Saturday, December 06, 2008

Excellence in Ministry

Former pulpit of the 2nd Church in Boston, once used by Henry Ware Jr. and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Now located at the First Parish in Billerica Massachusetts.

Over at iMinister and PeaceBang, my dear friends Christine and Vickie are hosting a conversation about Excellence in Ministry. It's a topic I have no little interest in myself, and so even though I can't really spare the time, I thought I'd toss in at least two cents worth now.

1. I'm one of those anachronisms who enrolled in seminary (Harvard Divinity) immediately after graduating from college, and who had completed my degree, seen the MFC and been ordained by the congregation where I did my field education (the 1st & 2nd Church in Boston) all before my 25th birthday. Of course, no one in their right mind was going to trust a newly-minted 24-year-old preacher with a pulpit of his own, so I ended up spending ANOTHER two years in graduate school studying creative writing and working as a Residence Hall Director, before being offered a year-long position as an intern assistant minister at my "home" church (University Unitarian Church in Seattle), and eventually receiving a call to a pulpit of my own (Midland, Texas) the week I turned 28.

2. Since that time, I have (for the most part) enjoyed a somewhat eclectic up-and-down career which has included work as an extension minister/new congregation organizer, half-a-dozen part-time consulting ministries, some time away from ministry managing a bookstore (while my now-ex-wife attended Law School), an earned PhD of my own (in American History) along with an interdisciplinary Masters Degree (my third, if you're counting) in American Studies, plus work as a graduate teaching fellow (and on occasion a visiting adjunct professor) in the fields of English/Creative Writing, Philosophy, Religious Studies (I was Marcus Borg's personal teaching assistant) and, of course, History. In addition I spent a semester abroad in Denmark as a visiting doctoral student at Aalborg University's "School for Postgraduate Interdisciplinary Research in Interculturality and Transnationalism" (SPIRIT), and since completing my dissertation in 2001 have served a two-year interim ministry on Nantucket Island, a four-year settled ministry in Carlisle Massachusetts, and am now in my second year of a settled ministry at the First Parish in Portland Maine. So I come to this topic with no shortage of either credentials or experience, as well as a perspective that is no doubt quite different from that of someone about my age (or even a decade or two younger) who is currently working in a secular vocation, but still dreaming about becoming a minister when they grow up.

3. So having said all that, let me enter the conversation. People seem to want to argue that there is more than one path into the ministry, and that these paths need to be honored and respected more than they are. With that I can agree. But then they also seem to want to assert that "all ministries are equal," and I'm not so sure that I can agree with that. All these credentials are not just about some additional letters behind my name; they represent real work, real learning, and real achievement which were specifically focused on improving my competence and qualifications for the ministry itself. It's not that I want to discount the achievements of those who are working in other fields, and in effect bringing their "transferable skills" with them. I would suggest, however, that sometimes these "imports" do more harm than good, in that they tend to displace a long and subtle history of ecclesiastical tradition with the "values of the marketplace" in ways that are often inappropriate and damaging to the health of the institution.

4. There also seems to be a lot of complaining about attitudes of ministerial "privilege," and the sense of entitlement that comes from having successfully leapt through all the "hoops." And with this I agree entirely - I think it is one of the most potentially damaging challenges our profession faces, and the sooner we can cure ourselves of it the better. Ministry is indeed a "privilege" -- it's an honor indivduals bestow upon us one at a time by trusting us enough to let us be "their minister;" it is a kind of authority which can take a lifetime to accumulate, and can be squandered in an instant. So notwithstanding all of the letters behind my own name, I am a profound believer in the principle that "All Ministry is Local," and that the credentials themselves are essentially meaningless, and valuable only to the extent that earning them has in some way helped me to become a better minister in the process.

5. Speaking of hoops (the burning, not the basketball kind) and the jumping through thereof, I certainly have a lot of empathy for those who still have that process in front of them, rather than well behind them (as I do). But let's face it, some sort of advance credentialling or process of "approbation" is essential to ANY profession, and perhaps especially essential to one like ours, which unlike either of the other two "learned" professions (law and medicine) typically brings the practitioner into their full responsibilities right on day one, in an environment where they typically work alone without much opportunity for supervision, external accountability, or daily mentoring by a more experienced, senior colleague. Even our internship process is awkward, since it tends to train ministers in large, multi-staff situations only to prepare them poorly for the kinds of expectations they will experience in the small "family" or "pastoral" sized churches where they are most likely to be called. A good portion of the second chapter of my doctoral dissertation is devoted to the history of the Approbation process in our movement, beginning in Puritan times and continuing into the 19th century. Interestingly enough, we still examine our candidates according to the same basic criteria as the Puritans: Competence, Character, and Commitment to the Faith. I don't think these are bad criteria at all. The big questions are how do we define "Competence" and what do we mean by "Commitment?" Character is always going to be a judgement call. Better the MFC though than leaving it up to self-selection, or even the judgement of local search committees (amateurs for whom it is literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience).

