Friday, July 3, 2020

Revising The Path to Unitarian Universalist Ministry

The rigor of the Unitarian Universalist path to formal ministry stands in stark contrast to what I experienced with my prior denominational affiliation. Generally I see that as a good thing, though with some exceptions.

When I was 17 I left the Roman Catholic Church and joined the Presbyterian Church (USA). Within a matter of months I kicked off the process for ordination, although it would take years of education and experience to qualify. At that age I completely expected it, and looked forward to each step on the journey. Then, about a year later, I was no longer a member of that church. Word of the Re-Imagining conference had reached me, and that the PC(USA) had chipped in $66,000 from its Bicentennial Fund to support it.

Seeing things through a theological conservative lens, I was livid. I also lost my staked-out path to ministry. The next denomination with which I was affiliated was the independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, a body that is strictly congregational with no formal structure above the local church. There are Bible colleges, missions, charities, and so forth which are supported by individual churches, as well as state conferences that receive no delegates and have no voting, but that's it. Ordination was left to the criteria of each individual church, and it was a rather disorganized matter.

As someone who became an ordained minister in a denomination without any standards or oversight, I'm grateful that there is a process in place within organized Unitarian Universalism to prepare ministers for their role, and to sort out people who will not qualify even after attempts at remediation. At the same time, the current process as it stands is exclusionary. It makes becoming a UU minister so expensive, time-consuming, and onerous that only with sacrifice can those with the right advantages in life make it through.

I'm fortunate in that my children are grown, and in a few years my youngest should be through college and standing on his own two feet. I also have a career in project management that gives me a fairly reliable means of support that. It's not layoff-proof, but there are plenty of job openings. For me, the only real concern is timing of CPE (it has to be after my family financial obligations are completely over), and whether or not the internship can be waived based on my prior ministry experience. This latter point isn't really a deal-breaker, but it looms in my mind.

Someone with minor children to take care of, a challenging economic situation, and/or not much social support otherwise, is going to have a hard time with the current process. Add to that having to swim against the current of implicit expectations that people of color should conform to the expectations of white culture, and it becomes a discouraging experience to pursue ministry. Additionally, the necessity of going many thousands of dollars into debt to become a minister receiving a wage that will potentially stretch repayment out over the course of their entire career. I don't know if that means more scholarships are needed, or something else, but it certainly doesn't seem right.

This year at General Assembly we were presented with the report from the Commission on Institutional Change, which gathered testimony and other data from throughout the Unitarian Universalist Association regarding the culture of white supremacy. Among their findings is the following concerning the challenges of seeking ordination and fellowship within UUism, as well as listing specific action items.

We need to reduce the barriers to entry for those who seek to serve as religious professionals. This is true for all people, but these barriers are especially damaging for Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, and other marginalized people, who tend to have fewer financial resources due to historic and continuing patterns of discrimination.

Life experience should be considered as part of admissions criteria alongside
academics; nontraditional students should be actively recruited and provided
with scholarship funds. Other faith traditions have addressed this by developing
less academic paths to religious professional credentialing.

Action Create alternative paths to religious leadership, including certification in spiritual direction, ministerial apprenticeship, and scholarship funding for credentialing in non-ministerial professions.

Action Allow for ordination at the Associational level rather than only in
congregations, to honor the diversity of ministries that exist but may not be easily
supported at the congregational level.

Action Continue the practice of reporting on diversity and inclusion in hiring at the UUA, and an annual report on the demographic data of employment at the congregational level, collected as part of the annual certification process, should be made to the Board of Trustees and the General Assembly each year as a benchmark for the willingness of congregations to engage directly with these
issues in a national context that is increasingly diverse.

Action Maintain a database of all religious professionals who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color, and consider maintaining it for other identity groups struggling within our professions. Track time for completion of certification, pay levels, and length of tenure.1

The only real concern that I have with the above is that if the formal academic requirement is shifted away from the Master of Divinity, people lacking that degree might well struggle to find a congregation to call them. If the ministerial candidate's plans do not include parish ministry, then it hardly matters. On the other hand, if parish ministry is the goal, the problem will arise in the expectations of the congregations. While it's common in evangelical and Pentecostal denominations for ministers to have only a bachelor's degree or even less, such is not the case within Unitarian Universalism. Changing this view would require a culture shift that, in my opinion, could take decades.

If I didn't have a sense that ministry was really where I'm supposed to be, one that's been with me virtually my entire life, I wouldn't pursue it. As a privileged straight white cisgender male I do not want to be occupying leadership where people of color have been denied it for so very long. At the same time, I'm not too concerned about that, as my plans involve working in community development in the third sector.

The third sector is a grouping of non-for-profit organizations, however there are various kinds of organizations in the sector - those with public objectives, even though not a part of the government, that provide goods and services in the interest of society generally. For example, in the areas of education, health, social and cultural assistance; and also those whose objectives are private collectives that are directed specifically toward their members, such as neighborhood associations.2

Thus I am spared having to face the conundrum of having to sort out a calling to parish ministry with white privilege. At the same time, working in the complex situations that arise within domestic and international development, I'll be required to check my privilege on a regular, ongoing basis so as not to fall into any illusion of white messiahship. 

While I have hopes that the association has the right idea, I'll confess that I have doubts about the congregational level. For this reason, I was very glad to see the recommendation of association-level ordination. This might strike some as antithetical to congregationalism, but they would do well to remember that the in the Universalist church, the state conferences (and sometimes the General Conference) were the ordaining bodies.3 That tradition, is equally valid to our present faith as Unitarianism. In order to rectify a historic tendency towards discrimination, we would do well to turn back to the history of our polity to see this alternative as a means of addressing bias against people of color. In most cases congregational ordination could remain the norm, leaving associational ordination as an option for those who would benefit from it.

Change is coming to Unitarian Universalist ministerial preparation, ordination, and fellowship. It's long overdue. 


Commission on Institutional Change, "Widening The Circle of Concern: Report of The UUA Commission on Institutional Change," UUA, 2020, p 82.

2 Catiuscia Fonseca Lima, José Luis Fernandes & Eduardo Linhares Qualharini, "Uma Análise Do Gerenciamento De Projetos No Terceiro Setor" (An Analysis of Project Management in The Third Sector), Prospectus, April/May 2017 v2 n2, p 121.

3 Conrad Wright, "Congregational Polity: A Historical Survey of Unitarian and Universalist Practice," Skinner House Books, 1997, p 91.