Ministerial Authority and Systems of Oppression: The Intersections.

COA "Who's In Charge Here" deals with ministerial authority, power and oppression in our UU systems.

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.


  1. Rev. Schade, I appreciate your words, especially as I begin work as a parish minister after 7 years in healthcare chaplaincy. There is a lot of wisdom and truth to what you say. But I guess the post begs the question where does the positional authority come from? Does it come from the MFC, from the minister's sense of calling, or from the congregation at large? In the Christian tradition, that authority ultimately comes from God via the Holy Spirit's work in the minister and church. In Judaism, that authority too comes from God via the Law's provision. In Buddhism, authority comes from the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, Sangha and the lineage of teachers going back to Buddha. But I am not sure most UUs would know how to answer the question of where a minister's positional authority ultimately comes from. Thanks again for the provocative and positive post.

  2. Yep - going to find a way to make this required reading! Thanks so much for this terrific series.

  3. Steve Cook9:24 PM

    Normally, I agree 100% with 80% of what Tom says. (He's heard me say this before.) In this case, I wholeheartedly agree with 100% of it! I would also add that the dynamic of personal, rather than positional, authority can be a set up for the "rock star" minister and the "fan club" church. Sometimes this leads to church crash when the rock star minister leaves, because she or he has, of course, not nurtured any sorts of leaders who will compete with his or her star power. Sometimes it leads to ministers who believe they are above the rules because their adoring fans assure them of their unique wonderfulness. Since we have no shared ethic of humility before God (as one possible check on misconduct) such a minister and congregation can collude in all sorts of misconduct.

  4. About Us: I believe that the proper role of the UU minister is pretty well established by the history of this religious movement -- dating back to the Cambridge Platform and beyond: worship leader, teacher, preacher, pastor, ritualist of rites of passage, institutional leader: authorities all bounded by the requirement that we never place our self-interest over the interest of the people we serve. All within the context of theological sources and values. It is a social role.

    Individuals are credentialed as suitable for this role and office by the MFC. Individuals are chosen by the congregation to assume that role.

    But that role carries real authority as long as the person holds the role.

    There is no final divine sanction for this role. The role was not designed by God, but by a very human process in history.

    My argument is that we UU's have lost sight of this role and the authorities it properly exercises by tradition and accumulated wisdom. As a result, ministers get their authority from their interpersonal skills, which means that our social systems of privilege, oppression, marginalization and exploitation actually end up in charge.

  5. I happen to be reading Friedman's Failure of Nerve at the same time as we are discussing WICH. This posthumous volume both rounds out and broadens Generation to Generation with F's lifetime of experience using his own paradigm.

    He doesn't use the words power and authority. Instead, I think, he would accept leadership as the right exercise of power in organizations through presence and being; and the leader's self-differentiation as the source of her authority.

    It may be that power and authority understood politically don't really apply to emotional systems, which, Friedman would argue, are uniformly and universally amenable to the almost hormonal influences of self-differentiated leaders who function as the organizations immune system.

    This category error may be why it's so hard to talk about power and authority in congregational systems:they don't really go together.

    This volume should be required reading for anyone who has served in a conflicted situation, in or outside of ministry.

    Thanks, Tom, for bringing us together. I think I've got the mic thing figured out.

  6. I'm finding your analysis of the decline of UU minister authority mostly accurate. (Looking at this from Texas, saying attacks on liberalism ended in 2008 only makes me envious of where you live.)

    Where I'd start to disagree is about now being a time ripe to reversing this decline. While increasing liberality may make people more sympathetic to UUism "as a brand", I don't see it producing a populace enthusiastic about institutions, like brick & mortar UU churches, or authorities in those institutions - UU ministers.

    I do see that as income inequality increases our median member's income will drop as will their pledge, meaning it will take a larger congregation to afford a minister. Meaning larger numbers of UU congregations will become lay-led out of sheer financial necessity. And this is assuming that the cost of becoming a UU minister stops increasing.

    Looking at this, with the idea that fellowshipped ministry is becoming something of a luxury item that fewer UU congregation will be able to afford, how can the UUA through lay training, webinars, and teaming together of congregations with similarities, replicate at least some of the functions that a minister would normally have taken on?

    While I can see that can see that weaker UU ministers are not helpful to a stronger UU movement. I don't see the assumption that stronger ministers will automatically make a stronger UU movement as practical, nor have a seen a compelling case on
    why it would be desirable to the bulk of UU lay leadership who have a vested interest in the status quo.

  7. Thank you, Tom. As usual, you've nailed the unwritten, unspoken stuff that needs to be said.


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