6. Another big complaint: the cost of seminary and the amount of debt it often places on newly-minted ministers entering a profession notorious for its low, flat and static levels of compensation. I was lucky, I guess -- between a combination of work, scholarships, and frugal living, I was able to graduate from Harvard (in 1981) with a debt of only $7000. Since I had no college debt at that point either (hurrah for in-state tuition at an excellent public university!), and was able to get through that second MA in Creative Writing with only another $2500 in additional borrowing, I finished my first incarnation as a student with a very reasonable debt load, despite a starting salary in my first settlement of only $30k (TCM. S/H was probably closer to $22k).

In my second incarnation it was a similar story - the teaching fellowships, a few grants (including one from the UU Scholars program), and my work as a part-time consulting minister essentially paid my tuition and kept me debt free, even though my spouse's income as a trial lawyer was perfectly sufficient to support our entire family. So while I feel I understand the concern that midlife career changers might feel about the cost of seminary (and it's corresponding debt load) in comparison to the level of earnings one can anticipate upon completion of the degree, I'm not especially sympathetic either. No one has a "right" to become a UU minister simply because they are "feeling the call," and likewise the decision to pursue a theological education does not necessarily entitle someone to have that education paid for by someone else. I think some combination of competitive, merit-based scholarships together with a systematic process to help ministers who agree to serve small, struggling congregations with denominational assistance in repaying their student loans is still the best strategy.

But this understanding also needs to be linked with a much more intentional method for ministerial development other than mere self-discernment, as well as the more fundamental understanding that NO ONE SHOULD UNDERTAKE ADVANCED THEOLOGICAL STUDY WITHOUT BEING WILLING TO DO SO FOR THE SAKE OF KNOWLEDGE AND SELF-IMPROVEMENT ALONE, AND WITH THE FULL UNDERSTANDING THAT IT MAY NEVER LEAD TO AN ACTUAL "PAYING" JOB IN THE MINISTRY! As for the question of whether or not a seminary education is really essential to being an effective Parish Minister, I would have to say both yes and no. On one hand, there is certainly plenty of "ministry" that can happen in a parish that anyone with a good heart, a sincere commitment, and a certain level of on-the-job training can do perfectly competently. But "doing" ministry and "being" a minister are two very different things. I'm happy to "share" the work of ministry as broadly as possible; in fact, it's an important part of what every minister should do to equip and prepare their people for wider service. But before I'm willing to let someone call themselves my "colleague," and to claim for themselves all of the so-called "rights and privileges" attendant to that status, I want to KNOW that they have gone through a thorough and rigorous program of advanced academic study, and are intellectually prepared to understand and represent the finer points of our theological and ecclesiastical traditions. Perhaps more to the point, I want to know that they were willing to make the same kinds of personal and financial sacrifices that I was willing to make, and that their commitment to the ministry is about something more profound than merely a title and a paycheck.

7. Finally (yes, least for now) there was an interesting point raised by someone about "suspicion" of Excellence in Ministry, and whether or not our congregations are really well prepared to cope with a truly excellent and (by association) ambitious minister. I have several thoughts about this. First, it does often seem to me that many of our congregations (especially small, "stuck" ones) are operating under the informal syllogism that "Knowledge is Power," and "Power Corrupts;" therefore We must Disempower the Knowledgeable in order to Prevent them from Corrupting our Democratic Process. Top-down leadership often doesn't fly in our movement; instead it results in a rapid nose-dive followed by a dramatic crash-and-burn. This is a VERY hard lesson to learn: that churches tend to move "at the speed of church," and that Patience, Persistence, Tenacity and Commitment to a Larger Vision are often far more important to success than mere brilliance and hard work alone. For clergy, the church is not only a livelihood, it is also a lifestyle; we are (or should be) committed to our vocation 24/7/365, and even when we are disciplined about taking a regular day off, we don't stop "being" a minister even for a moment. Yet for most lay people, a 3-5 hour/week commitment to their faith community is extraordinary, while 3-5 hours/month is probably far closer to the norm. Achieving excellence (and with it, "success") has somewhat different rules in this kind of work environment. The ability to work with people, to leverage their efforts rather than wasting their time, to organize the tasks into manageable "bites" and to battle frustration and discouragement with encouraging words and visible a word, to build and coach a team rather than trying to do it all by oneself.... this is the real key to Excellence in Ministry in the 21st century, so far as I can see it. How well does this match up with what other folks are seeing in their situations?


ogre said...

