Who Sees the Ministerial Qualities?

A recent post (Authority in a Post-Denominational, Post-Congregational Age)
has inspired some comments and responses. Check all the comments on that thread, but I wanted to respond to these two.

Steve writes:
We have lived with this tension between an individual’s call from beyond and congregational polity for a long time, but I am not sure we can survive unless we begin putting the call from beyond before the congregation. Polity and governance are important, but they should not block our mission to help people find a religion of their own. By maintaining the centrality of congregations, we are saying the same thing to kindred souls who are seeking a religion of their own as we said to Community Ministers. As long as we affirm the centrality of the congregation we will not attract those kindred spirits.
Paul Dodenhof writes:
An interesting post for me and a growing number who minister to UU congregations but who are not in fellowship with the UUA. I was ordained in a non-traditional seminary after quite a few years as a lay minister. I have a B.A. (Magna Cum Laude) in Religion and did grad work towards a masters in American Religious History though stopped just short of completion. I've been a UU for 14 years.
For two years now, I have been ministering to a small congregation that was once much larger. Now having about 40 member with an average age of 50 or so, they are at a crossroads and we have been woking to move towards a less congregational kind of community and to attract younger members. Difficult work to be sure yet starting to move forward.
I consider and refer to myself as a UU minister. I'm UU and I serve a UU congregation. Yet my denomination doesn't recognize me as such which makes for a very frustrating and often quite painful sense of separation and non-acceptance by my fellow UU ministers and UUA leadership.

Steve and Paul are talking about, of course, two different things. Steve is talking about the resistance of the UUA structures to recognize community ministry, with fellowshipping. Paul is talking about the unwillingness of UU structures to grant fellowship to people who have not gone through their process, even though they serve UU churches in a ministerial role.

They both turn on the process of "fellowshipping" or "credentialing."

So my question comes back? What is the fellowshipping process in a post-denominational, post-congregational world?  

We know, from experience, that to claim the role of 'religious' or 'spiritual' leader is to claim significant social power. You can trade it for money, power, fame, and even sex. I want anyone who claims religious or spiritual leadership associated with Unitarian Universalism, in any capacity, to have submitted to process of evaluation to find out if they can be trusted with that power.  I am not really concerned that Paul does not have an M.Div from an accredited Div School; I think a case could be made that such is not an ironclad requirement. But I am concerned that he has apparently not had to turn in a CPE supervisor's evaluation and an intern supervisor's evaluation, and a career assessment report and a psychological evaluation to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, but serves a UU church as its minister. I am very glad that he is pursuing fellowship now, and wish him well.

Steve's impression was that the Ministerial Fellowship Committee didn't really know how to evaluate him and his ministry -- even though he had fulfilled its requirements. That they were trapped in a parish-centric frame of reference. He seems to wonder if any denominational authority can evaluate "the call from beyond," the beyond being the world outside the church walls and the congregation.

Of course, nobody needs the approval of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee to devote their life to a religious vocation. But doesn't there have to be somebody who decides who is a UU minister, especially community ministers, where the structures of accountability are not usually populated with UU's?

Right now, the MFC does this work. Community ministers say that it is not quite right, because the MFC and the UUA is too parish-centric. So consciousness-raising and sensitivity training is in order.

Isn't it typical that we think we can solve structural problems by thinking better thoughts? The MFC is part of the UUA, which is structurally an association of congregations.

I think that the only way forward is for the Community Ministers, in consultation with the UUMA and the UUA, to take over the credentialing of community ministers. I also think this of Parish Ministers. As we move "beyond congregations", I believe that the only people who can systematically evaluate whether a person is embodying this tradition of liberal ministry are other ministers themselves.


  1. Hi Tom-

    As President of the Unitarian Universalist Society for Community Ministries I need to quibble with your statement "I think that the only way forward is for the Community Ministers, in consultation with the UUMA and the UUA, to take over the credentialing of community ministers.”

    I would have no problem if you had said, “...in consultation with the UUMA, UUSCM and the UUA, to take over…” In fact, I would be in full agreement.

    The UUMA is a fine ministerial association. While it contains community clergy, it primarily represents parish clergy. We in UUSCM form our own ministerial association. While UUSCM contains parish clergy, we primarily represent community clergy.

    While many community ministers hold dual membership in both ministerial associations, the fastest growing segment of UUSCM membership consists of ordained clergy who are not members of the UUMA.

    Don’t you think we deserve a mention? Last time I checked, God had not granted the UUMA a sole monopoly on all forms of UU ministry, and I don't think it would be a good idea if God did that.

