Reviewing Unitarian College

I’m trying to understand the new Unitarian College, formerly a residential ministerial training college in Manchester and now (2019) a non-residential and broader training college for the General Assembly of Unitarians and Free Christian Churches, in Great Britain,  and perhaps others. My interest is in the ministerial training role, and in the institutional and economic sustainability of the venture.

This is not an analysis of it, but only my “open notebook” of details I’ve found: mainly their new website and notes taken from a video of an introductory lecture, given at the Unitarian and Free Christian annual meeting, back in April.

First, the website, but also the ministry training student handbook (PDF) and the list of thirty-two required competencies from the General Assembly website (PDF). Their application is also helpful (PDF).

I’m also referring to the video “Unitarian Ministry Training” presented by the National Unitarian Fellowship; I have not watched it in full; rather, I read the auto-generated transcript and made notes of what I think are the interesting parts.

  • 8:45. Is non-geographical
  • 9:09. There are residential lessons
  • 11:42. Program will take two years full-time or up to five years part-time
  • 11:55. There is a required academic theological qualification
  • 12:02. Two required placements in Unitarian congregations
  • 18:48. “Ministry Strategy Group” for the GA: how lay leaders are trained, which can build on the one before it
  • 26:26. Dr. Rob Whiteman is helping with two modules: Unitarian history, and the other legal and government
  • 28:15. “Placement assessor” to observe ministry students in their placements, perhaps a retired minister
  • 33:32. £150,000 a year to run the college; more if it grows
  • 33:54. Generous giving, “pump priming” from General Assembly; possible NSPCI students
  • 34:34. Online history module based on Len Smith’s book
  • 37:50. Training related to the National Youth Program
  • 41:22. One-third of the churches in the GAUFCC have fewer than ten members and two-thirds have fewer than twenty
  • 42:18. GA selects ministry trainees; growth is possible.

The perfect ordination

I’ve been thinking about my own ordination lately, though from the excitement that day I don’t remember all that much about it. Specific episodes, such as the laying on of hands, but not a complete narrative of the day. (The same is true of my wedding.)

I do remember other people’s, and usually it’s because they were long, self-indulgent, or both. What might have made them better? (This, of course, applies to the free churches, where ordinations are held in the local church and usually one at a time.)

A better ordination is not primarily about taste, though I think there’s something to be said about a more conservative approach, which at least can be appreciated ironically. Being too novel or eccentric in such a ceremony is like putting salt in soup: you can add more (or not), but not take it out once added.

My rubric: the ordination is about the order of the ministry, not the particular ordinand. You, the ordinand, are entering a stream that has carried the pastoral ministry of the church for centuries. That should give you a chill. You will meet challenges, joys, temptations, horrors and accomplishments. Don’t try to go it alone; as a sign of this, don’t make the ordination about you.

A few practical thoughts. Seek first a good and experienced marshal (master of ceremonies) to keep the proceedings in order. Rely on more experienced ministers for your ordination; you will need them later as colleagues. That goes double for local ministers. Again, the ordination should not be long, because if it’s too long that’s all that people will talk about; I think 75 minutes is about right. If you are called to your first church, wait to be ordained there and not at your home or internship church; this is an old tradition too often lost these days (I’m talking to the Unitarian Universalists now) but it’s one of the few ways that small churches (who often call first-timers) celebrate their place in the communion of churches.

Looking back on my ordination order of service

Twenty years ago, on the nineteeth of September, the Canon Universalist Church ordained me to the Ministry of the Gospel.

I’m feeling a little nostalgic about it. Here is the order of service; I made it into a web page which I think was still something of a novelty back then.

The file has remained unchanged (and readable) all these years, though cleaned up for publication here.

Service of Ordination and Installation of William Scott Wells
Sunday, September 19, 1999
Three o’clock p.m.
Continue reading “Looking back on my ordination order of service”

Recalling “Economic Sustainability”

One request begets another; my comment yesterday about the situation about the UUA today being different than the Universalists in the first half of the twentieth century must have struck a note.