Interesting--and good points, EC.

It sounds as if you were fortunate to escape severe debt--and fortunate that at least for a critical stretch, your partner's income permitted your family to afford your studies and development. No cheap shot there--I'm in a somewhat similar situation, and don't expect to end in significant debt. But I'm painfully aware that my situation isn't normal. My wife's income is sufficient to shove us out of middle class into upper middle, so even with two pre-college teens and a mortgage in SoCal (ow, ow), we're able to afford this compulsion to go into ministry that came over me.

It will, however, likely eat most of our savings (and we're extremely unusual in having such). Most of my current classmates--and I'm not talking about those whose teens aren't that far behind--are looking at debts in the area of $60k at the end.

There's something wrong with the movement if only those of us who are privileged enough in income or assets are capable of pursuing the ministry. The M.Div is mandatory--so it doesn't matter how much we may find the studies personally valuable or even enjoyable. But it used to be that the decisions about suitable education were made by a congregation, not by a body of ministers.

I've no real beef with the idea that the UUMA holds a standard and tries to help raise the expectations of congregations and ministers about ministry. If that means that fellowship isn't deemed to be something that should be extended... fine.

But our system is currently binary. If you don't meet the standard (which is about the boxes checked off... mostly--I'm with you on Character...), you're not even permitted to be considered by congregations. I was on my congregation's search committee... I know that the system permits ministers who have some flags for concern through--and that it doesn't even do much in terms of identifying the flags well. That's for the dutiful search committee to notice, to ask about... and usually to be told little, and told that they should ask the minister about that. I have trouble with the idea that someone who has been ordained by a congregation and served effectively--but is lacking some of the education can't be flagged on that point, but permitted into the search system. That would create an on-going encouragement for such ministers to pursue studies to be educationally equivalent.

I'm in the system. I'm able to find ways to hop through the flaming hoops. But I've already seen that the residential seminary experience isn't critical--that the essential experiences can be achieved in more than one way. Not permitting for alternatives to the approved route to being a UU minister seems... well, pigheaded. And it risks being seen as reeking of elitism (if not actually reeking of it).

In the end, there's a key polity question; do we trust congregations to act in their own interests (on average, knowing full well that there will be errors, failures, lapses...) or was the movement wrong, and we require a presbytery?

Diptherio said...

On point number 6: Not all of us seeking entrance to the ministry are "mid-life career-changers". I'm 29, 4 years out from graduating with a B.A. in Econonomics. I've devoted the intervening time to a "third"-world development project and to working my heiny off in the healthcare industry, at the bottom of the totem pole, not the top, where the pay is notoriously low, despite the incredible importance of the work.

Despite working as much as 56 hours per week, I've only once managed to break the poverty line of $13,000 and change (Amazing isn't it?). Now that I feel, finally, prepared to start the long road into the ministry, I'm asked to come up with $24,000 per year for my schooling. Competitive scholarships may cover some of this expense, and my parents are willing to help in whatever ways they can, but I'll still most likely end up paying more per year of schooling than I have ever managed to make in a year of working.

Needless to say, this prospect is more than a little intimidating. I don't have any concerns about low wages if and/or when I actually do make it into the ministry, as $30,000/year seems like a ridiculously large sum of money to me. I'm single with no prospects of that changing any time soon, and quite honestly, I'd settle for room and board as renumeration for ministerial work. I'm not interested in the ministry for money or approbation, I'm interested in it because I have seen the need for comfort, care and advocacy for our sick and dying brethren (and sitheren).

For me, the financial issue is not about feeling entitled to have someone else pay my way into a profession, it's about not finding much in the way of support in pursuing a vocation that myself and many others have seen me.

