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In December 2003, I served as one of two Candidate Liaisons to the
Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC). My role was to participate in the meeting,
offer feedback to the Committee, and to write a report for Candidates preparing
to meet the MFC.
Most Candidate Liaison reports I read during my seminary years spent a good
deal of ink emphasizing that the Ministerial Fellowship Committee is a group of
three-dimensional, caring human beings who are committed to the Unitarian
Universalist (UU) movement. While this is certainly true, I always wondered why that
message bears repeating. Having observed a number of interviews, I think
humanity is important to remember because otherwise the Committee becomes an
abstract symbol of mysterious authority, which opens the Candidates to the
mercilessness of their own anxieties and projections.
During my own MFC preparations, I was comforted when I remembered that
Committee members and I had a shared goal: to nurture the strongest possible
Unitarian Universalist professional ministry. I was more nervous when I framed
the interview in terms of outcomes to which I was personally attached. I was
less nervous when I framed it to myself as an opportunity to receive expert
guidance on my role in that ministry. Early on in seminary, I was often angry
and defensive when I thought about questions the MFC could and might ask.
Eventually, I realized that this “inner MFC” was my own self-criticism. I began
to stop blaming the real, caring human beings who actually sit on the Committee.
After that, preparing for my interview was much more pleasant.
The more I learned about the Committee and the people who have served on it,
the more I was able to separate my toxic self-criticism from the insights I
gained through the Fellowshipping process. Whatever your personal demons may be,
I hope some concrete observations about the MFC and the interview process will
help you to take the lead in the dance with your demons.
The MFC comes to each interview spiritually prepared. They worship together
each morning during their meeting, meditate as they wait for each candidate, and
reflect on the experience together after the interviews are done. All of this
preparation allows Committee members to focus during the interviews, observing
with clear perception each candidate's unfolding as a minister.
As part of their preparation, the MFC is engaging in a lot of learning and
reflection on anti-racism and anti-oppression (AR/AO). They have invited guest
speakers to their meetings, designated process observers to comment on AR/AO,
and lift up this lens in every aspect of their work together. The MFC could be a
model for other committees as well as congregations in the seriousness with
which they consider anti-racism and anti-oppression.
If you are reading this, you have probably already heard about the format of
the interview, so I won't go into it here. The interview ritual, like a good
Order of Service, leaves space for freshness while providing a consistent
Most of the interviews I observed were later than their scheduled time. The
Ministerial Fellowship Committee takes care with each decision, and spends as
much time as they have to in the process. My own interview was exactly on time
because the person scheduled before me had cancelled. Candidates seemed flexible
A few Candidates were prepared with a short (two or four-line) chalice
lighting thought, either a reading or a phrase such as “I light the chalice this
afternoon for unexpected blessings.” It was a nice touch when done well. Most
Candidates didn't have a spoken chalice lighting thought prepared, which was
fine. Some Candidates asked the panel to meditate, sing, or participate in a
reading to open their sermon. This worked well in one or two cases, but not well
in most cases.
I observed several sermon styles. Some were intellectual, some were
prophetic, some were poetic, some were thick with poignancy. The style of sermon
was not a pre-indicator of success, except insofar as the style grew out of the
Candidate's authenticity. Each Candidate comes up with his or her own way to
minister through preaching to a group of people committed to spending several
days in a stuffy, uncomfortable hotel conference room. The panel noticed when
sermons exceeded ten minutes.
The sermon and the first question helped Candidates get grounded. Panelists
listened to the content and also watched the Candidates for signs of ministerial
presence. Eye contact and a good speaking pace (not too fast, not too slow) made
While ministerial presence made a big difference, so did the answers to
questions. The panel generally asked at least one question about polity,
history, world religions, religious education, congregational life, ethics,
Jewish and Christian scripture, and anti-racism/anti-oppression. Youth and young
adult concerns were sometimes combined with one or more of the questions. More
time was spent on questions dealing with areas in the packet that caused concern
among the panelists.
