"Fear Vs Boldness", Part 2 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 Two: Fear versus Boldness 
by Anonymous

As I said in Part One, I hate that this post has to be anonymous, but there is a sense of mistrust and struggle that prevents me, and my fellow seminarians, from speaking in the open. I know this bothers some, as we say we are open and honest in our covenants with one another, yet I fear that by speaking out, I am putting my career in jeopardy. 

To many, this may seem odd; how can well-educated, articulate, passionate people feel so scared in a denomination that prizes prophetic witness?

It isn’t any one thing. But just as the crow in Aesop’s fable gets the water to rise by adding a bunch of pebbles to the jar, so too the many pebbles – including a long formation process, financial concerns, lack of guidance along the formation process, and recent evidence of retribution at our flagship seminary – build a culture not on trust but on fear.

It is true that we signed up for this – a process that involves a rigorous three-year Masters of Divinity program, psychological and career assessments, a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, mastery of an 84-item reading list, and two meetings – 45 minutes with the Regional Sub-Committee on Candidacy (RSCC), and finally an hour with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC), who then determine if we indeed have what it takes to be a Unitarian Universalist minister.

This process isn’t new, but the requirements have been growing more demanding over time, causing many of us to wonder if we’ll ever be good enough when we watch well-prepared members of our cohort to fail to meet the MFC’s requirements. Professional and financial support has been diminishing, to the point that I have wondered aloud whether the UUA wants new ministers at all. I’m told by those in final fellowship that the UUA wants lots of ministers, even knowing there aren’t enough congregations to go around. But we are told as we prepare for ministry to expect to be “bi-vocational” – in other words: keep your day job. What should be a supportive, encouraging process to nurture the next batch of ministers is instead a nerve-wracking, discouraging process, with several key issues:

Funding: It is more expensive to go to seminary, yet the number of scholarships and amounts have decreased, thus preventing those from less affluent socio-economic communities being able to consider even taking the first step toward ministry. We recognize that the UUA is struggling financially as well; this isn’t a complaint – just noting a reality that seminarians face as they take out more loans in order to complete their education.

Access and Support: In an effort to supposedly streamline the process, the RSCC now meets twice a year in just two cities – Portland, OR, and Boston, MA – expensive places to visit, especially for those who live more than a few hundred miles from one of these two cities. This is hardly “regional” and most assuredly not hands-on like ordination committees in other denominations. While we are told that we can always ask questions of the process and just “call the credentialing office,” the director is just one man, with one administrator to help wrangle the more than 500 people currently engaged in the formation process. It is only in the last few months that the UU Ministers Association has considered a mentorship program for candidates in process – as it stands now, we only get assigned a mentor after we’ve been granted preliminary fellowship. 

Fair wage: Many ministerial internships pay less than minimum wage. Most interns either rely on a partner who has a full time job or go on some sort of public assistance. These interns have masters’ degrees but are on food stamps. They are not neophytes; rather, they are serving our congregations as ministers, much like medical residents serve hospitals as doctors.  And the burden is largely on the individual congregations, who are following guidelines that promote a less than fair wage – with limited subsidies from the UUA, paid to the congregation. By the way, those subsidies limit the funding interns can receive; one intern minister, seeking assistance from the UUA, was told point-blank, “We already subsidize your stipend.”

Various seminarians have raised these questions with people who have access and standing to address them. We hope that these issues will be addressed, knowing that our concerns are not the only ones our very busy UUA staff is tackling. Often, however, we are told to keep our heads down, to toe the line, to not complain, to wait until final fellowship to raise questions. And yes, the current crisis at SKSM brings this to the fore; we are struggling to find our prophetic voices within a broken system laced with dismissal, isolation, mistrust, and one-sided covenant. And this scares us.  

