Credentialing: What I Think

The problem of credentialing is matching the credentialing requirements with the actual work we need from religious professionals. If we don't require the right things to be credentialed, the leaders that come from the process will not meet the needs. If we require too much to be credentialed, the credentialing process becomes expensive and a bottle neck. If we require too little, then we end up with poor quality leaders in the field.

Our credentialing system is actually a system to assess the integrity, character, accountability and emotional intelligence of candidates for ministry. One of the tests for the candidates' willingness to be accountable is the difficulty and expense of the formation process. Are you willing to study? Are you willing to conform to a process that isn't crystal clear? Is your call strong enough to lead you to sacrifice?

So what do we need our credentialing system to do?

Overall, I think that UUism needs to pivot toward the social movements that are rising in the country.

We need to be an accessible and holistic movement for personal and social transformation.

To be that kind of movement we need to credential and deploy hundreds and thousands of new leaders who can provide leadership to rising social movements.  Some will be working through our existing congregations; others will be leaders in new formations; others will working in communities and schools; others will activists and leaders in existing movements.

They need not be ministers, nor even ministers in formation. For the lack of a better term, I will call them "UU Credentialed Community Leaders"  They represent Unitarian Universalism and have been attested by us as to being of good character, accountable, and emotionally suitable for spiritual leadership. They have trained to think religiously about our values and the social political environment. (I would even mark them with a distinctive clergy shirt.)

The costs and the time requirements of becoming a UU  Credentialed Community Leader should be low. People should not quit their day jobs while in this formation process. And once in service, they will have to deal with their income needs either through part-time work, family support, stipends from churches and organizations.

Some will choose to go on to become credentialed and move into preliminary fellowship, after meeting additional requirements, including a more extensive theological education, etc. Some
will not.

I hope that we can gather a broad pool of future religious leaders as UU Credentialed Community Leaders. The country needs lots of them, and soon.


  1. As the President of the Unitarian Universalist Society for Community Ministries I couldn't agree more. In fact we currently have three levels of membership: Lay Community Ministers (laity who see their community work as a ministry), Commissioned Community Ministers (laity who are in relationship with a UU congregation that recognizes their work as ministry) and Ordained Community Ministers (clergy whose work is a ministry to the wider community.)

    Lay Community Ministers use only secular and academic titles. Commissioned Community Ministers use secular and academic titles but may optionally take the title "Deacon" and for liturgical purposes may wear a Deacon Stole (worn like a sash). Ordained Community Ministers may use academic titles or the title "Reverend," and may wear the clergy stole (worn around the neck). Ordained Community Ministers may be in Ministerial Fellowship with the UUA and may be in Affiliation for a UU congregation. More details at

    Therefore, we already have much of the structure you propose. However, part of our reality is that we have had to do this on our own. We have received neither assistance nor partnership from the UUA in setting up this structure, in fact there has been considerable opposition. While some sort of commissioned lay leadership was proposed at the recent UUA Financial Summit, I will be very surprised if it ever sees the light of day. I hope I am wrong about that.

    The issue, as I see it, is that there is a hidden clericalism within Unitarian Universalism. Clergy who have done the extensive work of spiritual formation our tradition currently requires seem jealous of their stature and unwilling to share any part of it. The UU clergy work hard, often for low pay and under difficult conditions. I suspect that one of the ways they comfort themselves is with the thought of the specialness of their clerical rank. However, the fact is that Unitarian Universalism has no sacramental understanding of ministry and there is nothing inherently special about being a clergy person beyond some special training and accountability (which lots of other professionals also have).

    My $.02 anyway

  2. So, when you talk about credentialing, I've got a request of you.

    Be clear if you're just talking about ministerial credentialing, and if you are, call it ministerial credentialing" and not "credentialing." Religious Educators and Music Coordinators have a process for credentialing, called Credentialing.

    In what you say here about "credentialing," you're really talking more about ministerial credentialing.

    "Our credentialing system is actually a system to assess the integrity, character, accountability and emotional intelligence of candidates for ministry. One of the tests for the candidates' willingness to be accountable is the difficulty and expense of the formation process. Are you willing to study? Are you willing to conform to a process that isn't crystal clear? Is your call strong enough to lead you to sacrifice?"

    This is NOT how the RE Credentialing system is set up. The system you describe isn't my system, it's the system for ministers. I think if you equate the two systems, you're kind of doing a disservice to other UU religious professionals who have a vastly different credentialing process than UU Ministers do.

