Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Should Unitarian Universalists Have Deacons?

The UUA staff has released a strategic plan for professional ministry, which has some important, needed changes and plans in it (not all of which can be staff driven, and must get buy-in from others) in this document.

More interesting to me, the end of this document poses some very interesting questions that they feel the UU World (that is, all of us, not the magazine) needs to discuss and think about.  So...I thought I'd do that and start conversations on this blog and other places.   Here's the first question:

Given that many congregations now and in the future will struggle to afford full time ministry, should we open up our ministerial credentialing system to some variation of a deaconate – a lay leadership program to serve in entrepreneurial and part-time ministry settings.

I believe that if we are serious about being a religious body; that is, a faith that helps people deepen their spiritual lives, we have no choice but to have a program which trains and authorizes lay people to be agents of deepening spirituality in their lay-led congregations.  Otherwise, not only will the religious needs of people in lay-led congregations be largely un-met, but there will remain a substantial minority of UU's who will be resistant to this focus because they themselves can not benefit from it.   (And it is my opinion that if we don't embrace this focus, we will not survive the next century.  Hardly anybody, anywhere,  is going to join our congregations in order to experience freedom from religion any more.)

However, it is also true that authorizing lay ministers make professional ministers very nervous, and should make us all a bit nervous.

  • There is the issue of possible competition.  A Lay Ministry program would probably seem to some ministers as hampering their ability to get a job.  It would no doubt happen that some congregations would opt for talented and energetic lay leadership over an ordained minister who might not, in their opinion serve them as well.   (in my opinion, we ministers have to let this one go, for the good of the whole.)
  • There is the issue of congregations choosing Lay Ministry because they don't want to be challenged to be the best UU congregation they can be.  (I think this objection can be met by a good training program)
  • There is the issue of creating a group of people who do not have the training or boundaries of professional ministers "acting like" ministers and doing harm.  (I think that this objection can be met by only authorizing "local" ministers, ie, you're a lay minister when you are doing the work of ministry your congregation has asked you to do, nowhere else, and no longer than that work  lasts.) 
  • There is the issue of determined lay people forcing themselves on their overwhelmed, lay-led congregations,  creating a situation where a close-knit group  doesn't feel free to say,  "no" to an aspiring lay leader.  (I think that this objection can be met by carefully created criteria of authorizing lay ministers).  

There are  probably other issues and I look forward to hearing what some of them might be.  Just to throw out a proposal, here's mine

Authorization for Lay Ministry would begin by a person's successfully completing several very substantial weekend moduals...as RE directors, for instance, have had in their Renaissance program.

It would continue with an inquiry from a local congregation about bringing this person on as a PAID (even if only at "honorarium" or "expense-only"  lay leader in some capacity.  (nothing like budget implications to give a group good boundaries!)  That congregation would be helped to put good personnel practices into place and form a "Lay Minister" committee which would help this person continue their formation. (like an intern committee)   Training opportunities would continue, the aspiring lay minister would be assigned to a peer group, and to a professional minister-mentor.  If all went well after a trial time, the lay minister would acquire an official title; perhaps with an installation service.  However, that title would only be valid in that place.

I would not start this program by allowing lay ministers to serve in entrepreneurial (self-gathered) situations.  There is a substantial extra burden of risk of dysfunctionality  which we should avoid, at least at first.  However, I do not think we should preclude full-time work by lay ministers, especially in large congregations.

Ok, readers, go to it!  I look forward to seeing your comments and programs you lay out on your blogs!


Mark Jackson said...

Is OMD's existing "commissioned lay leaders" program relevant here?


Chance said...

Thanks for posting about this.

I know the Methodists have a "local pastor" program (or called something like that) that licenses people to serve as minister of a single church. Sometimes laity are authorized; other times it's used for seminarians on their way to ordination. It seems to work rather well.

They also have an ordained deacon that's similar to our community ministers. I've heard less than stellar reviews of that program. It seems to be tough for people to transition from ordained deacon to ordained elder as their call changes. And there doesn't seem to be much institutional support for deacons compared to elders.

They also have a lay preacher program that trains people to serve as pulpit supply. It's a small program, but it fills an important niche.

Lots of ways to slice that pie. Glad we're thinking about it. Hope we won't try to reinvent the wheel.

Transient and Permanent said...

The Canadian churches have had lay ministers for quite some time. My current congregation, which grew out of the Unitarian fellowship movement, has three currently. They serve for a limited time period, which is renewable. The local congregation licenses them, not the Canadian Unitarian Council. They perform weddings, infant dedications, and funerals, with some of the money going to the church and some to the lay minister. They also serve as support staff for the professional minister, helping her with services when needed and delivering occasional sermons. They all have their own full-time jobs, so they don't represent any threat to the professional minister, and it's very unlikely a congregation would call a lay minister and pay her a professional's salary (certainly it's never happened in Canada)--though congregations should be free to do so if they wanted. Congregational polity and all that.

As for deacons, many UU churches have them. My home church, a historic Universalist church, has always had deacons. They play an important role in the life of the congregation, but I don't believe they receive money of any kind. They are licensed by the congregation, there is no need for the UUA to be involved.

Historically speaking, the Universalists had two simultaneous forms of ministry. Lay preachers were licensed for a certain time period (typically by the conventions), while ordained ministers were permanently ordained (although it could be rescinded in certain extreme cases). By the way, this is the bicentennial year of the first licensed female Universalist preacher--for that matter, she was the first licensed female preacher of any denomination.

We should keep in mind that our ministry has not always been so professionalized. In the first several generations of Universalist ministers--often declared the greatest of our ministers and thinkers (Murray, Ballou, etc)--there was little formal training. Ballou's training consisted of his own reading, and his ordination consisted of Elhanan Winchester spontaneously thrusting a Bible to his chest and ordaining him. Yet he was easily one of the very greatest ministers and theologians we've ever produced. I like a professional ministry, don't get me wrong, but it's worth remembering that it's hardly the only viable ministry model we've had.

ogre said...

Everything we do can--may, will, does--have consequences other than those foreseen.

I'm entirely in favor of mulling it over seeking to foresee consequences, so that we can deal with them. AND we should. Because "we" in UUdom have no choice but to acknowledge that some congregations already do such things, and others will.

And I'd say that we should do more of it, and encourage it. And that it should be drawn from the bottom up. Such a program "created" and imposed as a fully formed thing from above, is going to not fit, and be objected to.

Transient and Permanent said...

Follow-up note: we actually call them lay chaplains, not lay ministers, here in Canada. The program is 40 years old. Here's a link: