the modern world, we have to be able to clearly say why a woman who is unwillingly pregnant, or who is carrying a fetus whose life will be painful, short, or terribly compromised has the legal and usually the moral right to terminate her (early and middle) pregnancy.

Here it is in a nutshell. The western political and religious tradition values human life supremely, and we usually value human freedom even more. "The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time" said Thomas Jefferson, and there's the even starker, "Give me liberty or give me death." These two values often conflict, as in, the freedom to make money and vs. need for regulation to protect public health. In these conflicts of values, "freedom" is often the winner, as in, "If you come from a country that is threatening the freedoms of my county, I will kill you."

Thus it is that Rev. McLennan, a man, will never be forced by law to give up so much of a drop of his own blood to save the life, even of his own newborn child, as that would infringe on such a basic freedom, the freedom of bodily self-determination. He'd be asked, perhaps expected, to make this easy donation from love or duty, but he will never be forced to do it. His freedom is naturally valued, by everyone and by the law, as more important than the life of another human being, even one he is responsible for having brought into the world. Of course we might condemn him morally for his selfishness, but the law will never compel him to give any part of his body to his child.

So iMinister, a woman, thinks it's pretty irksome to hear him opine that her decision to decline to provide her uterus, which is to say, a whole lot of her body and that huge medical drama called childbirth, to a developing fetus is only ok because he thinks that the fetus isn't a human being yet. He just so doesn't get it! It doesn't matter whether the fetus is a bit of tissue or a full person. It doesn't have a right to use my body unless I want it there or consent to be it's hero and provide my body for its use. If I decline to support it I undergo and abortion and the fetus dies. That's the end of a precious possibility, but if my humanity (and freedom) is valued as much as Rev. McLennan's is, it wouldn't be against the law.

Like McLennan, but for different reasons, I think that Roe v. Wade did a good job of parsing out how this fundamental conflict between life and freedom can be managed. A woman can choose her freedom over the life of the fetus during the first 6 months of pregnancy. After that, the life of the fetus (and the trauma to society of aborting it) is the more important value, unless it's life is hopelessly compromised or hers is in danger. I honor them for seeing, a generation ago, that women are human beings with the human right to freedom.

We've spent 40 years yammering on about when human life begins in fetuses. Let's ask ourselves instead when all the benefits of a human life (beginning with the right to freely choose when to donate one's body to another the cause of life) to half of the human race begin.

Then we'll be talking.

P.S. Rev. McLennan, "Abortions of convenience" undoubtedly happen, do they? Tell me about one....tell me a real story about a convenient pregnancy, abortion, or decision about motherhood. Just try it.

There are other posts on this subject in the backfiles. Search for "abortion" in the search box above.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Excellence in Ministry- How is "Fellowship" like a Ph d?

The UUA's Board of Trustees is appointing a task force to study the issue of Ministerial (and RE and Musician) accrediting. This is a direct outcome of last December's Excellence in Ministry Summit, and I am glad to see the action.

Ours are not the only professions where we wonder if our preparation and credentialing is really working for us. Here in an article from Harvard Magazine on the requirements and credentialing of Humanities Ph. D students. The ministerial system is different. To our credit, we have evolved a system in which it is not only the practitioners who control credentialing, but those who are served by the professionals in question. But it raises questions we should be looking at.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Mr Roberts' Rules

In writing a memorial eulogy for a woman in our church who was for some years, our parliamentarian, I was recalled to this statement, from Mr. Roberts himself, about his purpose in writing his rules.

1. That the majority prevail.
2. That the minority be heard.
3. That the absent be protected.

My father introduced me to this statement of purpose early in my career, when I was impatient with the arcane lore of Roberts rules, and how it could be used, inadvertently or not, to manipulate a group. It quieted me right down. I remain in favor of a simpler set of rules, but when anyone suggests a new meeting procedure, I mentally run it through Roberts' filter. Will the majority prevail? (there are a surprising number of ways to run meeting in which this is not the outcome). Weill the minority get their chance to be heard? Will the absent be protected from stealth agendas or attempts to manipulate the vote by wearing out the membership?