I’m not saying it shouldn’t be hard. It should. But maybe it should be just a little easier, so that the ministers coming out of the process are the bold, whole, compassionate beings they were when they entered. In our discussions in the private group for seminarians on Facebook I see a cohort that is full of life, spirit, excitement, energy, and prophesy. We recognize our call to nurture a hurting world. We embody our call to deepen our thinking, our spirituality, and our actions. We are wildly insightful and intelligent, well organized and motivated. We are pushing the boundaries of what it means to do church and where we do it, what it means to be queer and trans* in non-heteronormative ways, what it means to be on-the-ground activists in the face of clear and present danger, what it means to be religious leaders in a country full of “NONE”s.

Yet what I fear is that the systematic atmosphere of mistrust will not create the ministers we need but instead will continue to create the ministers we are comfortable with. Karl Barth said our role is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable;” we need to be uncomfortable with what’s happening inside our walls and willing to talk about it. We need to make this covenantal faith as good a community among ourselves as we are a prophetic witness to the world. 

This post is anonymous because we’re not there yet. Maybe one day a Unitarian Universalist seminarian with concerns can raise them without fear. 

May that day come soon.


  1. Goodness, I'VE noticed this silence, and I am no where near being a minister.

    How can you have a prophetic faith when your student ministers are bastions of conformity for fear of losing their job? That's what I've gathering by reading lots of blogs by seminarians, and the struggles of folks on what to write about in Facebook. The process, like many credentialing processes, is a conformity machine.

    It's so obvious that it shouldn't take a blogger being anonymous to say it, but I guess it does. Maintenance of the status quo will kill this faith by stifling innovation and the vibrant discourse that any field of thought requires. Alas.

  2. Those Germans get credit for all the good quotes.

    comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

    The quote is first attributed to newspaper writer North American Finley Peter Dunne in an article but he indicated heard it as aline in a speech from from labor organizer Mother Bloor in the turning years of the nineteenth to twentieth century. At any rate is originally English language and uttered when Barth had not yet come into his own.

    But Barth did say "preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other." Once upon a time there was lots of good sermon material in newspapers.

  3. It makes me so sad that our seminarians imagine that reasonable, logical, even obvious questions about our credentialing process such as are raised in this article would cause anyone to think less of the writer. This is the sort of social analysis we expect ministers to be able to do.
    I wonder what it is that makes seminarians so paranoid. I can only conclude that it is the apparent absurdity and perceived capriciousness of the system which causes this reaction. For a denomination that cares about justice, about wage equity, and about its survival (at least, I hope we care about those things) we seem to be able to speak out for strangers but not for our own future leaders.

  4. Steve Cook10:36 AM

    I have read both parts of this posting, as requested, before commenting. I still find this anonymous screed uncovenantal and I’m sad that The Lively Tradition has lent itself to this. As to the larger issues raised, they are worth discussing now as they were before this anonymous shot was fired. I hope we can do so with colleagues and aspiring colleagues; with MFC members past and present; with search committee members past and present, and other interested leaders, all of whom would be willing publically to own their opinions and their stake within “The System,” whatever it may be. I am long past final fellowship, but as an “out” Christian had my own issues with process and still do. Moreover, as a interim minister, I am “on the job market” every two or three years, dealing with hiring committees and the paper trail I have created over 20 years; not all of us in final fellowship are free from concerns. I would be glad to take part in this conversation but only if carried forth openly and honestly.

  5. Well, you're right about most of these things, but not about the idea that most of them are new within the last few years, or even the last decade, with the exception of the RSCC.

    In the good old days when us Gen-X ministers were going through, the amount of support for the average seminarian from the UUA equaled exactly $500 -- a one-time grant you could get that would basically pay for your career counseling, but nothing else, and that only if you did it in a group setting. And, yes, there were seminarians on food stamps.

    The amount of funds from my seminary I received? Nothing. I won one prize during the four years that has a small check attached, but there were no scholarships to speak of for the bulk of us. One person got a free ride for being promising. There was another partial scholarship that need-based. The rest of us had nothing.