  3. Ooh, shameless plug: I'll be co-facilitating a program at General Assembly titled, "Moving from Clergy-centric to Collaborative Ministry." Thursday, 4:45-6:00

  4. My heart and mind is with Charleston this morning and being there, I have to comment on this essay. Thank you Tom for raising this enormously important issue. I too am going to take issue with the language of "credentialing." At the UUSCM, we are consciously using the language of "commissioned" as well as "minister." I agree with Scot that our tradition is infected with clericalism, though that is not our theological root and promise. We are the priesthood and prophethood (and pastorhood) of all believers, as JLA spoke to. "Ministry is all that we do together" as Gordon McKeeman also wrote. We need impassioned lay and clergy at this time in history, formed to participate in the social movements happening and to address the great and gaping wounds of race, class, and gender in this country and the world. We do that best when we are connected to our faith through the very language that we use. Lay leaders need to be commissioned to enter our world as ministers to the hurting and on behalf of justice - AND we need professionally trained and equally impassioned clergy to assist and guide. This is a time for boldness in our faith.

  5. This is such a hot button topic with so many dimensions that a post on one aspect gets everyone going. Let me be clear about what I advocate and what I am not advocating.

    In this post, I advocate that the UUA "credential" laypeople as "credentialed community leaders." And in this sense I am using the word "credentialed" in a way similar to what Tim Atkins is talking about. The UUA credentials religious educators and musicians (and membership professionals?) in a process separate from the Ministerial fellowshipping process. I would hope that those credentialing processes are not only attesting to knowledge, but also to integrity, accountability and emotional intelligence. I believe, as I think does Michelle, that we need to find ways to move more decisively and consciously into the social movements now happening. In terms of language, I think all these things are 'ministry" and the people who do them, 'ministers'. Indeed, I do believe that our work is to help people find a ministry in the world.

    That said, I am not for blurring the lines between Ministers who have been called into fellowship through our fellowshipping process and lay people who are performing works of ministry in our churches and in the community. The words I would use to describe this are "Clergy" and "Laity".

    I believe that those who have put years of their lives on hold, acquired a theological education, done an internship, a CPE session, read extensively in our history and tradition, and been poked, prodded, analyzed and disquieted by our formation process, only to stake their livelihood and their family's future on the institutions of this faith, are the leaders of this faith, and should have more authority than they now do. Their job is exercise power in such a way as to empower others and move us forward. In today's very specific setting, I think that the only way forward for Unitarian Universalism is for clergy to band together, strengthen and support each other, and then unite with our most progressive lay members to push and pull our largely vacillating congregations toward vital connections with the social movements of the day. Without dedicated leadership, our congregations will not escape their default mode of being inward looking and insular.

    As for Erik's workshop. I wish him well. I read a paper that he wrote a while ago which laid out his thinking. I see no problem with clergy organizing their staff teams and congregations in a collective, collaborative manner. I think that collaboration brings out a lot more creativity and energy than hierarchical systems. I do think that the desire for collaborative relationships within congregations and their staffs should not be generalized into a general blurring of the lines between clergy and laity.

    Thanks for all your thinking....

  6. Nadine Swahnberg12:29 PM

    For my part, I agree that I would like to see empowered laypeople as well as as ordained ministers moving in collaboration into significant community ministries. Right now, we have not even built the infrastructure for common work among church clergy and community ministers, be they ordained or lay. That would not take much creativity and labor, but it can't occur without "some" structuring from UUA/UUMA/UUSCM leadership.

    I know a number of ministers, as well as educators and others, who have been positively moved by the Parker Palmer "Courage" training. We would not need to create all this leadership training ourselves. We could urge people in the direction of existing programs, for the most part, and stamp their hand when they are ready ....

  7. I've had some evolution in my thinking since that paper, Tom. I'm beginning to see much more clearly the distinction that you and others have encouraged me to take into consideration. I think I've been so devoted to empowering laity to recognize their own ministries as equal to the ordained minister's in terms of importance that I lost sight of many of the things that mark ordained ministry. [An extremely imperfect analogy -- some well-intentioned white folk so want to see the end of discrimination that they emphasize the community humanity of all of us regardless of race. In doing so, though, they lose sight of what makes being white its own unique experience which, if reclaimed from the pervasive context of white supremacy, can actually provide a point of greater connection. Some in the interfaith community say much the same thing -- if you so focus on the ways religions are "the same" you ignore the real differences, yet if you recognize and own those differences you can have more authentic dialog.) Anyway, all this to say that I'm with Saint Ralph, "I no longer believe this."

    On a side note, in your post you wrote, "I would even mark them with a distinctive clergy shirt." Have you thought of what that'd be? I know that many of our ordained clergy-folk wish that there was a "distinctive clergy shirt" that marked us as religious people without the implication by association that we are Christian clergy folk.

