"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
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.