Sometimes panelists asked questions that candidates had to clarify briefly.
Launching into an answer to a slightly different question than the one that was
intended or asking for detailed clarification on several questions made the
Candidate seem nervous.
One area with which many Candidates had difficulty was
anti-racism/anti-oppression. The Committee expected Candidates to offer
thought-out analysis of personal and institutional oppression. Sometimes the
questions were couched in terms of a particular situation or context. It helped
Candidates to know the phrase “racism is power plus prejudice” and to be able to
explain what that means. The trouble spots seemed to be (a) separating personal
racism from institutional racism and (b) facility with the language of
anti-oppression analysis. Candidates who came from historically marginalized
communities were asked the same questions; the MFC did not single anyone out for
questions on anti-racism/anti-oppression.
Another area that surprised me as a trouble spot was Unitarian Universalist
history, especially history after the Civil War. The members of the MFC could
tell the difference between lapses of memory due to nervousness and history that
the Candidate never learned in the first place.
The panel had specific suggestions for some Candidates who were weak in a
particular area. Other Candidates were challenged to develop their own plan to
address deficiencies, with help from the Professional Development Director in
the UUA's Ministry and Professional Leadership staff group.
Candidates who demonstrated evidence spiritual and emotional preparation were
able to meet the MFC with grace, and most of them were awarded Preliminary
Fellowship. Candidates who were spiritually prepared but who weren't ready for
Preliminary Fellowship seemed to accept their score as a milestone of
discernment rather than a personal attack.
I participated in interviews where Candidates attempted to gloss over their
flaws and I participated in interviews where Candidates knew their flaws and
seemed to be comfortable as they spoke about them. The Committee did not expect
anyone to be perfect. They awarded Category I scores to Candidates who answered
a few content questions wrong, to people who spoke of personal challenges with
which they were still struggling, and to people whose sermons left room for
improvement. What made the difference for these Candidates is sometimes referred
to as ministerial presence.
Ministerial indicates that someone understands the authority of a minister,
has reflected on it, and has accepted it. It is fueled by compassion,
professional boundaries, and an assumption of others' best intentions.
Ministerial presence behavior communicates calm and confidence without
To reiterate what every other Candidate Liaison report has ever said: the
Ministerial Fellowship Committee is a group of highly qualified, caring leaders
who are committed to Unitarian Universalism. They are three-dimensional human
beings who share the goal of a strong professional Unitarian Universalist
In this last section, I will offer advice as one who has been in the
Candidate's chair recently. While I recognize that my personal biases pop up all
over my observations in the previous section, this section is unabashedly
subjective and phrased in the second person. Be sure to ask around for other
Get help with this and allow ample time. I've heard people advise seminarians
to work on their packet all along, not to save it for the last minute. I don't
know anyone who has followed this advice, at least not someone who admits it. I
took two weeks of “study leave” during my internship to work on my packet and I
needed every minute.
I began by gathering the people closest to me, armed with my resume and
transcripts, to work on my competency sheets. We put up a newsprint sheet for
every category and brainstormed. My loved ones honored experiences that I would
have discounted. They helped again by reading my packet for aesthetics and for
I compared MFC packets with some friends in order to get a handle on
formatting and level of detail. This was a really sweet collegial experience.
Asking for help is one of those self-care lessons of ministry. We need this
skill out in the real world.
Write it on something for which you have passion and interest. While a
variety of styles and topics will work, ask yourself how your sermon will sound
to someone who is in pain or in need. Unitarian Universalism has been criticized
for an inadequate response to suffering. Consider this lens when writing.
Some Candidates used stories about CPE clients as the basis for their sermon.
I felt uncomfortable about this. I hope if a CPE student ever ministers to one
of my loved ones, our story doesn't become fodder for someone else's purposes
without permission. Changing the names did not make me feel comfortable. It
would have helped if the preacher has secured permission to tell the story and
had said so in the sermon. CPE stories about the speaker's own transformation,
using few or no details about clients, didn't bother me.