  8. Although I like your idea, Tom, I have to take issue with the idea that the current ministerial credentialing process is focused on character. In the wake of finding out about serious criminal behavior by one of my ministerial predecessors, I was surprised to learn that the MFC does not do the kind of reference checking with former employers (which would have raised red flags) that I do when hiring church staff. The language around Fellowship is much more around "competencies" and psychology than around character and moral action and the former appears to be the focus.

    Further, given the breakdown in the process for Fellowshipping ministers (people are regularly not available for settlement after graduation -- often more than a year because of the backlog, even while we are complaining of a shortage of ministers) it doesn't seem that we have the resources for further credentialing, much less the expertise.

  9. Kate, I didn't say it was especially skilled or thorough in assessing character and accountability. My observation is that character and accountability are the general factors that would get someone categorically rejected. I never heard of anyone being rejected by the MFC for being not bright enough, or being theologically mistaken, or naive.

    The 'competencies' are really guides for development, not tests or standards to be met. And I think that what you are calling psychology are what I am calling character. The real test of the ministerial credentialing process is whether you show signs of being manipulative, self-centered, exploitative of others, dishonest or unaccountable.

    I think that our character/psychologically oriented ministerial credentialing process is a great achievement of Unitarian Universalism. People everywhere are looking for trustworthy leaders. My hope is that the UUA/MFC can streamline and refine this process to be able to deploy it in a variety of ways. Of course, that will take money, and money's tight right now.

  10. I'm glad for this post and discussion. Yes I fully agree in creating more roads to empower lay people as UU community leaders! As a lay community minister, I do prefer the language laid out by UUSCM though. "Lay Commissioned Minister" is a recognizable term used by other denominations, such as UCC, and also notes the covenantal relationship between the lay minister and the congregation/community. Although, I do think credentialing our leaders through the denomination (or professional association within) is important. It would provide the structure, accountability, and guidance that many of us are seeking, and also give Unitarian Universalism a stronger, more visible presence with empowered leaders rooted in our tradition. I agree with Nadine in that we do not need to re-invent the wheel with regards to training. Many UU community leaders (or lay community ministers) possess other training. For instance, I am trained in spiritual direction; others have CPE, theological education, etc. Each lay leader’s path is unique, and meeting with a mentor, he/she can determine areas they might need to grow in (I have received some of this guidance from my congregation's minister). There are already UU online courses and leadership institutes for lay people. What is needed is to lay out the process more formally, with support from the UUA.

    I also agree with you on the need to recognize the distinction between clergy and laity, and to greater empower our clergy... Although I wonder how we might make the path to ordained ministry more accessible to qualified individuals. Those in my generation and the ones who follow are already laden with debt (particularly those from mid to lower income families). Are we asking our future ministers to incur more debt as a test of their character--that is, how much are they willing to sacrifice, and at what expense? Or continuing to perpetuate class distinctions? I know this is the topic of discussion in other threads (and at the economic summit), and there are no easy answers... All in all, there is certainly much work to do from all angles to create that movement that empowers both lay and clergy to work together toward that personal and social transformation so needed in our world.

    Thanks for opening the conversation!

  11. Teri, I hear what you are saying about the cost and expense of the current fellowshipping process, especially in regards to the cost of an M.Div.

    In my mind, (which, like the weather, changes often) there's no substitute for the M.Div and the seriousness of the education involved in the formation of a fully fellowshipped and ordained clergy. There are ways to make it cheaper, I suppose, and there are ways to share the costs of it with scholarships and debt forgiveness, but I can't see eliminating it.

    I think that our best hopes are for making opportunities to do the work of ministry available before the MDiv. Having a chance to work as Credentialed Lay Community Leader (or Religious Educator or Minister) would get better into the field earlier. Maybe such work would be enough for some people and they would choose not to go all the way. For those aiming at Parish minister, I could see giving some people preliminary fellowship and letting them into the search process before they complete the MDiv, if they have done some of the work satisfactorily and have otherwise shown promise. Final fellowship would be contingent on the degree.

    I would also be more generous in counting other kinds of degrees as equivalent to the MDiv. And there are people whose life experience and spirituality have prepared them for the ministry without formal education, and I would like to see us be able to take them in through some process. That would require that our Ministerial Fellowship Committee was highly skilled, very well staffed, and very discerning.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts

  12. Thanks Tom. Yes, I agree with your thoughts, and appreciate that we might open the conversation to create more accessible routes to ministry, both lay and ordained. Even just acknowledging these challenges and possibilities is a step in the right direction. Now I hope that our UU leadership can find ways to put some of these ideas in action...


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