    There was no RSCC, but most of us needed to similarly travel with expenses to the MFC. And the lack of RSCC was a problem in itself, as people would get to the end of their seminary only to find they should have been given warnings long ago.

    Mentors? Our seminary created a mentorship program, but I didn't hear of any cases where it was particularly successful, and it ended. I had a mentor. We corresponded about once. Basically, there was no real structure or institutional support for mentorship then, either. We, too, lamented the lack of hands-on support we saw from other denominations.

    Internship stipends? There was no regulation of it, so some internships, the good ones, got $1000 a month. The poor ones got nothing. We had the advantage at Meadville of it being part of our curriculum, which meant we could take out student loans to cover the internship, too. I was lucky to have an internship with a stipend, with which I covered living expenses for myself & my husband. We lived in a very poor neighborhood, and were robbed three times that year. Meanwhile I got the helpful and instructive criticism that I should dress better for the job and get a new wardrobe.

    The movement wasn't talking about bivocational ministers, because it hadn't woken up to it yet. Instead we basically got lectures about how you shouldn't take out student loans, because you wouldn't be able to pay them back, but no alternative other than being wealthy was offered to student loans. The previous generation had seminaries with full funding for students, so there was still a lack of awareness and real understanding about how times had changed from the ministers ahead of us. The reality, though, was that many of us graduated with full-time loans into part-time ministry.

    After a decade in ministry, I'm still paying heavily on my student loans. Have you heard me blogging about adjunct teaching? It's not for the glory. I may be a full-time minister, but it's not enough to make ends meet and pay back the loans.

    Why am I not speaking up about this issue more? I don't complain too loudly, because my congregation would be hurt if I became the poster child for ministerial poverty. They work damn hard to keep me at full time and fair compensation, but they're an A-level church, my spouse has been unable to work full-time, and I have a child. The end result looks a lot like bivocational ministry even though there's no recognition of it as such.

    I AM speaking up about the idea that the future should look like bivocational ministry, and working hard to advance other models that are a lot more fair to our ministry.

    You're told the UUA wants lots of ministers even though there aren't enough pulpits to go around? We were told there weren't enough pulpits to go around, and that we weren't really wanted. Which is worse?

    I'm not saying that this is all not important, or that it doesn't strike fear. I know it is and it does. But you're making a false assumption that the ministers out there don't know those problems themselves, and aren't still struggling with the impact of it. We are.

  6. ",,, how can well-educated, articulate, passionate people feel so scared in a denomination that prizes prophetic witness?"

    Frankly, my impression is that "prophetic witness" is only welcome so long as it's not directed inward, showing how our denomination (or "faith movement") and its leaders have fallen short of the vision they trumpet

  7. Anonymous5:46 PM

    "I’m not saying it shouldn’t be hard. It should. But maybe it should be just a little easier..." I think more clarity, support and encouragement from the UUA would be a huge, positive change. Leaving the formation of several hundred potential ministers in the lap of one very competent but over-stretched individual is not sustainable or smart. Finding snd encouraging more financial resources for supporting the future ministers and the future of our faith would be a good idea but currently seems a low - VERY low - priority.

  8. Mac Lingo8:01 PM

    I've also noticed that the OFFICIL clergy don't seem to have much energy for non-ordained folk. It's probably because they are just as busy trying to keep all those balls in the air that I do. And it is so darn expensive to get credentialed. Ugh! But...

    I will remark that I am retired, don't have to earn a living from my "work", but still am a pretty busy non-official chaplain. But hay, the requirement for the job is a temperature of 98.6. And I fell so blessed to be able to do it.