So, by request, I’m recalling the UUA’s report of The Economic Sustainability of Ministries Summit June 2015. You can download the PDF report and read the summary here: www.uua.org/careers/ministers/economic-sustainability

Sometimes I hear, seminarians should be warned about how bad things are. So it’s worth mentioning that there was another report in 2015 about the “economic realities of the ministry”. You can read that here. (Also a PDF.)

But unless you’re going to say “nobody should be a minister” then there need to be some solutions. A fund for service-dischargeable loans and alternate training models (more about those later) come to mind. Overtures (“CWG Approved Revision To M. Div. Equivalency Process”) in that direction were made in a Ministerial Fellowship Committee meeting at the end of 2018 and that is linked here. (Another PDF!)

A look into ministerial formation

I got caught in a YouTube hole and just watched the first of four episodes of the 2012 BBC Wales (“We’re more than Doctor Who“) series Vicar Academy. It is a look into the formation of priests in the Church in Wales.

Even though I went to seminary a quarter-century ago, in a Disciples of Christ school and in Texas, the scenes seemed familiar. (Certainly that first time in the collar was harrowing.) I was also impressed with the practical training.

Worth a watch, and I look forward to the other three episodes.

Pondering the new House of Studies

So, an interesting bit of news: that a Unitarian Universalist House of Studies is opening at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio “early in 2016.” This was announced yesterday.

No, at first I thought this an audacious move. There are two Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)-related houses of study, respectively affiliated at Vanderbilt and the University of Chicago. These have buildings, including student housing, a developed program and formal denominational recognition. Likewise, the “General Convention” Swedenborgians transformed its freestanding seminary, taking from a small Cambridge, Massachusetts institution and embedded itself into Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. These are seminaries in miniature, and the UU program at MTSO isn’t that. And that’s worth noting in case it’s written off as a pale imitation.

But Duke Divinity School has two “houses of study” (for Baptists and Episcopalians/Anglicans respectively) that’s more of a student nexus with an academic track. Something more programmatic than institutional, and that may be the model Dean Lisa Withrow and Susan Ritchie, the house of studies director, who the announcement describes as the minister of her church and “immediate past trustee and secretary on the national board of the Unitarian Universalist Association.” Nothing about her role at the Starr King School for the Ministry, which is itself strange and noticeable. But as a program with in a school, rather than alongside a school is quite reasonable.

In this light, perhaps this house of studies will be seen as a rival of Starr King, or even the much closer Meadville Lombard. But aren’t all schools that aren’t one of these — I didn’t go to either for what it’s worth — and the house of studies still functionally in the experimental phase. I am concerned that MTSO is one of the smaller contributors to the Unitarian Universalist ministerial college. If I were to develop one strategically, perhaps Boston University or Wesley here in D.C., where there are a significant number of congregations for field education. (There are only five UU congregations within 50 miles of MTSO, and only one has more than a 150 members. Field education needs field supervision.)

Which brings me to my point: this looks less like an alternative to Starr King or Meadville Lombard than an alternative to the fading option of Andover Newton. And its role in forming Unitarian Universalist ministers will be hard to replace, so good luck to the UU house of studies. It’ll be interesting to see how it develops.

A fee to see the MFC?

So, I’ve heard through the grapevine that ministerial candidates are being charged $250 to see the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Said grapevine is not happy about that.

I would love some commentary about that, but first I would like confirmation and (better still) a statement of reasoning. Or perhaps this is old news — I met the MFC a very long time ago — but if the story’s making the rounds, then it’s worth discussing it plainly and in the open.

Does anyone know?

The licenced minister application

This is the text of the form — it fits on two sides of half-sized piece of paper — used by applicants for a letter of license in the Universalist Church. I pulled this from a filled-in example from 1920 in Indiana, but variant date back to the 1880s and forward to the 1950s.

Interesting stuff.

Universalist Church licence application (detail), 1920

Form 1.

Application for License

To the Committee of Fellowship of the [State] Universalist Convention:

Brethren:

I desire to devote my life to the work of the Christian Ministry, in the Fellowship of the Universalist Church. I respectfully apply for a Letter of License to preach under its auspices. The motives are expressed on the other side of this paper. I cordially accept the essential principles of the Universalist Faith as follows:

The Universal Fatherhood of God;
The Spiritual Authority and Leadership of His Son Jesus Christ;
The Trustworthiness of the Bible as Containing a Revelation from God;
The Certainty of Just Retribution for Sin;
The Final Harmony of All Souls with God.

