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Religious leadership at the congregational level is a key area in which different understandings of congregational polity create difficulties within our Association. We have a wide variety of approaches to leadership, from ordained clergy through volunteer lay members of a congregation, who may also be ordained or commissioned, elected or not. At every level, the understanding of congregational polity is crucial to what we do. Not only must we have good leadership to survive and thrive-our system and style of leadership must be undergirded by a clear understanding of what it means to be congregational so that our approach in governing and running our congregations is consistent with the broader reach of Unitarian Universalism. This section views issues of religious leadership through the lens of congregational polity and makes recommendations for strengthening leadership in the following: categories of ministry, shared ministry, recruitment and formation of ministerial students, ordination, and community ministry.
The presence of educated, trained, and dedicated ordained clergy has long been central to our existence. Even lay-led congregations recognize that having such clergy within the Association is necessary to keep us strong and viable. For years, parish-based clergy were the only formally recognized ministers within the Association and became the expected standard. However, during the 1960s and 1970s we became aware of the specialized requirements that ministry of religious education demanded. In response to studies and a vote at General Assembly, in 1980 the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) began granting Fellowship as ministers of religious education.
Additionally, in the 1980s and 1990s we came to understand the special call to ministry outside the walls of our congregations. Again in response to a vote at General Assembly, the MFC began granting Fellowship as community ministers in 1991. Recognition of the special nature of the work of these clergy is important. One category of community ministry presently covers a wide variety of specializations such as ministry to youth, chaplaincies in hospitals and prisons, community organizing, and a wide variety of other work.
The presence of these three categories (parish ministers, ministers of religious education, and community ministers) fosters the perception that the parish ministers are the "real" ministers and that the other two categories of ministry require less ability and skill. This misconception is understandable in that parish ministers are often the most visible ministers in any congregation. Yet ministers of religious education and community ministers must not only meet the same criteria of training, skill, and ability as parish ministers, but must also demonstrate an understanding of their area of specialization. The preparation for any form of Unitarian Universalist ministry is challenging and demanding and the categories of ministry seek only to recognize areas of specialization.
To affirm the fact that we have one professional ministry, we recommend abolishing the separate categories of parish, religious education, and community ministry. Ministers should be received into Ministerial Fellowship with the potential for adding areas of specialization. This proposal is similar to the system of credentialing doctors-all are subject to the same basic criteria, but may achieve additional certification in specific areas. This plan would ensure that all clergy have the basic skills needed to relate to congregational structure (such as preaching, interpersonal communication, and knowledge of history, theology, and polity), as well as the skills relevant to their chosen form of ministry. The Ministerial Fellowship Committee would define the areas of specialization and establish requirements for experience and education in these areas.
We foresee the possibility of having many areas of specialization, whenever criteria for education and experience can be defined. These areas might include ministry to youth, ministry to young adults, campus ministry, prison chaplaincy, ministry to the dying, AIDS ministry, interim ministry, and ministry of music. Specialization would enable congregations or other potential employers to select people with certification in the required skills, rather than trying to determine the specifics about each person.
Congregations are both the lifeblood of our religious movement and the place where we build and maintain our relationships with each other as religious people. Clergy, regardless of the setting of their ministry, are ministers "of the church," called from its ranks. We are Unitarian Universalists through affiliation with a congregation, not through adherence to a particular set of views or by undergoing a particular sacrament. Indeed, only as a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation can a minister truly claim a UU identity, since our movement is an association of congregations. Therefore, all clergy, regardless of where they serve, should be active members of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. (Exception must be made for ministers holding dual standing in another religious tradition where that tradition's rules may prohibit such membership.) The authenticity and credibility of ministers will only be enhanced if they are active members of the religious movement from which they minister.
One key aspect of Unitarian Universalism is our belief that ministry of the congregation does not belong exclusively to ordained clergy, but to everyone. In Our Professional Ministry: Structure, Support and Renewal, the Commission's 1992 study, Neil Shadle stated, "Ministry is the vocation of every person of faith, [and] Unitarian Universalism, as a democratic faith, affirms the Ôpriesthood of all believers'; we are all lay ministers, whether or not we choose to be professional religious leaders." This belief in the "priesthood of all believers" is central to who we are as a religious movement.
Not only does shared ministry refer to ministry shared between professional clergy in multi-staff settings, but also to ministry shared between professional ministers and laypeople. Good relationships between colleagues in a multi-staff setting provide models of collaboration and trust that can help congregations articulate a vision of shared ministry across professional and lay lines. Publications such as The Shared Ministry Sourcebook begin to deepen the conversation about how this shared lay and professional ministry could look. To enhance our understanding of what shared ministry is and could be, we recommend that congregations enter into wide-ranging conversations at the area and district levels about common goals that should undergird lay ministry.