  9. Kate Rohde2:03 AM

    Well, I think anonymous lives in an historical bubble if s/he thinks there are more reasons to be scared today. When I came into ministry there were two women with full time jobs and I was told by my all male faculty their "might" be discrimination. Some of our more outstanding women had difficulty with the MFC. Our Lesbian classmate never got a church. Women were in marginal jobs and told explicitly that a church would prefer a nice young man. We were warned against being alone with certain male colleagues and harassed at meetings. When we raised issues about sexual abuse in congregations, we were publicly humiliated. Most Gay ministers were closeted (no Lesbians other than the one unemployed friend). I was in ministry a long time before my debts were paid off.

    I do agree that the MFC and RSCC process is ridiculous. Everyone should be able to get through before graduation unless there is a very serious issue -- not wait months or years after graduation. Why not more fuss about this? Students should be able to apply for jobs in a timely fashion so they can work after graduation. Still, in my day there were student protests about all kinds of things at my school (M/L) and we got a fair hearing and sometimes the change we wanted. SKSM also protested something about the MFC. I don't think any of them were punished. We were bolder then?

    Various ones of us have suffered for various public stances from time to time during our careers. Doing the right thing comes at a price. The finance thing has been bad for thirty years and is, I agree, getting worse just because educational costs rise. That, though, is an institutional problem not one that requires anonymity. There weren't easy solutions 34 years ago and there are fewer today.

  10. Mac ---

    As a person who has worked with several interns in a model which asks us to take a heavy teaching role and doesn't pay us at all for teaching, I feel your remarks about clergy being indifferent to students in uninformed. It is true that clergy are more stretched now (partly because women and men take our family responsibilities more seriously than some of the men who proceeded us) and some of the formation work chapters used to do is not being done due both to the absence of many senior colleagues and sometimes the disinterest on the part of their juniors and students..

  11. Mac ---

    As a person who has worked with several interns in a model which asks us to take a heavy teaching role and doesn't pay us at all for teaching, I feel your remarks about clergy being indifferent to students in uninformed. It is true that clergy are more stretched now (partly because women and men take our family responsibilities more seriously than some of the men who proceeded us) and some of the formation work chapters used to do is not being done due both to the absence of many senior colleagues and sometimes the disinterest on the part of their juniors and students..

  12. Kate: I don't think the issue is how old these concerns are, but that UU leadership seems so oblivious to them. Even with the history you've described, one has to wonder why the patterns keep repeating, and why so little effort appears to be made at making this process more in line with our vision and principles. Yes, we are now more affirming of women and LGBTQ folk in ministry, but those who identify as kinky and/or polyamorous still feel fear (even terror) at the thought of being out. We speak of "loving the Hell out of the world" - why are we so slow at doing that for our own institutions?

  13. I understand the fear anonymous raises. In my last year of seminary I expressed my concerns to fellowshipped colleagues in my district. I wish I had never spoken to them about my concerns. Concerns about poverty level internships. Concerns about biases against Christians. Concerns about the dearth of internship sites. Concerns about the RSCC's no longer meeting in the Mid-West (and the vacuum that created in my formation process). Concerns about a ministerial formation process more concerned with ideals about ministerial excellence, and less concerned with religious gifts and callings. The responses I got from other fellowshipped UU ministers was full of condemnation. I was told that if I wasn't willing to sacrifice myself in poverty for an internship, I must not really want to be fellowshipped. I was told that as a liberal Christian I should think about going somewhere else. I was often told, "The fellowship process worked for me. If you have problems with the process, you must be the problem." I left the UU fellowship process in 2005 (after 13 years as a UU). I stopped attending UU churches in 2009. I now serve as the pastor of a medium sized church in a liberal Protestant denomination. I have experienced a greater sense of covenant in these new circles, than I ever experienced as a candidate for UU ministry. And thinking about this still leaves me feeling sad.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

the difference between "principles' and "virtues"

Denise Levertov's Poem about Thomas

Starting a Discussion about Multi-partner relationships

Reflection on Merger (Dialectical Theology Part 8 of many)

What's In Our DNA (Dialectical Theology, part 7 of many)