And I freely acknowledge the authority of the General Convention, and assent to its laws, promising to co-operate faithfully in all measures that may be devised by the General Convention, and by the State Convention with which I am connected, for the furtherance of the work and welfare of our Church.

Fraternally yours,
[Name]

[Date]


I hereby certify that the above named [Name] is a member, in good standing, in the [Church name] Universalist Church.

[Name] Pastor
[Date]

(over)

Why do you desire to preach?

What led to this desire, and under what circumstances?

Why do you see to preach under the auspices of the Universalist Church?

What preparation have you had, or what experience in public address?

How long have you been a member of the church named on the other side?

What further references as to personal character can you give?

Have you applied for License to any other Committee? If so, to which, with what result?

[Name]
[Address]
[Date]

The last of the licensed ministers

There has been some buzz, both associated with the #sustainministry theme and the fear of shortages in the ministry, that there should be some intermediate ministerial status. To which I noted to those within earshot that the Universalists once licensed ministers, and that we could consider doing so again.

There were licensed ministers — holdovers from before consolidation — within my time as a Unitarian Universalist. They even had their own section in the UUA directory, but year by year their numbers declined by death.

In time they were all gone; I don’t know who was the last. The right the UUA reserved (or at least claimed) to recognize such licensed ministers seem equally a dead letter, so it was cleaned out of the bylaws at a General Assembly.

When? More recently than you might think. The year 2000.

I was present at that GA and was both sad at the moment passing and thought that without a prior claim, any church was free to so license ministers. And I still feel this way.

Here’s how the bylaws read, just before the provision was removed, for those who want the details.

effective June 28, 1999
[…]
Section 11.4b
[…]
The Ministerial Fellowship Committee may also with the approval of the Board of Trustees make rules pertaining to the status of, and recognition by the Association of, lay preachers and the granting of licenses to them.

A year later, that was gone. The bylaws effective July 1, 2000.

First thoughts about Economics of Ministry Summit

I normally write blog posts in the evening for morning publication, but I wanted to sleep another night before writing about the Economics of Ministry Summit, sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association, and hosted this week in St. Louis. So far as I know, its only live presence was by Twitter, with the hashtag #sustainministry, so you should revisit those tweets for context.

This isn’t about that meeting’s outcomes, but how I want to approach the enterprise. I’m not going to start by being appreciative, by saying how wonderful the opportunity is and how talented and dedicated the participants. This has been a norm of communication among Unitarian Universalists, often repeated, for several years now and a response to our long-cultivated habit of minute criticism. An over-correction, I think, because it telegraphs an unwholesome cheeriness, softball responses and lowered expectations. That’s hardly respectful, or useful. It’s as if adults can’t be trusted with the truth. So I won’t question the sincerity, intelligence or diligence of the parties of this or any similar conference, but you can have all of these and still end poorly.

At root, the would-be leadership of the UUA has a trust problem with the would-be follower-ship. With each passing year, the UUA does less to justify its existence. What are the high marks for the last few years? Board governance? A property shift? These are internal matters, not missional ones. Are we building or redeveloping churches? No. But worse, we still have a model of ministerial formation that treats people like expensive, yet disposable, liabilities. And a raft of churches — and few will speak of this — that chew up and ruin the ministers they get with impunity. As for our external, missional successes, these come in the form of partnerships, formal and informal. Easy enough to ask, “why not affiliate with whomever’s leading?” If there are successes, they’re in local settings and perhaps informal networks. Again, a challenge to a national body. Unitarian Universalist structures have historically been hard to use, with little money offered. Sluggish, a bit haughty. You learn not to ask for much, and expect less.

At the risk of being cheerful, let me hold out some hope. When you look at the summit in tandem with the emerging communities pilot, I do see a willingness to entertain options and lower the opportunity costs of working within the UUA, and that’s good.

No: it’s better than good. It’s essential, because this work will take place somewhere, and without some structural change it will take place elsewhere.