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, finally...at 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 progress...in 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?