These conversations are necessary for several reasons. As the results of the 1993 UUA Women and Religion survey show, we lack consensus about the shape and nature of lay ministry within our congregations. Shared ministry is seen to range from "the minimal participation of lay persons as Ôhelpers' or substitutes when the minister is away to formal programs involving title lay positions, training, and accreditation." The study noted that those who support shared ministry recognize the necessity for all people to work together for the health of the congregation. Those who are sceptical worry about "quality control," the boundaries that differentiate ministering from other relationships, and the potential of volunteer burnout. It is this diversity of understanding and these concerns that lead to our recommendation for wide-ranging conversations.
These conversations should take into account successful programs of shared leadership that are under way in our communities. For example, in the Associates Program at the First Unitarian Church in Oakland, California, church members help plan and assist with worship and provide pastoral care for the congregation. Programs are under development in which congregants will work with the religious education program as teachers and as social justice advocates within the church and the larger community. Volunteers are screened, trained, and supervised, and are held to high standards set by the congregation. In Bedford, Massachusetts, and Morristown, New Jersey, congregations have adapted the Oakland Worship Associates program. These spin-off programs are reportedly doing well and contributing to the vitality of the congregations.
Within Canadian congregations, the lay chaplaincy program has been active since 1970, when Unitarian (as they are often called in Canada) clergy were few and spread thinly across the nation. Two or sometimes three members of each congregation are empowered by provincial governments to perform rites of passage such as weddings, funeral and memorial services, and child dedications. (Technically, only weddings require the licensure of provincial authorities.) Congregations recruit and train their chaplains, whose appointments are overseen by the Canadian Unitarian Council.
Responsibility for training and supervision of the lay chaplains varies among congregations. Professional ministers are typically responsible for training and often supervision of chaplains in their congregations. In other cases such as lay-led congregations, the congregation's governing board oversees the chaplaincy program. In recent years, the Chaplains Association has established training programs for newer chaplains, but given the country's wide expanse and the relatively small number of congregations, not all chaplains are able to attend such training. The Chaplains Association has also established a code of ethics and conduct, which has been approved by the Ministers and Chaplains Committee of the Canadian Unitarian Council.
Other congregations have varying roles for lay leaders-from serving as trustees or directors on boards to working as deacons within the congregation. These are all viable areas of church ministry and can greatly assist the work of the called clergy.
Frequently, however, volunteers are not subject to adequate screening, training, and supervision while they are involved in lay ministry. We recommend that congregations work with their districts to define and clarify the roles and responsibilities of lay ministers. Such details as the nature of the ministry, the appropriate training required, the method of accountability to the congregation, the relationship between lay ministers and ordained clergy, the length of term, the procedures for evaluation, and the system for recognizing and commissioning such individuals should be clarified before a congregation begins a lay ministry program. Once such decisions are made, districts or area groups can collaborate on the implementation of the program. Such guidelines and training programs would greatly enhance the "priesthood of all believers."
Although committed laypeople donate many hours and much skill and talent to the Association, well-prepared professional clergy are necessary to perform the amount of work required to keep Unitarian Universalism a viable religious movement. To ensure that clergy maintain high standards of excellence, it is incumbent upon the Association to have the best candidates with the best preparation for professional ministry.
As recommended in the Commission on Appraisal's earlier report, Our Professional Ministry, we believe that congregations and the Association should work together in both the recruitment of individuals for ministry and theformation of those individuals. In recruitment efforts, we urge congregations to look to people in their midst and to encourage those with the requisite skills and talents to consider the UU ministry as a career choice. Particular care should be taken to recruit those who understand our broader movement and are committed to the principles of the UUA, as well as people who can work well with the theological diversity within our congregations.
In 1992, a change was made to help strengthen the system of assisting candidates for the ministry and to help congregations be more active in the preparation and development of candidates: Any person seeking UU Fellowship must now be sponsored by a Unitarian Universalist congregation, which formulates its own selection criteria. This sponsorship may be moral, emotional, and economic, but as a bottom line, the congregation must state that it has faith in the person's ability to become a competent clergyperson. As this program is relatively new, many (if not most) congregations have not yet been faced with the decision-making process for sponsorship.
We recommend that the UUA Department of Ministry formulate standards and guidelines that congregations can use in making sponsorship decisions. These guidelines would address the qualities, skills, abilities, and commitment to calling deemed essential in a paid professional minister. Such guidelines should include not only a process for assessing the suitability of candidates for sponsorship, but also for assisting congregations in rejecting individuals they believe would not be suitable for ordained ministry. District field staff could aid congregations in the process. Congregations should review and adopt the criteria for sponsorship (based on the UUA guidelines) before any person comes to them requesting sponsorship.
