#sustainministry My Point (and I do have one)

We can't fix the problem of the economic sustainability of liberal religion, if we continue to think of liberal religion as we do.

We are in a time of rising social movements who are actively organizing for the values we espouse.

We should pivot toward those social movements and lean into them. How can we serve them? How can we be ourselves in them? How can we fulfill our mission with them?

Our evolution as a religious/spiritual movement and the present historical moment in US and world history are coming into synchronicity.  We have been growing toward this moment.

We know how to do some things. And one of those things is that Unitarian Universalism can do is to turn out leaders who have been assessed and tested for their integrity, depth and accountability. One of the reasons why our formation process is long and expensive is that filters out people who are more likely to unaccountable and damaging. It's why we credential religious educators and musicians and other professionals. It's not for the knowledge; it's for the integrity and character.

So we should be turning out the leaders that social movements need; leaders who are tested for integrity and are capable of accountability. Leaders who have spiritual depth and emotional intelligence. We should be turning them out as cheaply as possible and as quickly as we can. We should be doing all we can with all our resources and talents to "promote and affirm" the social principles we share.

We will be changed by the near future. If we are not, we will be closer to a terminal case of the "dwindles." So, let's be bold, and a little reckless, and think not of ourselves so obsessively.

Our boat is a bit leaky, and rusty in some spots, and needs some repair here and there. But it's time to put it into the water and head into the open sea, for the winds favor us, and we yearn for the journey.


  1. How does the Starr King diploma situation figure into all this? Did the school Board uphold standards of ethical leadership in the service of accountability, or did they fall into the realm of offended power, with its outsized ability to punish transgressors?
    I think the latter, but I'm interested in what you think, given the blog topic.
    I also take some exception to the idea that an expensive education "filters out people who are more likely to [be] unaccountable and damaging." That's correlating integrity with financial resources, which is classist at best.
    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

  2. Just to be clear about the point I was trying to make: the length and expense of our formation process serves as a barrier to people who might want to become a UU minister for opportunistic and self-serving reasons. It demands sacrifice, not only in time and money, but in effort. It also requires working within a process that is not under your own control and requires accountability to it. Persons who can't handle the demands of the formation process are less likely to able to handle the ethical demands of the UUMA code of conduct and guidelines.

    I think it's a willful misreading to say that I am "correlating integrity with financial resources."

    It's interesting that you characterize the Starr King situation as the "diploma" situation. That's in the middle of the story, isn't it? Part of what I consider character, ethics and accountability is respect for one's role in the institution one is in. For students to think that they could anonymously blow up the search process for their seminary's President without consequence is, by definition, unaccountable behavior. For other students to protect their anonymity, citing obligations of 'confidentiality,' further enabled their unaccountability.

    Leaking secret information and "Not naming names" are appropriate tactics for dealing with a police state. If in the middle of your formation process, you think your seminary is a police state and an oppressive institution (and not because of anything it has done to you), then I have my doubts as to whether you are willing to be accountable enough to be a UU minister.

    Whatever you think about the tactics of the Board to hold people accountable, a discussion of those events has to start at the beginning of the story.

  3. Thanks for your reply.
    OK, beginning of story: Search process for new Starr King President. Confidential background interviews and summary documents leaked to a few. Somebody thought a candidate was mischaracterized and/or lied about. Documents leaked to many.
    School admin picks some likely culprits and says they must turn over their private emails -- we're going to get to the bottom of this and punish the offenders, erm, "institute consequences"! Nobody's talking. Refuse to award diplomas to likely culprits because people who will not cooperate with authority and turn over their private emails aren't ethical enough to be ministers.

    MANY of us now believe Starr King has those elements of authoritarian control and punishment, that the Board of Trustees consists of business people rather than spiritual leaders, and that the Board created an oppressive, distrustful climate there.
    And you say that on the other side of a legitimate, divisive issue are not "accountable enough" to be UU ministers?
    But I'm just an onlooker, with no pony in the race except for my love of Unitarian Universalism, and my shame at the black eye the Starr King "diploma situation" (i.e., "scandal") has brought upon my religion. We love to think that "speaking truth to power" is our birthright, and that WE will never be in need of "being spoken truth TO."

