"Fear versus Boldness" by an Anonymous UU Seminarian
I was offered a chance to publish this 2 part essay on the anxieties and fears that are felt by those preparing for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. The first step is to listen. The author and I welcome your comments and feedback.
How to Grow Ministers Who Will Maintain the Status Quo
Part One: Fear versus Boldness
I hate that this post has to be anonymous. We are taught to be bold and confident. In fact, one of the centering qualities of our new UUA brand is “Boldness.” Yet for people who have been called to ministry and are still in the formation stage (somewhere after our saying yes to the call, and the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) saying yes to our right to be ordained and later granted Final Fellowship), boldness is simultaneously encouraged and punished. And so in order to both be bold and avoid possible repercussions, this post is anonymous.
As the most recent news about the present controversy at Starr-King School for the Ministry (SKSM) makes a splash in the New York Times, several people have asked “why are the seminarians so quiet?” Under the blessed cloak of anonymity (and many thanks to Tom Schade for both publishing this and keeping anonymity), I can answer this question with three words: We are scared.
Yes. We, who have taken the boldest step a person can take – to enter the ministry – are scared.
As seminarians (a general term for those of us in this state of formation), we are – as all of our denomination’s ministers will tell you – in a tenuous space. We’re leaving behind a safe life and going back to school, discerning what it means to feel a call to ministry, wondering what it means on the other side of the degree, and knowing that something within us and beyond us – to use the words from the Service of the Living Tradition – is calling us forth from the congregation.
We then face a reality of struggle – not uncommon to any ordination process – but which in the last few years has become seemingly more difficult. In Part Two, I will address some of the concerns we bring to the table, but for now, I will say that anyone who feels called to Unitarian Universalist ministry runs through a gauntlet that is more wounding than it was even ten years ago.
But still, we pursue the path in good faith. But even as we are encouraged to speak with a prophetic voice to injustice and intolerance (and name a book on prophetic witness as our Common Read), even as we are led to read the inspiring words of our own prophets and exemplars, even as we are encouraged to speak truth to power – when two of our number actually do speak truth to power at our flagship seminary, they are met with what can only be described as punitive retribution and coercion from administration and board of the very institution that trained them to be prophets.
Why is it that we can speak truth to power outside our walls but can’t stand it within our walls?
If these two strong SKSM students can be denied their degrees for saying no to an infringement of their right to privacy, what kinds of retaliation is out there for others who speak up? Seminarians are afraid to speak up because we want to be granted preliminary fellowship. Those ministers in preliminary fellowship are afraid to speak up because they want to achieve final fellowship. And once ministers are in final fellowship, they are so deeply immersed in their careers, the plight of struggling seminarians falls down the list of priorities in the face of the sheer volume of things demanding immediate attention.
We talk a lot about being in covenant with one another; in fact, we had an entire General Assembly devoted to that theme. Yet covenant is both a blessing and an obligation: we agree to be on a shared journey where some of us will sometimes stumble and fall short, yet covenant keeps us bound together. Covenant asks us to be in ‘right relationship’ with each other; that means we show each other mercy when things go awry. Mercy. Not retaliation.
Seminarians are silent right now because we are scared. It is possible that some of the fear is greater on this side of the MFC than on the other, but with the SKSM crisis still looming large, we sense a strong level of distrust. We are unsettled. We are wounded.
And for now, we are anonymous.