Congregations must also examine the question of financial support for their ministerial candidates. With educational costs rising, new ministers often find themselves buried in debt. Congregations must take responsibility for financial assistance to the clergy of the next generation.
Candidates for ministry also deserve more ongoing support and evaluation from our movement. The Department of Ministry is working with two pilot projects to provide good models-one started by clergy in the Joseph Priestley District and the other a joint effort of the Florida, Mid-South, and Thomas Jefferson Districts. These projects bring together laypeople, ordained clergy, and ministerial candidates. The goal is twofold: to provide candidates for ministry with support and guidance and to help members of congregations assume responsibility to such students. Although a support committee would not be charged with the job of telling candidates they are not suitable for ministry, it is hoped that by working together in a spirit of love, committee members can help candidates uncover their own gifts and discern whether the UU ministry is an appropriate place for them. Such a process, which incorporates retreats and other interactive methods, helps the committees, districts, clergy, and candidates to realize that they are all serving a higher purpose than a person's desire to minister; they are working together to enhance the UU movement.
We commend the work of the Department of Ministry in setting up pilot programs that will help congregations do the difficult work of informing candidates when they do not measure up. To date, the bad-news telling has been left to the Fellowship Committee, but if we are to take our system of congregational polity seriously, congregations, clergy, and the Association must all play their part in the discernment process.
These changes in the formation process are too recent to be evaluated. However, if our congregations assume their responsibility for and to potential professional ministers, both in sponsoring self-selected candidates and encouraging others who may be appropriate for our ministry, they will support and enhance the work of the Fellowship Committee. Furthermore, projects like those in the Joseph Priestley District and the Florida, Mid-South, and Thomas Jefferson Districts also increase congregation's investment in the ordained ministry and their understanding of the theological underpinning of ordination.
In addition to the assistance provided by congregations, districts, and the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Panel on Theological Education also provides assistance in administering the expenditure of income from an endowment for theological education from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, in Manhasset, New York. This income is the only financial support that the UUA provides to UU theological schools. Increasingly these funds are viewed as a source of support for many competing educational ventures. We recommend that the basic needs of Meadville/Lombard Theological School and Starr King School for the Ministry continue to be given priority in funding decisions by the Panel on Theological Education.
The Panel on Theological Education should continue to advocate for students at non-Unitarian Universalist theological schools to encourage these schools to offer students the broad range of educational subjects required for Fellowship within the UUA, including, but not limited to, congregational polity, liberal religious education, and UU history. Such advocacy can only improve the quality of education our ministry candidates receive, which will help strengthen our movement.
Ordination is not merely a tertiary level of accreditation after graduation and Fellowship, but a mutual commitment to service and support, a calling out of the congregation to service of that community and the world beyond. It is a recognition and affirmation of the skills, talents, and calling of a person to the professional ministry. As one of the highest honors a congregation can grant to an individual, ordination must be reclaimed as a central event in the life of a congregation. We affirm the recommendations for all clergy from the 1992 report of the Commission on Appraisal:
An educational process is necessary for congregations to understand the centrality of their role and the responsibility they are granted by the right to ordain. Most congregations do not consider the appropriate criteria for ordination before an individual asks to be ordained. Yet this is one of the most important decisions a congregation can be asked to make, for ordination is for the life of the clergyperson, unlike the granting of Ministerial Fellowship (recognition of proper credentials, ability, and calling), which can be removed if the individual does not live up to expected standards. Few congregations regret their decision to ordain, but by working with a clear vision and predetermined criteria, we can reduce even those few instances.
Ordination ought ideally to be offered to a person who will have a continuing relationship with the congregation. At its heart, ordination is more than just a recognition of service well done; it is the commitment of the community and the ordained minister to continue the work of the church in the world. Because few congregations are in a position to determine suitability for ministry, we affirm our earlier recommendation that except in special circumstances, only people in Fellowship with the Association be offered ordination by a congregation.
This is a delicate issue, because the right to ordain is held unconditionally by congregations. And yet our partnership in governing means we must rely upon each other's judgment in decision making. Just as congregations should be more active in the recruitment and formation of ministers, congregations should also take serious note when the Fellowship Committee decides not to extend Fellowship to particular individuals.
Before offering the rite of ordination to anyone, particularly someone not in Fellowship, the congregation should establish a careful screening process that takes into account the reservations conveyed by the Fellowship Committee. Such criteria should be stated in writing and congregations should consider reflecting the salient points in their governing documents. As well, we would hope that congregants have had an ongoing relationship with the person they are seeking to ordain and have been able to observe the person's ministry over time.