If I were writing, I'd add another rule, and that is, "Will the rule of law be honored?" That means everything from the law of the state to the bylaws of the group. Mr. Roberts probably took that for granted, but in these days, it needs to be said aloud.

Thanks, Meg Prince, parliamentarian to the Middle Rio Grande Valley, for caring about process. May you rest in peace.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Rights of licensed and public officials not to do stuff they don't believe in.

You think interracial marriages are wrong? It's your right to believe that.
But your right to act on that belief is constrained by laws and by employment policies. Believing interracial marriages are wrong doesn't give you the right to beat up the groom. And it doesn't give you the right to deny equal protection under the law to interracial couples.

Which means that, if you want to be a Justice of the Peace, you have to abide by the law that requires you to do your duty without prejudice. If that bugs you so much, you need to find another line of work or a way to be a Justice of the Peace who doesn't perform marriages. (if there is such a thing...)

Same thing goes for pharmacists who don't want to dispense some kinds of medicines, and teachers who don't agree with some part of the curriculum, not to mention engineers who hate certain kinds of bridges or ministers who don't like to work Sundays. Doing your job is...a condition of employment! Pharmacists who don't want to handle birth control pills are free to work in the pharmacy of home for the elderly. Teachers who don't believe in Evolution are welcome to teach English or First Grade or Special Ed to severely handcapped children or wherever else they can find that this issue won't come up. Nurses who don't want to perform abortions can find thousands of jobs where that duty will never be asked of them. Even ministers who don't want to work on Sundays can, with dilligence, creativity find paying employment.

Friday, September 18, 2009


This has been running around the Jewish internet, and one of my lay leaders sent it to me as we're doing a simple version of this ritual on Sunday. I thought it was the funniest thing I'd seen in weeks.

On the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, there is a ceremony called Tashlich. Jews traditionally go to the ocean or a stream or river to pray and throw bread crumbs into the water. Symbolically, the fish devour their sins.

Occasionally, people ask what kind of bread crumbs should be thrown.

Here are suggestions for breads which may be most appropriate for specific sins and misbehaviors:

For ordinary sins - White Bread

For erotic sins - French Bread

For particularly dark sins - Pumpernickel

For complex sins - Multi-Grain

For twisted sins - Pretzels

For tasteless sins - Rice Cakes

For sins of indecision - Waffles

For sins committed in haste -Matzoh

For sins of chutzpah - Fresh Bread

For substance abuse - Stoned Wheat

For use of heavy drugs - Poppy Seed

For petty larceny- Stollen

For committing auto theft - Caraway

For timidity/cowardice - Milk Toast

For ill-temperedness - Sourdough

For silliness, eccentricity - Nut Bread

For not giving full value - Shortbread

For jingoism, chauvinism - Yankee Doodles

For excessive irony - Rye Bread

For unnecessary chances - Hero Bread

For telling bad jokes/puns - Corn Bread

For war-mongering - Kaiser Rolls

For dressing immodestly - Tarts

For causing injury to others - Tortes

For lechery and promiscuity - Hot Buns

For promiscuity with gentiles - Hot Cross Buns For racist attitudes - Crackers

For sophisticated racism -Ritz Crackers

For being holier than thou - Bagels

For abrasiveness - Grits

For dropping in without notice - Popovers

For over-eating - Stuffing

For impetuosity - Quick Bread

For indecent photography - Cheesecake

For raising your voice too often - Challah

For pride and egotism - Puff Pastry

For sycophancy, a**-kissing - Brownies

For being overly smothering - Angel Food Cake

For laziness - Any long loaf

For trashing the environment - Dumplings

For those who require a wide selection of crumbs, we suggest a Tashlich Mix available in three grades (Taslich Lite, Medium, and Industrial Strength) at your favorite Jewish bookstore.