I thought about seminary immediately upon graduation, as it was apparent to me that there was no place in the Economics world for someone so insistent upon applied ethics, but I felt that I was not prepared, that I didn't have the requisite life experience to minister to even myself, much less to others. But now I do feel prepared. Not entitled, but prepared. And not prepared for the ministry, don't get me wrong, but prepared to start the process.

Prepared, that is, in all but one sense: the financial. I would like to think that in a faith community with probably the highest average wage of any denomination, that burdensome financial debt for aspiring or current church leaders should not be an issue. Unfortunately, it obviously is, as many at the iminister and peacebang blogs have attested to. But then again it is well known among those who work for tips that the poorer the patron, the more generous the tip. Perhaps that is some of what is going on in UUism. I would like to think not but I can't help but wonder.

I'll wrap up with a quote from the Zen buddhists, notorious for the acrane hoop-jumping rituals required of their monks:
"In the experts mind there are few possibilities, in the beginners mind there are many."
Whatever ends up happening to me personally, it is my sincere hope that the "expert mind" of our UU leadership doesn't end up, or continue to, preclude possibilities that might make us a stronger and more diverse faith community.


Busy Hands said...

Your point six, especially the caveat about never getting a parish ministry, are deeply discouraging. So much so that it makes me glad that I will probably be dead before our current generation retires. I don't want to think about a world where there are no UU ministers because there were no jobs, and there are no jobs because congregations can't get ministers, because they can't afford seminary with such poor prospects. And so on.

Want to kill a profession? Make sure it's only available to the rich and highly motivated, but only offers meager rewards and a lot of stress.

I'll stop now and go mope in silence.

Kelly KH said...

All good comments. I have to say that the original post was a bit of a downer. I don't feel entitled to be a minister, but called there. And yes, I aspire to a job in a church, preaching and working in social justice, and offering pastoral care. I've done the human services thing, and I feel that I can offer so much more as a minister of a church.

I am very concerned about the financial aspect, because I have a family that needs to be supported (and who is already making sacrifices), and we are barely making the poverty line as it is.

But I know that I have skills that I can offer, and passion, and that I have been called to make a difference in the world, so what choice do I have?

I do feel that some of the things we have to do to become a minister are "hoops" and some of them are positive and good, and some of them not so much. But in the end, I'll do whatever it takes.

Not a particularly coherent comment maybe, but I'm following this discussion closely and with interest. And I hope that there is a positive message for those of us who aspire to the pulpit!

The Eclectic Cleric said...

I have to admit, I'm also of a divided mind on much of what I've written here myself. Personally, I don't want to be discouraging of anyone's call to ministry. A call is a very personal thing, and according to "traditional" doctrines of vocation, each Believer actually has two: a general call to be as GOOD a Believer as they can possibly become, and then a specific call to find one's unique vocation, that place where (to paraphrase the words of Frederick Bueckner, I believe) "Our Own Deep Passion meets the World's Great Need." This specific vocation may or may not align itself with a call to "ordained" ministry: a very specific kind of vocation, which (strictly defined) REQUIRES the sacrifice of one's personal ambitions and aspirations to the service of the larger community of faith. So in one sense it is an honor, but in another it's a vow... and above all else, it is a privilege we earn...not through our education or our credentials, but one person at a time, by their willingness to call us "my minister." So perhaps the path to Ordained Ministry is best understood as consisting of at least four levels: a personal intuition that our specific vocational call includes a call to ordained ministry, the appropriate theological education and institutional "approbation" which allows us to present ourselves as "competent, committed, and of good character;" an institutional call from a community of faith to settle among them and serve as their pastor and teacher, and finally the individual "authenticity testing" which takes place day-in and day-out, as our people each decide one person at a time whether or not we are someone who is worthy of sharing with them some of the most intimate and challenging moments of their lives.

Obviously, this last doesn't necessarily require either formal ordination or a theological degree. And this is why I was trying to suggest that it was a mistake to attend seminary on the assumption that the reason you are there is to jump through a few hoops and be rewarded with a job at the other end. Theological education should NEVER be considered merely a means to an end (and if that's how you do think about it, you are almost certainly going to be disappointed sooner or later, and probably the former). Rather, Theological education needs to be understood as an End in Itself, at the end of which you yourself will hopefully have been transformed into a wiser and more knowledgeable religious/spiritual leader, competent to "profess" our faith in a professional manner, while still practicing whatever core disciplines brought you to that place in the first place.

