The Core Issue of Ministerial Nervousness

The Commission on Appraisal laid it out in their report "Who Is In Charge Here."

UU ministers have very little positional authority: authority that comes to them simply because they are the minister. What authority a particular UU minister will have will come to them through the relationships they have built with congregants over time, usually through pastoral care.  It takes years, in many cases, for ministers to accrue much authority.

Therefore, for a long, long time, UU parish ministers are working to develop authority in the
congregation. That sounds noble, but mostly it means pleasing as many people as possible, and not irritating those with power. It's tap-dancing as fast as you can. And it takes its toll, even if it never shows.

As ministries get shorter, more of our ministers never develop enough authority in the congregation to really go out on a limb. Most never get the authority to turn their attention from the congregation to be an inspirational voice in the community, as A Powell Davies was in Washington DC.

It's a cycle which helps no one. To the extent that the urge to people please is visible in the minister, it undermines their authority. Yet people pleasing seems to be the only way to gain authority.

Our ministers could be a thousand or more clear voices ringing out for a new spirit in these nations of North America. They could be inspiring and empowering tens of thousands of more voices, and moving hundreds of thousands of hearts toward reverence, openness, solidarity, self-possession. We need to stop stifling ourselves, and that starts by encouraging our ministers to be brave and confident.


  1. Diane Miller7:17 AM

    Dancing Jesus makes me dizzy. And sometimes so do congregational politics! A good word about power and leadership in our tradition -- courage.

  2. This is spot on, thanks for posting it!

  3. Elisabeth7:56 PM

    Tom, a curiosity question: are UU ministers able to be members of the congregation/fellowship for which they serve as minister?
    If not, would having membership make a difference in the minister's power?

  4. Are they getting shorter again? I've seen them drop from 30 to just about nothing and then edge up again. Numbers not at hand, but trust me, there are eras of tumult and eras of rigidity. Both are full of fear, as much among the laity as among the clergy. My guess is that some congregations get a feeling that if there's such an oversupply, they might be able to do better.

    For what it's worth, I no longer encourage the at-will model of settlement. Instead I advocate fixed terms that vary according to the state of a covenanted relationship: 3 years, 5 years, 5 years, 5 years, 2 years. I'm open to the idea that the parties can opt for a 2 year term after any of the 5 year terms, but not after the first 3 year term, and obviously, not after the 2 year term.

  5. Kate R11:15 PM

    I find that the most resistance to authority of ministers comes in congregations in which that authority has been abused in recent memory by former clergy, which unfortunately is about 50% of our congregations. It isn't the individual minister but the history of ministry that builds the trust, although we can do some things toward rebuilding it.

  6. Rev. Sarah9:34 AM

    Amen. And the thing about pleasing people in congregations is that you're never going to please everyone. Never ever. But if the congregation is truly oriented toward a vision and a mission (a real one) then work toward the mission and vision can be the measure, not whether you met everyone's personal expectations. Interim ministers can do really excellent work in re-orienting a congregation from a consumer satisfaction outlook to a mission outlook. But I have to say, societally we are swimming upstream with that. Individualistic consumerism has infected our religious and political institutions to a high degree.


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