Using counseling stories in sermons is one of those ethical issues that each
minister must answer for her or himself. There is a range of acceptable
practices. I speak only for myself on the issue, not because I think I am the
arbiter of professional ethics, but because my opinion is one among a diversity
of opinions on the subject. On the other hand, I am not the only person who
feels this way, and I think an MFC sermon is a bad time to take the risk that a
listener will wonder about the preacher's ethics.
Write something that will help you get grounded. If there's a personal issue
mentioned in your packet and you'll feel better once it's on the table, go ahead
and make it your first question. You can also formulate a first question that
you know you can “bat out of the park” as a warm-up. More Candidates seemed to
choose the first kind of question than the second.
While the panelists take care to cover most of the major areas of competency,
they usually ask about topics that interest them personally. Each question is a
gift that tells you something about the person asking it. Because someone passed
this advice on to me, I was better able to respond with appreciation and
Most if not all Candidates I observed didn't know something they were asked.
Accepting limitations gracefully is part of ministry. Answer what you know. For
instance, if you know that there were these three guys named Arius, Athanasius,
and Eusebius, but you can't remember which is which, say so. Take delight that
there are always new things to learn.
Reading the books on the reading list is only the beginning. Go to at least
one Unitarian Universalist anti-oppression workshop. I found the “Multicultural
Religious Education” Renaissance Module to be helpful. Developing an
anti-racism/anti-oppression lens is a paradigm shift for most people, and the
experience of reflecting with others can be more effective than reading alone.
This area is a really exciting one to engage with and is vital for ministry in
the 21st century.
A wise mentor once told me that every minister has something in her or his
personal life that she or he wouldn't want on the front page of the newspaper.
The MFC will likely ask you about whatever your thing is. As a minister, you
want to deal with your private life as a self-care issue, and you want to be
able to speak about it non-defensively. Search committees may ask the same
question, so consider your MFC interview good practice.
The MFC may be interested to hear about insights you have gained in therapy
or spiritual direction. Again, longevity in the ministry is partly determined by
our ability to reflect and to integrate self-knowledge. The Committee has good
reasons for asking.
If all goes well, you will probably go into some form of search very soon
after your interview. Read a few search packets so you know what they are like.
Ask your Intern Committee to take pictures of you in the pulpit (stage them to
avoid interrupting worship) and at congregational activities. If you have to
delay your search, you will at least have a nice memory album.
As someone who is probably nearing the end of a graduate degree, you have
probably figured out by now the best way to study for your learning style. I
think some people forget about that when it comes to MFC preparation.
I am an auditory person and an extravert, so I needed more than the printed
word to awaken my formation. I probably listened to about 60 hours of books on
tape while commuting and working out at the gym. A loved one made color-coded
flash cards from the sample MFC question list. Renaissance Modules, study
groups, and professional retreats were all opportunities to engage with the
areas of competency. Just because the reading list is all text doesn't mean you
have to study like a visual learner.
Somebody, maybe it was Augustine, said a person doesn't find God by reading
scripture, but that the practice of engaging with the text could open up a
pathway. The same can be true of studying for the MFC. I don't think I became a
minister by reading books on congregational polity, but struggling with issues
that arose out of the text – issues like what it means to be a Unitarian
Universalist and to be a minister in relationship with a congregation – did help
me form a ministerial identity.
Professional Development, including the Fellowshipping process, is a journey.
One can approach it as a pilgrimage or a tedious commute.
The Ministerial Fellowship Committee interview is a door. Once through it,
you will see that other doors are waiting in the vast mansion of Professional
Let your preparation be ingredients in the stewpot of ministerial formation.
All of the flavors balance each other, but nothing can replace the time it takes
Corny metaphors aside, best of luck on your path. Blessed Be.
This is the format I observed for Ministerial Fellowship Committee
For more information contact web @ uua.org.
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Last updated on Tuesday, April 16, 2013.
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