The most important fact that must be kept in mind is that institutions of liberal religion reduced the authority of the office of minister throughout the 20th century.
1. Humanism and atheism ended any thought that the minister knew something about ultimate reality.
2. The expansion of University Education that made lay members equally or better educated than the ministers themselves.
3. Unitarian growth strategy was to build lay-led formations, which led to a radical laicism, which we call the "fellowship mentality."
4. Liberal Religion in the 20th century stepped back on questions of sexual morality. Because more orthodox forms of Christianity had failed so completely to deal with people's sexual lives, we carved out a place as that church where no one is going to judge your sexual life, the church that doesn't do guilt and shame. An unspoken conspiracy between ministers and congregants developed; neither would judge each other's sexual lives. Of course, it was going to end badly as ministerial sexual misconduct proliferated.
5. All of the anti-oppressive movements ended up being in practice in opposition to the authority of the minister. Inside UU congregations, ministers were the local embodiment of "The Man."
6. The growth of women in ministry meant that many congregations saw in them cheaper and more compliant professional leadership, and accorded them less authority. There was a generational aspect to this as well. The new female ministers were often Baby Boomer women entering churches with pre-Boomer leadership. Those older women and men demanded that the new female ministers conform to the cultural styles of the male minister of the generations before them. Whole areas of a ministers life became open to informal "congregational" review: her hair, her makeup, her shoes and her wardrobe, not only on Sunday but at any occasion.
7. Finally, from around 1969 to 2008, all forms of liberalism including Unitarian Universalism were attacked, demeaned and mocked by an aggressive conservative movement, that said it was morally relativistic, ethically slack, sexually libertine, "touchy-feely", politically correct, and in all ways, ridiculous. As the professional leaders of our religion: the UU minister was the walking embodiment of all that. Religious liberals absorbed many of those attitudes and this liberal self-doubt was especially directed against our leaders and representatives.
The overall picture is declining ministerial authority.
Those trends have not yet played themselves out.
In the end, in our current system, the minister has very little positional authority, defined as authority that is accorded them by virtue of their position as minister. Another way to look at positional authority is authority that is given the office of minister whoever is holding it. What ministers have instead is personal authority that comes from their individual talents and interpersonal skills.
And because the ultimate source of their authority is personal a minister will have greater and more secure authority if they are a high status person in the schemes of privilege, oppression and exploitation of the culture.
As positional authority declines in importance, personal qualities become more important to authority, and the more it is diminished by racism and other forms of oppression.
Unitarian Universalist ministers are among the most well-prepared, well-educated, and thoroughly inspected religious professionals in the world. They are also placed in their professional position by the people that they will be serving. Nobody gets sent from a central bureaucracy. Nobody is imposed by some distant hierarchy. There are packets exchanged and phone interviews and in person interviews and two sample sermons. plus all the google searches someone can imagine.
If anyone should have some positional authority, it should be a UU minister. And by "positional authority" I mean the opportunity to do the job without constant second guessing of every detail and decision, a fair hearing on institutional matters and the benefit of the doubt. They should also have such positional authority that when a lay leader feels that they cannot support the minister, they resign from the board and or other leadership bodies.
UU ministers should have such positional authority that ministers who don't match the cultural stereotype should not have to prove themselves qualified, or ready, or without an agenda. UU ministers should have such positional authority that young ministers don't have to prove themselves mature, ministers of color don't have to prove that they don't have an agenda, and that female ministers don't have demonstrate their gravitas.
They should start their ministries assumed by their congregants to be qualified, ready, UU thru and thru, mature and serious.
Why? Because they are frickin' UU Ministers, that's why.
And that is the stance that all UU ministers should have regarding all other UU ministers.
We are in a good situation to change the low authority of UU ministers now. A upswing of liberality is happening in the general culture: witness the remarkable change in public opinion about marriage equality. UU's everywhere have a sense that we might be able to become a stronger and more vibrant religious movement in the near future. Strength and success make sense to us.
Stronger UU ministers are the key to a stronger UU movement. The UU ministers I know are itching to empower and equip church members to go out and live our values in the world. UU ministers want to inspire deeper spiritual growth, and greater public witness, and more profound service. UU ministers are ready to be inspirational voices in the public square for reverence and solidarity and openness and justice. Instead of trying to limit their authority inside the congregation, every UU should be trying to build their minister's authority in the community. As our ministers grow stronger, we all grow stronger.