If after such a review the congregation decides to ordain an individual not in Fellowship, we recommend that such ordination should be clearly understood and stated as ordination to the ministry of that particular congregation, not to the Unitarian Universalist ministry as a whole. If the person is later received into Fellowship with the UUA, an ordination certificate would be issued by the Department of Ministry recognizing that person as ordained to our movement. This recommendation would hold true for all clergy not in Fellowship, regardless of whether they are serving in a parish, religious education, or community ministry. We urge the UUA Department of Ministry to develop certificates recognizing ordination by a congregation into its ministry.
For ministers in Fellowship who are serving the wider community, we recommend that the ordaining body should be the congregation or congregations that will serve as the covenanting congregation(s) of the community minister. Ordination of community ministers may also include representatives from the site where the minister will carry out her or his ministry.
The ordination should also include acceptance by the ordinand of her or his responsibility to the community of autonomous congregations, the movement as a whole, and the larger community outside the walls of the congregation. This is not meant as a "loyalty oath," but as a recognition of the interdependence and interrelatedness of all our clergy and congregations. As well, few clergy serve only one congregation or agency during their professional careers; vows to the community of autonomous congregations (the Association) would acknowledge this fact.
Ministry is the central, defining function of the dedicated religious community. This ministry is directed both inward to its own membership and outward to the world. One of the earliest examples of ministry to the community is that of the Benevolent Fraternity of Unitarian Churches (UU Urban Ministry). Established in Boston in the late 1800s, its founder, Joseph Tuckerman, convinced the congregations that their responsibilities did not end at the church door-their mission was to the world as well as to those within their walls. Tuckerman and his successors in the Benevolent Fraternity did not separate their ministry in the city from their ministry to the gathered community and found their accountability to be both to congregation and community.
In succeeding generations, community ministry took various forms in both Unitarianism and Universalism. Throughout our history, laypeople and clergy have been actively involved in most of the social service and human justice issues in Canada and the United States. We have been active in almost every struggle for human rights, from voting rights, to access to better education, housing, and medical care, to ending various forms of discrimination. A key part of our understanding of ourselves-theologically and humanistically-is that we are and should be active in the greater world outside the walls of our congregations. Our ministry extends into the community at large, whether organized through congregational projects or the individual labor of members.
Our commitment to service to the world extends to our congregations as well as to our clergy. We recommend that congregations continue to find ways of supporting and fostering ministry to the world beyond their doors. Service can include work on a wide variety of social justice projects or sponsorship of the work of a community-based minister. If we believe in the community of autonomous congregations, we must also realize that our religious movement calls us to see that community as having responsibilities to the greater community.
To fully implement our ministry to the world, we need to understand how such community ministry is structurally related to our governance system. Since its official recognition as a separate category of ministry in 1991, community ministry has been seen more as an adjunct than a viable part of our movement. How can our community of autonomous congregations support ordained clergy who go out into the world on our behalf?
The church is in essence the gathered community. Without people coming together-for worship, work, play, education, care, and concern-there would be no Unitarian Universalism. Instead, there would be a collection of people scattered throughout the country who hold similar beliefs, but are not a church, a gathered community. We exist by the fact that we come together.
As we come together, we also profess the belief that the "ministry" of the church is not just that performed by our called professional religious leaders, but belongs to the gathered community. Ministry is the work of everyone within the congregation and everyone is accountable to the whole for the ministry they undertake.
Under congregational polity, ordained clergy serving in parishes-whether ministers of religious education or parish ministers-are accountable directly to congregations in several ways that laypeople are not. Three obvious ways are through the right of congregations to call and dismiss clergy; the payment through budgetary approval of salary, housing, and benefits; and the periodic reaffirmation of the ministry through direct evaluation. This accountability extends to their ministry beyond the larger community. Ministers become Unitarian Universalist ministers through their involvement in our congregations.
Likewise, community-based ministers also become (and remain) Unitarian Universalist ministers (rather than ministers called by "the holy spirit," "the Pope," the "holy," the "divine," or a personal sense of call and vocation) through their involvement with the community. To be defined as a Unitarian Universalist minister requires the ordination of a UU congregation. Since the congregation is the basic unit of our governance system, to retain a more authentic Unitarian Universalist identity, ordained community-based ministers should also retain an active involvement within the "community of autonomous congregations."
