Fellowship or no?

Adam, writing at Unity, comment about the newly ordained David Miller and his decision not to seek ministerial fellowship in the Unitarian Universalist Association, and presumably standing in the United Church of Christ.

Adam, over all, paints a warm picture of fellowship. Very well.

I’m not so sure. I know there were strong jitters across the UUA and the ministerial college in the 80s and 90s following revelations of clergy sexual misconduct in the prior generation. Stringent efforts to keep the ministry safe belie the easy-breezy reputation of the UUA, and that’s all to the good. (Not that some ministers don’t skate on very thin ice, and take liberties with other adults that I find distasteful and unministerial. But these are very few if my intelligence is correct. And it is hard to keep a secret among Unitarian Universalist ministers.)

But there are serious systemic problems; the greatest of which is the internship bottleneck that puts unfair strains on qualified candidates. And — this is more the point — what and who does fellowship benefit?

Unlike the Methodists and Episcopalians, with their particular polity, there’s no right to a ministry. There’s no accountability for the many “minister killing churches” out there and there isn’t even very much scholarship or assistance money. The much-lamented (and terribly expensive) group medical plan is in history books. The candidates and ministers have the reponsibility and the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, by its sheer weight, has more and more authority.

This senario doesn’t bear up well under a cost-benefit analysis. Neither does the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association which doesn’t seem to be much of an advocate for the ministerial college and doesn’t provide very compelling programming. (There: I said it.) I decided it wasn’t worth $185 a year for the privilege and have let my membership lapse.

“Don’t I care?” you may ask. Or what about team spirit? I think I’ve got these in spades and I have colleagues that can speak to that. But in our well-networked, de-centralized age, I think it fair to ask that a formal organizations that have networking and support missions are going to have to justify their existence with better and more tangible services.

I’ll recognize colleagues as I please. Welcome to the ministry, David.

12 Replies to “Fellowship or no?”

  1. I graduated from seminary as part of a group of 4 UU’s. Only one of us four sought fellowship. One of us did not seek fellowship because his/her family has small children, and he/she could not get an internship anywehre nearby. The family decided it would be too hard on the children to uproot twice in one year (at the beginning and end of the internship). The second one among us applied to 13 internship sites across 2 & 1/2 years, and got rejected by all 13 sites, despite good references from seminary faculty. The third one among us has a spouse that can not move because of child-custody agreements with their ex-spouse. This third person could also not find a local internship site. The one who sought fellowship was unmarried at the time, had no children, and got lucky on the internship lottery.

    Since then the 3 non-fellowshiped are working in community ministry, part-time ministry with small churches, and health care chaplaincy. Ministerial fellowship would have supported none of them with any of these ministries. The fellowshiped one just got a call from a church with about 100 members.

    That is the cost benefit-calculation at work. The benefit is no substantive support in the areas of their calling, unless that calling is to full-time parish ministry. The cost of fellowship would have been damaged families, additional wasted years waiting for an internship, and violation of child custody orders.

  2. One overlooked danger of Unitarian Universalist Fellowshipping is it really doesn’t keep a minister who has engaged in ministerial misconduct from remaining a minister. Revoking or resigning fellowship removes denominational standing, but it doesn’t undo the congregational act of ordination. And I know of at least one congregationally ordained formerly UU fellowshipped minister who is still presenting himself as a minister to the unsuspecting in spite of his history of sexual misconduct.

    My congregation’s former minister resigned from our pulpit in 1999 after allegations of ministerial sexual misconduct during counselling sessions. The misconduct was legally between consenting adults but a violation of UUMA ethical guidelines. Our former minister admitted engaging in this misconduct when he resigned.

    The MFC investigators came in and interviewed both those supporting the minister and those who said he engaged in sexual misconduct. The MFC investigators returned a finding of probable cause and recommended a formal investigation.

    At this point, our former minister resigned his Fellowshipped status. But that wasn’t the end of it.

    He started holding small and informal worship services in his home. He’s also providing mental health counseling services without licensing as a mental health professional (remember that he got into trouble because of sexual misconduct during counseling).

    When asked if this was legal, he responded that he can still provide counseling services because he is still a minister and ministers can provide counseling without formal licensing or state oversight.

    Resigning one’s fellowshipped status doesn’t undo the ordination provided to our former minister by a UU congregation that is several hundred miles away and probably is unaware that their ordination is being used to by an admitted sexual predator to keep calling himself a minister after leaving the restrictions of MFC accountability.

    On an unrelated note … have you looked into Liberal Religious Educator Association membership instead of UUMA membership? If nothing else, the LREDA dues cost less than UUMA dues and they have a good track record supporting religious professionals who may be working with congregations from weaker bargaining positions than fellowshipped clergy.

