The most important part in “Am I Still…”

Yesterday, Unitarian Universalist minister and writer Kate Braestrup wrote an article called “Am I Still a Unitarian Universalist Minister?” Comments pro and con (so far as I’m algorithmically allowed to see on Facebook) seem to be splitting on the same terms and among the same people as Todd Eklof/The Gadfly Papers controversy. I won’t be rehashing that.

What’s new is the response, sometimes thinly coded, to Braestrup’s prior claim to be Unitarian Universalist minister at all. She is plainly states that she is neither a member of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, and has not fellowship of the Unitarian Universalist Association through the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, but was ordained “by my beloved UU congregation in Rockland, Maine!” That’s allowed in our tradition, and since I have long regarded other locally ordained ministers as colleagues, I’m satisfied to count her as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Had all this been a century ago, and Universalist, my answer would be different. But the polity first merged, then changed and now is burning to the ground. I’d rather have what we had then, but we don’t and so I’ll say yes to her based on (what’s left of) what we do have.

Braestrup recounts her bonafides at length, and an ungenerous person might think she was simply bragging. I think it’s a sign of her being a decent writer. What I hear without her being explicit is “I can have this ministry, it can succeed reaching many people and it’s without the blessing or strictures of the UUA.” An equally ungenerous person might think her detractors have the taste of sour grapes in their mouths.

I think DIY ministries are going to have to become the norm; again recalling a secularizing culture, the cost of formal preparation and the thinning out of paying pastorates. We should be able to rely on the UUA and UUMA to help overcome these limitations, and in those terms Braestrup could not and should not rely on that help. Local ordination cuts both ways. (Local ordinands also the subject of whisper campaigns; I’ve heard those for decades, and don’t take them seriously.)

But neither the UUMA or UUA shows firm or sustained interest in functioning religiously to meet these challenges, and hasn’t for years. Where are the services? Where are the leaders? Not to mention that it’s clear that fellowship is no guarantee of ethics or capability. The UUA in particular seems to exist to fix its own problems. Who needs that? Add this fixation on white supremacy within the gates, and you get a system that’s completely unworkable and frantic. (It’ll be interesting if there’s another cultural shift if President Trump loses the 2020 election. If there’s anything left.)

The most important part in “Am I Still a Unitarian Universalist Minister?” is the underlying theme that you can make a ministry without the legacy systems, and that doesn’t make it illegitimate. And further I’ll add: a guild without benefits isn’t worth the time or loyalty.

5 Replies to “The most important part in “Am I Still…””

  1. What strikes me about the Facebook comments you cite is the subject of accountability. Does a UU minister need a group of fellowshipped ministers to which to be accountable? It seems to me that a minister’s primary accountability (after conscience) is the congregation for a parish minister and the community served by a chaplain. The newthink crowd wants to centralize accountability.

  2. Hello, Scott! I’m a longtime admirer of your blog, and so I am honored to be mentioned here.

    I want to clarify: I didn’t got “fellowshipped”but not because I thought it was a bad idea. The process, as it was then, seemed very time-consuming and I lacked time. (Four kids, full-time ministry, etc.) And—as you mention—there didn’t seem a whole lot of benefit for me. I understood that the UUA serves as a sort of employment agency matching ministers with churches in the search process. If I moved to, say, Texas, the UUA would know which UU churches were in the search process. But I wanted to do law enforcement chaplaincy, and the Texas Rangers, Texas Fish and Game or Dallas PD were unlikely to contact the UUA if they needed a new chaplain. So I thought I’d save everyone a lot of time, and just get ordained and do what I was called to do, though it was comforting to feel that, through my books and other public activities, I was still somehow contributing to Unitarian Universalism and supporting my UU colleagues.

    In other words, I felt like a fellow (have we not gotten around to fixing the sexism of that? Can we not be “chicked” or “sistered” by the UUA? C’mon, people!) even if, technically, I wasn’t.

    All of which is to say that I never intended to operate outside the umbrella of the Unitarian Universalist denomination, even if I didn’t seek out that specific imprimatur. I really believed that I was a UU minister, operating (theologically and ideologically) well-within the boundaries set by our principles.

    And now?
    I don’t know.

  3. I’ve known a number of UU ministers who were ordained but not fellowshipped. It is a problematic category to be in. And certainly there is an element of choice in having such a status. But it is rare that anybody talks about the context in which those choices get made.

    – Insufficient teaching congregations to take on as interns the number of candidates seeking fellowship. And a well-earned reputation of the MFC turning a jaundiced eye towards non-traditional internships (off-site supervision at a small congregations, or hybrid CPE options). Creating a multi-year backlog of persons seeking internships.

    – Poorly paid 2 year part-time internships, that are only economically feasible for candidates with wealth, a very lucrative side-gig, or a very well paid spouse.

    – Situations of geographic immobility that make internships unfeasible, or that mean a commitment to a specialized calling.

    – Types of calling in community ministry where fellowship is not important, but theological training is important.

    – With the abolition of the Regional Sub Committees on Candidacy, situations where candidates get insufficient feedback until too late in the process to make adjustments in a timely fashion.

    – A backlog of candidates ready to see the MFC, but who are wait- listed for their appointments. Sometimes resulting in year long delays of beginning service in ministry (and the economic problems that delay causes).

  4. LOVE THIS. I’m mostly a reader (and a one time email-er) but had to chime in. I’m in seminary and because of a disibility it’s been hard enough to be a member of a congregation that fellowship seems almost impossible. I think about dropping out daily because I just don’t know if there’s a way forward.

  5. So this is water underneath the bridge but frustrating nonetheless. In March of 2015, I received the following email from Rev. Sue Philips, then New England Regional Lead (a no longer extant position), after asking about my status as minister of the Community Church of North Orange (a federated UUA/UCC congregation) and my ordination by the Second Universalist Society of Orange therein: “When a person is ordained but not credentialed, they may refer to themselves as the minister of x church, but not as Unitarian Universalist minister.”

    After Rev. Kate Braestrup posted a blog titled “Am I Still a Unitarian Universalist Minister?” and after controversy ensued, Rev. Braestrup on October 20 of this year shared in the comment section of said blogpost a letter from Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, President of the UUA. Rev. Frederick-Gray states in that letter, “Your ordination by the UU congregation [x] entitles you to identify as a UU minister.”

    Who is right? I don’t know. You tell me. All I do know is that I presumed Rev. Philips was correct, refrained from claiming UU minister identity and that my ordination in Orange was limited and inferior somehow despite UUA’s claim to congregational polity.

    Interestingly, now that I know I can claim to be a UU minister, I no longer really want to. Life is funny that way… #UCCbound

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