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.


ogre said...

Re: Point #1--I see that a whole new competency has been added to the list of competencies that those seeing the MFC starting one year from now (Dec 2010). The point that things are consistently added has been made. The baseline for being competent to *begin* ministry keeps being moved. It's not that things are changed (I'd expect that, to some degree), it's that there is a single direction to the process; MORE.

We already know that our process is an expensive burden, one for which there is very little financial support. Adding more time -- which is what adding a competency is inevitably doing -- means adding cost. The proposition that this isn't creating an institutional oppression (those of lower economic standing are increasingly unable to afford--or to justify affording--going into ministry) is absurd.

The irony is that it's incredibly easy to justify the desirability of given competencies. One would wish that ministers are fully informed, engaged and up to speed--as well as competent and enthusiastic--about all these things. But then, we also know that search committees default to a *baseline* of minister must walk on water.... What would be desirable isn't and shouldn't be the starting point.

Rev. Earl W. Koteen said...

Merry Christmas, and thanks to iMinister and ogre for these thoughts.

My apologies for my tardiness in commenting on this post. Please see my comments at

Laurie Stuart said...

I am an aspiring UU minister, scheduled to graduate with a MDiv from Starr King School for the Ministry in May 2010. When I entered seminary at the age of 50, I wasn't interested in changing my life: I am a weekly community newspaper publisher and the Consulting Minister of a small UU fellowship in a rural enclave in the Southern Tier of New York. It was to get a theological education and develop the language to fully imbibe my work in the community where I have lived for my entire adult life with UU values and identity.

I am moving slowly through the credentialing process and am often dismayed how focused it seems to be on corporate "professional" parish ministry.

I believe that the future of UUism is supporting and developing people who are willing to "minister" to the communities where they live. It has such great potential to piggy-back off of lifetime commitments and long-time trusting relationships. So far the only inquiries I get about how it could be helpful to the future of UUism is the question of whether I know that it doesn't fit in and breaks all the rules.

Believe you me, I know that well.

I so appreciate your questions.

Dan Harper said...

Hey Christine, thanks for your thoughts on ministerial credentialing. An interesting approach to the issue of credentialing might be for the UUA to start applying ISO 9000 standards (Wikipedia has a good overview of ISO 9000 here:

ISO 9000 applies what we used to call "total quality management" to organizations. Of specific interest in the credentialing issue are that compliance with ISO 9000 means regularly monitoring output, and regularly monitoring processes. This is basically what you are talking about -- are we getting the outputs that we desire? are we continually improving? and are our processes working the way we say we want them to work?

Since so many businesses and nonprofits are now ISO 9000 compliant, that means that there is plenty of expertise out there -- we wouldn't be starting from scratch, but instead could draw on lots of existing wisdom. I hate seeing us trying to reinvent the wheel...

Just my $.02 worth.