  3. Scott: Wow! I think I “get” your discernment and would not attempt to change your mind–though IF I had the funds I would pay your way, but in the long run it seems a super decisional stance. While I know that you and I might “clash” over some things it is also true that you are a gem of a colleague and whether in or out of the UUMA I will affirm my collegial bond with you. I have always experienced you as a blessing and a gift to us all.

    Cheerfully, The Rev. Roger Otis Kuhrt, PhD (42 years of ministry under my ever expanding belt).

  4. I anonymized the previous comment — my other option was to delete it — because in the context of his blog, it is very clear to reasonably clued-in people who the commentor is talking about. Without offering the minister in question room for rebuttal — and I’m not going to hunt him down — the account is necessarily one-sided and to the UU public, prejudicial.

    Also, I was thinking of even worse things.

    To the writer: if you would like to re-write your comment and have you name attached to it, feel free to email me at blog — @ — universalistchurch.net

  5. I let my feelings be known to a member of the UUMA Exec, who is the interim at my former church, after one of those “did I leave my book here” moments. For what the UUMA’s worth, I think they have a better understanding of their cost-benefit problem (to stretch the metaphor a bit more) than the MFC does.

    To you and the anonymized writer, I’m planning on joining the Society for Community Ministries, since that best describes what I’m doing now.

  6. Hey Guys!

    Scott, I am continually impressed by the large numbers of responses you get. Not surprised, but impressed. Keep up the good work and I will let Dave know he has a friend in DC!

    To clarify my post a bit, I like the idea of the separation of powers, particularly (in my setting, at least) with most of that power being held at the congregational level. Eliot Church has a strong and long tradition of ordaining outside the denominational approval structure and most of the indivuduals have gone on to rewarding ministries in parish as well as community ministries. What I like most is the freedom the system gives for people like Dave to opt out. There are plenty of problems for those trying to opt-in, however, and a serious lack of support and accountability. I do not want to minimize these issues.

    That is to say, I think the idea is a good one and it has worked for me, New Englander that I am. The idea is good but the system is broken. This is true not just in the UUA and elsewhere. Dave is also not seeking affiliation with the UCC. In fact, my experience with Dave over the past year or so and with others who have had trouble getting the one size to fit all has shown some serious holes. Most of which other posters have already mentioned…

    I particularly resonated with Derek’s trials around internship sights. This seems to be an area that has, even over the past few years, become more restrictive with the elimination of most (if not all) offsight supervision. When I applied for internship I was living in Maine. I started looking for an internship as close to home as I could get and I got the closest one…in Grosse Pointe Michigan! I kid not, that was the closest. If I had more attachments, I probably would have had to figure something else out. The only other option was Dexter, ME as an off-sight which, ironically enough, turned out to be my first settlement…

    Are there any “Congregationalist” associations where a clergy person can be “defrocked’ so to speak? Anonymous above (and Scott, too) makes a good case for MORE accountability but, as I said in my post, I’m not worried about Dave. Of course, I support the ministries of Derek and Scott, too. Good luck guys!

  7. Greetings,

    I recently was a member of a ministerial search committee. I feel you ought to be aware that not being in fellowship means that your application will not be considered by most committees. Many UU congregation bylaws include a requirement that any minister be in fellowship. By not being in fellowship you are non-competitive for these positions when they are open. So, if you ever plan to be in parish ministry you need to consider fellowship seriously. Gaps between ordination and fellowship are a red flag to most committees also. So, be prepared to explain such if you later decide to re-enter parish ministry for most UU churches.

  8. To be clear, I have fellowship. Given my household geographic limitations and the theological strains of the churches in the area, I think it highly unlikely I’ll ever try to be called to a Unitarian Universalist church again. (In case y’all were wondering why I’ve been investing so much time into writing and technological support of churches; I’m seeing the shape of a different ministry there.)

    While it is true that many churches would never consider an unfellowshiped minister, I think this is less a problem for the Christians because the pickings are so few and tenuous in the first place. I’m not sure what it looks like now, but there has been an informal network of “good eggs” out there, and if anything I suspect that network is stronger now than before.And the UUA brand is hardly a help outside the denomination, say, in institutional ministries (save for endorsement; that’s another matter) or in interdenominational or nondenominational churches.

  9. Kurt — Not being in fellowship does have its limitations. In fact it does largely bar you from consideration for most full-time parish ministries (and from being certified as a Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor). However, the UUA settlement system with which fellowship is tightly tied, does not serve some religious institutions well. This is because such institutions are culturally different from the mainstream of the UUA, or because compensation levels are at half-time or lower and the settlement office does not care to deal with those settlements. In the past (at least in some of the old Universalist State Conventions) some of these bi-vocational and community ministries would often have been filled by persons who were licensed/commisioned in the local Convention, but not ordained for the national church. Returning to those who are not well served…

    (1) Many Christian churches in the UUA.
    (2) Small membership churches looking for part-time ministers.
    (3) Rural churches in the UUA (quite a few are also in category #1 and/or #2).
    (4) Specialized ministries in campus ministry, some forms of RE, community ministry, healthcare chaplaincy, and prison ministry.