Therefore, we recommend that each community minister enter into a three-way covenantal association among (1) the minister, (2) the settings of ministry, and (3) at least one nearby Unitarian Universalist congregation.This recommendation applies to all those in Fellowship as community ministers as well as those in Fellowship in another category but serving outside a parish setting (for example, ministers serving as theological school faculty, military chaplains, or at the UUA or other affiliated organizations). This requirement is comparable to the accountability of parish-based clergy to the congregations they serve.
In the covenantal association, the minister would be accountable to the setting of ministry to fulfill its agenda and the congregation would need to extend its understanding of the ministry to the agency and the minister involved. The community minister would help the congregation understand its role in the wider community and the congregation would help to anchor the minister within a community of hope and justice, providing support and nurturance in the minister's work on behalf of the entire community. The community minister would be accountable to the congregation for the integrity of her or his work in the setting of ministry.
We suggest that the community minister's involvement with the congregation occasionally include, but not be limited to, leading worship, teaching, maintaining collegial relationships with the congregation's parish-based ministers, and reporting on ministerial work outside the congregation. It is assumed that the congregation would offer financial compensation to the community minister for services rendered directly to the congregation.
Covenantal association would remind the community-based minister that one source of power and authority to minister comes from our congregations-the gathered community. Covenantal association would also affirm the role of the community minister within our "community of autonomous congregations" and would strengthen the congregation's understanding that the ministry of the church must extend beyond the walls of the building. Covenantal association would remind the people in the setting of ministry that the minister is accountable within a larger context, and that he or she is viewed as a valuable and viable member of a larger religious community.
We also believe that inherent in our understanding of the community of autonomous congregations is the responsibility for congregations to seek out and support viable community ministries within their areas. There is much to be gained by participation with community ministry programs, and we recommend that congregations look for ways in which they can enhance their ministry to the wider world by becoming involved in covenantal associations with community ministers.
To this end, the covenanting congregation or congregations should be in geographical proximity to the site of the community ministry, that is, close enough that the congregation(s) can have a clear sense of the work undertaken by the community minister and can recognize their connection with the program. The covenant could be entered into by one or several congregations-the most logical choices are area clusters or districts. We believe that it would be inappropriate for the UUA to be the covenanting congregation since the Association as a whole cannot be actively involved in supporting, evaluating, and collaborating with community ministers. However, we recognize that the UUA would be involved in covenantal associations as the site of ministry for ministers working for the UUA.
We recommend that the ordaining congregation(s) for new community ministers should be the congregation(s) involved in the three-way covenantal association, subject to the other recommendations set out above. For community ministers, covenanting congregations are the closest equivalent to the "calling congregation" for those entering into parish-based ministry.
Once a community minister is in covenantal association with a congregation, we recommend that the minister be considered settled and thereby eligible for automatic voting privileges at General Assembly. We urge the UUA to investigate whether such covenantal association would entitle community ministers to UUA health care and retirement plans. The Department of Ministry can help to create models of covenantal association for linking community ministers and congregations.
Community-based ministers should not expect to receive the same type of settlement services from the Department of Ministry as parish-based clergy. The nature of community ministry is so diverse and the possible settings for such ministry so numerous that the current and anticipated resources in the department cannot adequately support settlement assistance. However, we recommend that the Department of Ministry continue to provide career guidance and advice, maintain and disseminate information on placement and professional organizations available to community ministers, publicize any specifically Unitarian Universalist community ministry possibilities, and explore ways to make such assistance readily available to community ministers.
Further, we recommend that chapters of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association take community-based ministers into account when planning their programs. Care should be taken to ensure that not all programming is designed for or accessible only to those in parish-based ministry settings.
To strengthen our religious leadership, many changes need to be instituted in both our thought processes and systems. We need to embrace the understanding that as a "community of autonomous congregations" we are deeply connected through all levels of religious leadership and cannot work or live in isolation. Our future existence may not depend on learning to operate as a community of autonomous congregations; unless we apply this belief to our structures of religious leadership, we will be diminished.
Conversations with Stephen Shick, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee; Barbara Jo Sorensen, chair, Society for the Larger Ministry; Diane Miller, director of the Department of Ministry; Ellen Brandenburg, director of ministerial education; Daniel Hotchkiss, settlement director; Rebecca Parker, president, Starr King School for the Ministry; Patti Lawrence, dean of students and congregational life, Starr King School for the Ministry; Neil Shadle, associate professor of ministry and director of field education, Meadville/Lombard Theological School; Ian Evison, interim academic dean and assistant professor of practical theology, Meadville/Lombard Theological School; and Judy Mannheim, associate dean, Modified Residency Program and Continuing Education, and instructor in religious education, Meadville/Lombard Theological School; and the 1993 UUA Women and Religion Survey.
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Last updated on Monday, June 20, 2011.
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