"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 
by Anonymous

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. 


  1. I hadn't seen the article, and don't know the background, but withholding degrees seems harsh especially given the fact that the investigation is not completed.

  2. Anonymous10:10 PM


  3. Judy Welles11:08 PM

    I have little patience with anonymous commentary. If you are going to be bold, then please have the courage to stand behind your words. Twenty years of parish ministry have left me with little use for anonymous criticisms. If you are not willing to engage in an open conversation and show me who you are with all your passion and conviction, then why are you worth my time?

    Frankly, I think that a lot of the "scaredness" that seminarians allegedly feel is imaginary. If your call is authentic, others will recognize that and will honor your call. Of course it feels fraught and perilous to go through the credentialing process, but I know from personal experience of being on both sides of that process (as a candidate minister and later as a member of an RSCC) that there is LOT of leeway granted for people with a wide range of expressing their call. A lot of very sincere people with the best of intentions participate in the credentialing process; why would you (and the other "scared students") assume the worst? Believe me, they do NOT have it in for you.

    On the other hand, I find myself fervently wishing that "strapped student" and whoever wrote the post above would have had the courage to stand behind their words. If the person who leaked the confidential information regarding the SKSM search process would step up and tell everyone why they did it and what they hoped to gain by it, I think they would find an audience willing to listen--not necessarily to agree with what they did, but at least willing to hear them out.

    Without knowing what lay behind this action, I am inclined to think it's the whining of some person who didn't get their way. I'm sorry, but if it's about your feeling entitled, then I have little sympathy. Life is complicated. Get over it.

    Judy Welles, SKSM '94

  4. I am dissapointed the author(s) did not claim their words. Little constructive good can come of anonymous feedback. Creative, constructive boldness means taking a stand and facing the fullness of relationship

  5. I remember this climate of fear. I think it was there when I went through Meadville Lombard (class of '01). So I would ask that we not dismiss that concept and the impact it might have on our formation and our boldness out of hand, just because this author is anonymous.

    I'm very curious about what makes this "become seemingly more difficult" in the "last few years," and exactly why it's "more wounding than it was even ten years ago."

    But I do object to the term "our flagship seminary." There are still two UU seminaries, and I think naming one "the finest, largest, or most important one of a series, network, or chain" (Flagship -- Merriam Webster) is a bit much.

  6. I remember this feeling, as a law student studying for the bar exam. I challenged one of the professors in a live bar review course, and a fellow attendee told me afterwards he was disconcerted by my boldness. "These people hold our future in their hands," he said. "I didn't go to law school to graze with the sheep," I replied.

    I passed that bar exam, and after 29 years in law practice I am still amazed at the herd mentality in many professions-including the ministry, apparently.

    I urge the author-and those who share the author's views-to claim their Truth by assigning it an identity.

  7. FWIW, in the non-minister world putting comments on an controversial issue on the internet under your real name where future employers can easily find them is widely considered a bad idea.

    From a lay perspective, the decision to NOT have to answer "Us search committee members found this thing you wrote that made it sound like you've got a problem with authority. If you become our minister, are you going to make trouble?" for the entire rest of your life is completely understandable.

    My suggestion would be to thank the being of your preference for your own intellectual freedom, and then return your attention to what this person actually has to say.

  8. Anonymous9:15 AM

    As someone who had to live through the current Starr King Situation first hand, and had to make several enormous decisions based on the academic, cultural and spiritual climate of the school, I completely understand why this blog is anonymous, I support opening this conversation wholeheartedly and I resent anyone who isn't willing to understand the depth to which this fear among seminarians really goes. Frankly, the only reason I'm willing to put my name out here is because I have already gone on record in print as someone who thinks we aren't brave enough.

    This post is spot on and captures what many of us who are directly involved are really feeling. If we are going to be called to prophetic witness, we can't be cultivating paranoid, small minded ways that only serve to protect our financial and public image security. We can't be rash or foolhardy, but we need to work harder to set an example of being bold. I have not seen many "on the other side" coming forward to ask the tough question of Starr King, nor have I heard alums challenging the institution directly to fix this and create an environment that would allow this post to be named. Where is the bold alumni voice that will lead current students to a place of knowing that they will be supported by their community?

    Boldness means admitting our mistakes, acknowledging our shortcomings and being able as a community to hear it when those we care most about are scared out of their wits.

  9. We UU's have come to make a fetish of knowing names. There are times when it is not possible to understand or address criticism unless we know the source. There are other time in which it really doesn't matter who said it, or even why they don't want to be public. This strikes me as one of those times. We can measure the truth of these statements and address their causes without knowing who spoke them aloud.

  10. I don't find room for anonymous anything ... unless real harm is in the mix. Real harm is not only in the mix, it's front and center. The boldness at play here is the willingness of these two students not to roll over and give in to the tank full of senior & powerful voices telling them that's what they must do. With all due respect, Judy, the scaredness is not imaginary. It's pretty obvious given that two students have lost $, opportunity, relationships and quite possibly their pathway to UU ministry. If you read their statement and each of the reports, it's clear that no proof of them being the original leaker or the author of the email exists. Period. The fear is real. The consequences are documentable. Internships were lost. Legal fees were incurred. Reputations soured. And to say it's their fault negates the very boldness you say requires courage. Suzi Spangenberg and Julie Brock did use their names. And they have been paying for it ever since. The bold I'd like to see needn't come from others rightfully scared. I'd love to see it come in the form of people who are anti-these-students declaring their own relationship with SKSM before offering criticisms, SKSM hand delivering their diplomas along with a note of apology that they could include in their MFC paperwork, the UUMA stepping forward to support them with the legal defense fund, the MFC pre-emptively stating that this debacle will not flavor their process, colleagues aligning themselves with justice rather than personal relationship .... and what would be superbly bold would be another seminary stepping forward with an alternative assessment process that would allow these two bold, faith-filled, justice-loving colleagues to obtain their diplomas elsewhere. If another seminary were so bold, I'd sure as heck be recommending that as the place for those considering seminary go.


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