Speaking specifically to "Busy Hands," I don't know whether I would actually describe myself as "rich," but I imagine that is something of a relative term anyway...I could have certainly done a lot better financially practicing a different profession (and there were certainly plenty of lean years practicing this one), but at this point I don't really have any complaints...mostly I'm just feeling a lot of gratitude for having had the opportunities I've enjoyed. And yes it has often been stressful, but yes I am also highly motivated--and whether that is best understood as patient and tenacious persistence, or simply pig-headed stubbornness, has yet to be fully determined. But it's been thirty years now, this past autumn, since I first enrolled at the Harvard Divinity I think at the very least it's fair to call me a "survivor."

In any event, right now it seems to me as though our denomination truly is wresting with its understanding of "ministry" it both its broadest and its most narrow senses -- shared ministry and "the priesthood of all believers," professional ministry verses "lay" (or "people's") ministry, the notion that "All Ministry is Local," the concern about maintaining high levels of professional competence and accountability among our "ordained" clergy, increasing the length of settlement and reducing the number of negotiated terminations among our regularly settled ministers, creating adequate opportunities for professional development, continuing education, and cultivating "excellence" in ministry, finding adequate support (and maintaining appropriate accountability) for our community based ministers, as well as meaningful work for those trained but un or under-employed clergy whose personal life-circumstances have left them on the sidelines rather than on the field....

But I still want to ground this back in fundamental definitions. To be ordained is to be "set in order," to be "made sacred," to be sacrified (or asked to sacrifice) for the betterment of the greater community. And even though that paradigm itself is under challenge (and changing) thanks to the work of people like Rebecca Parker, it is still pretty firmly rooted in a lot of the basic assumptions about "how things really work around here," INCLUDING a lot of the assumptions about ministerial compensation and all those other issues that ordained, professional clergy so love to whine about in one another's company. I've been there, I've done it...I'm not really proud of it, but I am proud of the fact that I've somehow managed to work through it to the place of gratitude and generosity I am now. Right now, I'm feeling so fortunate, so happy, and so Lucky to be in the position I am now, encouraged and supported by so many fine friends, my family, and the members of this wonderful congregation I feel so privileged to is truly an amazing and even miraculous thing. A real George Bailey moment, as I've described it so often in the months just passed. And well worth every sacrifice I've been asked to make to get here....

Diptherio said...

I don't have any particular problem with clergy living a life of "poverty," so to speak. A detachment from material wealth has long been a pre-requisite to religious leadership in many traditions: Catholic, Hindu and Buddhist, to name a few. This seems only right to me.

My problem is the round-about way we get to that poverty. In order to take the "ministerial vow of poverty" you first have to come up with 60K! I've been living in willfull poverty for years now, due entirely to my spiritual callings and practices. As Baba says, "high thinking, simple living."

And that's the kind of poverty I mean, by the way: simple living. Very few people in this country of priviledge know what simple living is. If one truly does have a spiritual calling, especially to the ministry, one should be more than willing to give up the trappings of wealth we all take for granted in this country. $20,000 cars? $300,000 houses? More clothes than you can wear in a week? Puh-lease. In the words of Sat Guru, "Don't consider how much you give away, consider how much you keep for yourself." Go to a third world country if you want to know what true poverty looks like.

Like I said, it's not the ministerial salary that bothers me, it's the cost of entry. If I vow to work for only room and board for 5 or 10 years after graduation, can I get a break on seminary? Ha! That'll be the day. Doesn't matter how much you are willing to serve your community, you still gotta pay to play. Typical capitalist mentality, in my opinion, and it's a real bummer that it's screwing with our "faith(s)".

I think we would do well to take a page out of the Assemblies of God playbook on this one. A number of different "levels" of ministry, that allow congregations of all sizes and locals to be served by someone in a ministerial capacity. Want to save the "ordained" title for those with the paperwork? Fine, but don't keep people out of the work because they can't find the time or money for institutional book-learnin'.

I think a large part of our problem is that we're a bunch of over-educated white people (for the most part) who, while we might not admit it, tend to look down on the "un-educated." We're a church full of intellectuals and academics who have placed our own personal worth in our diplomas, and so we can't see the worth in education gained outside the academy. But I've found more wisdom amongst bums and farmers than I ever did in the ivory tower.

And don't despair, busy hands, some of us are still anarchistic and driven enough to make our own ways when the entrenched power structures stand in our way (for our own good, of course). We just need more of this kind of conversation, and less authoritarianism in UUism.