  4. Thanks Ellen. You have summarized my understanding perfectly, with the exception of this. I did not say that those who "on the other side of a legitimate, divisive issue" are not "accountable enough" to be UU ministers. After all, many people disagree with me on this issue. I do say that I have grave doubts about those who leaked the information the first time, or leaked it the second time, and/or kept those people confidential. I doubt their ability to correctly assess the institutional environment they are working in, and I doubt their willingness to be accountable for their actions.
    But I'm also just an onlooker with no other point in the race but my love for Unitarian Universalism and my trust that those who are finally in the position to assess all those involved fitness for ministry will do so fairly.

  5. No real disagreement with you, though if we're looking to social change organizations and other community ministries as models, we'll have ministers who are even more broke than now. If I left my job as the senior minister of a small-midsize congregation for the ED job of almost any social change organization in the same area, I'd take a cut in pay.

    Some thoughts:

    "a barrier to people who might want to become a UU minister for opportunistic and self-serving reasons. It demands sacrifice, not only in time and money, but in effort"

    And this is very important. But do you really think that this would fall apart if a seminary education were suddenly free?

    Looking at the other end for the moment: I knew someone who had pots of money but, in my view, was in no way prepared to be a UU minister and probably never would be. No number of expensive hurdles would have stopped them. Many seminaries, including at least one I know where many UUs train, will take anyone with a pulse and a checkbook. Actually, the pulse may be optional. Fortunately, our system does not just depend on "formative experiences" such as seminary and CPE, but on the final gatekeeper of the MFC, which saw clearly that this person would be destructive to a congregation and turned them down.

    The gatekeepers would be busier if the training process weren't expensive as well as long and arduous. But they do a pretty good job. We don't need a financial barrier.

    Now, seminary ain't never gonna be free this side of the Marxist utopia, but it could be much less expensive if higher education on the whole were less expensive. We are dealing with a crisis that's grown from much larger economic issues, and look at that--tackling them is part of our calling, not just a way to save our own butts. I hate to see us squabbling over who has to carry more of the shit as the shit-factory keeps pouring out its product unabated. Imagine all of the professions rising up and saying NO MORE to way this country handles post-high school education.

  6. Thank you, Tom!! I appreciate your blog post and more than that, the comments you made about the events at Starr King are on point and I have felt that way from the beginning. I cringed at the sense of entitlement that I experienced being on display from those who chose to leak the information and others who were complicit in not naming who did.

  7. Amy,
    Just for the record, I am in favor of making seminary education much cheaper.
    And I think that all the professional educations are way too expensive.
    My highest level concern on this process is the way that debt has become the primary network of economic relationships that make up the global economy. Layers and layers of debt undergird all economic transactions, so that out of all economic activity a portion is extracted by finance capital. Higher education now includes a bribe to finance capital for the right to exercise the profession one wants to have.
    So, I am all in favor of big "NO MORE" to the shit-factory.

  8. Tom,

    I begin with a disclaimer that leads to my initial thoughts I am a MFC credentialing process dropout who took the GED equivalent route of local, non-fellowshipped ordination. My road to even local ordination was a lengthy process that included an expensive seminary degree, a yearlong CPE residency, and a long journey in the wasteland of denominational-independent ministry as a hospice chaplain and later church pastor. All the while I was accountable to systems that required work, faith, consistency, and dedication. This is to say the MFC process does not own the market on offering a system that requires sacrifice.

    My larger point however is that sadly the MFC system in many ways mirrors the systems that are at issue when it comes to social justice and equity. In these problematic systems there is a disconnect between those at the top and those below, between "the deciders" and those facing the consequences of such decisions. There is little relationality or "walking alongside" built into such systems. A great example is African-American young men in the criminal justice system. Without a relationship established between parts of that criminal justice system and young Black men, preconcieved notions too easily mar and scar the process, and too many tragicallyy fall through the proverbial cracks as a result. The MFC process which all hinges now, as Amy suggests, on the MFC committee interview (RSCC's used to share the initial burden) where committee interviewers have no relationship, no walking alongside, no rapport established with the inteviewee. It is basically a meeting of strangers out of which is supposed to come a crucial, life-affecting wisdom to declare whether someone is worthy of their calling. Yes, in other areas of life discernment by committee happens, but we are talking about spiritual community that is supposed to be built on relationships between people, and between people and the sacred. Of all systems, ours should exhibit the ideal - wisdom established on the basis of connection and relationship.

    All of this is to say, a system that mirrors the roots of our ills may not be the best way to rightly send ministers out into the world to change things.

    Rev. Don Erickson


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