  2. Hi Tom,

    Thank you so much for your engagement with the issues of community ministry. I deeply appreciate your support of the need for larger consideration of community ministry in our movement. I agree with Scot that the UUSCM is a vital partner in this dialogue. The UUMA is not currently engaged at the fullest level of consideration of what is happening beyond the walls of our parishes. The UUSCM as a UU professional organization has membership categories that include lay people as well as ordained clergy. We are currently in a process of slimming our categories to lay community ministers, commissioned community ministers (which can include deacons), and ordained clergy. We are developing best practices right now for commissioning lay community ministers to be in accountable, covenanted relationship with congregations. There's a lot happening, particularly among the laity. I invite you to check out some of our best practices documents as well as the recommendations we have made to the MFC regarding the formation process for UU ministers as well. Our website is www.uuscm.org. And come to think of it, Tom, welcome to community ministry through your writing ministry blog! We invite you to become a member as well! :)

  3. CSGiles, I was with you until the last paragraph.

    I said that 'community ministers' ought to take control of the credentialing process for community ministers. Whining about whether I specifically mentioned the name of your organization is craven.

    And to imply that the reason that I didn't mention the name of your organization by imputing to me an absurd opinion (that God granted the UUMA sole monopoly) is insulting.

  4. Hi Tom-

    You're certainly entitled to your opinion, and it is your blog after all. However, I disagree. UUSCM finds itself routinely ignored just as community ministers find themselves routinely ignored, and we have decided to stand up for ourselves by objecting when we find ourselves ignored.

    I will long recall when I was a member of the UUMA and our local chapter published a list of "Beloved Colleagues" and omitted from the list every single community minister in the Chapter. I also take note of recent postings by UUMA officials saying that there is only one organization that represents UU ministers. It's not true, and we plan to object every time someone does something like this.

    I don't think that's craven. I think it is self-respect.

  5. Jim Cavenaugh1:08 PM

    Did my previous comment make it to you? I hit and went to correct a typo and it all disappeared.
    Jim Cavenaugh

  6. P.S. -Let me also apologize for giving offense. My comment about God was intended to be humorous and ironic, not insulting.

  7. Thanx for the invite, Michelle. I don't think of myself as a community minister but as a retired parish minister. I don't really minister in the community, but write for the community of ministers (and other interested folks.) Maybe a self-employed denominational bureaucrat? Maybe an retired intern, or a intern retiree? Maybe I'll just stick with listing my profession as "lily of the field."

  8. Hey Tom!

    Fundamentally we believe in self-naming, but just so you know, we do view our writing and academic ministries as community ministries. When I see you raising substantive issues in writing for our broader UU community, I see that as community ministry. But "lily of the field" works too!

    peace and blessings,

    Michelle :)

  9. The late Jody Shipley, who did so much to launch the respectability of the community ministry, pointed out that many ministries oscillate (my word) between parish and community along the journey. So the question of walls, even of linkages, is only a marker about the challenge of Tom's original question. Skill sets change, calls change, settings change, covenants change. All is change. It is God -- and our relationship with God, whatever God is -- that inaugurates, undergirds, transcends and survives it all. So Tom's question is the one that counts: who has the authority to say they experience God -- whatever God is -- from a particular minister's presence?

  10. I am wary of clergy credentialling clergy, so the present system of an MFC with both clergy and laity on a panel makes some kind of sense for me.
    There is presently one "community minister" on the MFC and that may be point to the problem, that "community" ministry is marginal to the credentialling process.

    But I think we err when we consider credentialling of clergy to be the same thing as authorization of ministry. For me, with many years of final fellowship under my belt, I reflect that credentialing did not authorize my ministries, communities of faithful people doing "ministry" as lay people with me did that. And when I do my community justice and writing and speaking ministry today it is held in a community of congregations, and in collectives such as working groups of Occupy or gatheringss of folks concerned with indigenous rights. Authority in ministry is a community of faitful people saying "this is ministry." Credentialling is saying that I do all the things the MFC has on their check list, which only "authorizes" me in the most general and bureaucratic sense of that word. (Sort of like a M.Div. says what, that I have passed a bunch courses.)

  11. Once upon a time the UU Society for Community Ministries was called the UU Society for a Larger Ministry with a mission to look beyond the parochial to the larger vision and mission of ministry in the world. Because of cultural paracholism with my beloved UUMA the SLM started doing more and more "professional ministry for non parish ministry" work and that necessarily meant less visioning about the big picture of ministry to the world.

    I think that is unfortunate, and I hope that someday we will find a UUMA that is about all ministers and an advocacy organization that raises the visioning and missional issues of broad catergory of ministers (I am one) who call themselves community ministers.

    I am reminded of my experience as a hospital chaplain in Tampa. The chaplains were talking and they said we should reach out to community ministers. I said huh, and it became clear they were refering to their fellow clergy who were serving as congregational clergy "out their in the community (not the hospital.)

    It all depends on what you consider the center of the universe.


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