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.


romsfuulynn said...

I think that one other aspect should come into the discussion.

I can think of at least two ministers who were bad fits for the congregations, but were completely successful and good ministers in congregations that were the right fit.

In one case, some 25 or more years ago, it was a sandal wearing in winter, t-shirt and caftan wearing minister who preached very philosophy laded academic sermons, called to a congregation that wore suits to church that had previously had sermons and lay led services that tended more toward the heart and spirit. (Lots of military in that congregation, also.)

He was a good minister, but not the best fit for that congregation although he managed ok.

The second poor fit was in the last 10 years (different congregation) and was a "the pulpit is mine" fire and brimstone style with a social justice content, and a very command and control sort of style of interaction in a congregation that was used to a more cooperative style of leadership. This person only lasted a year.

In both cases the ministers in question have gone on to successfuly ministries: in the first case long settlements; the second is at least five years in to a settlement.

Nothing wrong with either of those ministers (or with the congregations - I recognize the existence of toxic congregations, but neither of these are those.)

With a healthy congregation and a reasonably healthy minister, it isn't that bad - but if either of these ministers had been called to one of the minister eating congregations, it might have ended up looking like their fault. And I'm not sure it would have been.

Robin Edgar said...

Good point romsfuulynn,

Allow me to point out that, as a corrolary to your points about the "fit" of ministers to congregations and your acknowledgement that there are toxic U*U congregations, *some* toxic/dysfunctional U*U congregations seem to be quite happy to call similarly toxic/dysfunctional ministers. A real U*U World example of that dynamic would be a U*U congregation dominated by intolerant dogmatic atheists s*electing an intolerant dogmatic atheist as its minister but not doubt there are other examples.

Christine Robinson said...

Good points both of you. "poor fit" is definitely a settlement issue. It's expensive but doesn't usually sink the ship. No credentialing process is going to keep this from happening.
And Robin is also correct that is is sometimes the case...perhaps even often the case...that dysfunctional congregations often call dysfunctional ministers and compound their problems. This is one of many issues that is difficult to manage in congregational polity. In our system, the congregation is ultimately in charge of its affairs, functional or dysfunctional.