    Within my own district I know of quite a few non-fellowshipped ministers functioning in productive ministries. 4 are involved in parish ministry. 3 are involved in healthcare chaplaincy. 1 is a pastoral pyschotherapist. 1 serves a charity/advocacy agency.

    Non-fellowshipped ministers deserve extra scrutiny in decisions to call such a person. There are bad apples who hide-out in the “ordained but non-fellowshipped” landscape. But MFC endorsement is not always a good green flag either. I know of a number of ministers who are fellowshipped, but who are also incompetent, exploitive in their relationships with parishes, or otherwise “problematic”. They got through the MFC because they were expert hoop-jumpers, or otherwise well connected. And year by year they continue in ministry; passed on by the fellowshipped settlement system. A small-town church I was a member of recently tried to call a fellowshipped minister who self-destructed durring the course of the candidating week. He had an untreated mental illness that his previous parish had covered up. His self-destruction durring candidacy was horribly damaging to our congregation. This same congregation had a defacto interim minister from the Church of the Brethren, who was quite constructive (but obviously not fellowshipped).


  10. Greetings, gentlefolk. As a seminarian who is still in Aspirant status, this is equal measures illuminating and disturbing. Of course, none of this is really new to me; Derek’s notes simply give me specific anecdotes to back up the types of things I’ve heard happen. Let me add my own observations and frustrations.

    I am pursuing community ministry. Like Scott, I am trying to discern what form that may take. I have skills, knowledge, and professional credentials in a variety of areas that would contribute to the life of the Church (universal…call it communties of faith if you prefer something more abstract). I can quite easily pursue theological librarianship (I have the MLS), and I am starting to see it as a valid form of teaching ministry that contributes to the faith development of individuals, communities, and–in particular–seminaries, scholars, and the learned ministry. I have a graduate degree in counseling, with national certification. I can do pastoral counseling and crisis intervention.

    What’s my point? This isn’t a “look at me” post; it is an observation that no matter what I do to enhance these particular areas of interest–we’ll call them my portfolio as a community-based minister–chances are, I’ll have to work on a different portfolio for the MFC. For example, I am applying for a pastoral residency at a local hospital. If I get it: (a) money for tuition; (b) experience! (c) good for the resume. But it won’t have much value in terms of UU ministerial fellowship, as it isn’t parish-based and it isn’t UU.I fairly dread the prospect of being fully trained and eligible for ordained professional ministry (I’m conjoining ordained and professional, I realize) but not meeting UU ministerial fellowshipping requirements, and being told to go and do a church internship.

    I certainly don’t decry the process or prospect of credentialling and professional fellowshipping. There needs to be some measure of accountablity for ordained professional ministers (again, the conjoining). As Derek has pointed out, there are many people in productive ministry who are not fellowshipped, and there are probably many in fellowship who have really demonstrated a facility at navigating the maze but do not demonstrate ministerial integrity. This doesn’t mean the system is pointless.

    Thus far, I can say I’ve gotten some decent support from the UUA in terms of resources and even mentoring, guidance, and the intangiles of institutional support that you know you need but might find hard to define. But it has been a balancing act between managing personal needs and institutional needs–and frankly, the institution should be responding to a person’s sense of calling but often seems to interfere with a call in order to advance an institutional agenda.

    I own a house. I have a mortgage. I have an adult life, a network of relationships–professional and personal and private. I have managed to find a way to navigate going to seminary, but there are limits. I am willing to consider moving for “the right internship”, but let’s be honest–that’s not an easy prospect, and “the right internship” as far as what feeds my professional growth and ministerial formation may not be “the right internship” as far as UU fellowshipping would like. Where does that leave me down the road? I go along with the system because I believe in its goal, but I realize I might be marching myself into a corner.

  11. Heh Everyone.. Yup, I’m the one who Adam has been talking about and became an ordained minister without the “blessing” of any one denomination.
    And as I read your comments and thoughts, I am now very glad I made the decision not to seek fellowship with any one specific denomination. I have answered a calling that has taken me over thirty five years to fulfill! I have walked the walked and talked the talk alone and have proven myself fit to be ordained by the members of my church. I didn’t feel right asking any one denomination to give me their particular blessing when I am not convinced they have a shoe that fits on me! I watched as two well suited people “jumped through the many hoops” to fellowship only to be turned down by a denomination and later ordained by a congregation.
    My ministry (with God’s grace) will bring me to fill in for those in need of someone who is adaptive as I can be.
    Ministering to smaller churches, nursing homes, hospitals, hospices, and even covering for ministers who may want a Sunday away from church are definite possibilites in my future.
    Thank you to those who have sent your blessings and congratulations! May we have the opportunity to meet some day!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.