An open letter to UUA Leadership regarding recent changes to the ministerial credentialing process:
To Whom It May Concern:
It is unclear to me whether I ought to address this open letter to the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, both of these bodies or some other entity entirely. Perhaps that itself is telling. I write in response to the recent series of decisions leading to the defunding and discontinuation of the Regional Sub-Committees on Candidacy (RSCCs) and the resulting changes to the ministerial credentialing process, including the development of an in-care process for those discerning and following a call to ministry.
As a seminarian in formation, one who has been both embedded in and occasionally critical of our existing process, I welcome the decision to make these necessary changes and am still deeply disappointed in the execution of this transition.
I will make particular reference below to the letter signed by the Rev. Sarah Lammert on behalf of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, which appeared on the UUA’s website on 4/24/2015 but was not shared directly with seminarians in process. This letter references the UUA Board of Trustees’ decision (voted 4/23/15) to adopt the FY16 budget removing funding for the RSCC process, and outlines the MFC’s response including preliminary changes to the requirements for candidacy following the elimination of the RSCC structure.
The decision to release these changes in a publicly accessible forum before aspirants in process could be informed about our next steps was, at best, a missed pastoral opportunity. Aspirants did receive in late March an email from the Rev. David Pettee, notifying us that the draft budget would remove funding for the RSCCs and that we would receive more information after the Board vote in late April, but that email did not include any details about how the credentialing process would be modified. Maybe “how to proceed without the RSCCs” had not yet been determined. I don’t know. Nor do I know why Rev. Lammert’s letter was released – perhaps prematurely – when there would be no direct communication to students in process until this morning, a week and a half later, when an email from the Ministerial Credentialing Office confirmed these changes among other details. This failure of communication, planning, or both has raised considerable frustration and anxiety among students invested in the process.
With respect to Rev. Lammert’s letter, I wish to respond to a couple of remarks in the last paragraph of page 1, which reads in part:
Unfortunately, a large number of aspirants did not use the RSCC’s for early feedback, choosing instead to put their appointments off until late in the process, thwarting the intention of offering early feedback. Additionally, none of the 26 individuals stopped by the RSCC’s from gaining candidacy status dropped out of seminary, thus they continued to accrue debt.
Since the 2010 funding cut which reduced the number of RSCCs to two (east coast and west coast) and cut the total RSCC funding to a figure significantly less than many seminarians’ student debt, the wait time for RSCC appointments has lengthened considerably. As of spring 2015, before the decision to de-fund the RSCC system was confirmed, RSCC appointments were being made for Fall 2016, more than fifteen months away. I understand that as of today the MFC is now scheduling appointments for December 2016, nineteen months from now. To suggest that seminarians in process are primarily responsible for delayed credentialing appointments, when there is so much lag in the system, demonstrates – at best – an incomplete understanding of the mechanics of the process.
Furthermore, given the profound investment of time, money and effort in attempting a graduate degree in any field, it does not surprise me to learn that students who interviewed unsuccessfully with RSCCs in the past have elected to continue in seminary. In terms of overall employability, completion of any graduate or professional level degree seems like a better return on investment than quitting in the middle with nothing to show for it.
But there is a deeper issue here, an invisible issue that permeates our denominational systems and processes. Implicit in the quoted passage above is the assumption of responsibility (by the RSCC, MFC or other body of the UUA) for students’ decisions whether or not to remain in seminary and continue accruing educational debt.
It is not now and has never (to my knowledge) been the responsibility of the UUA to manage seminarians’ financial choices.
Seminarians in formation are neither minor children nor widgets on an assembly line. We are adults – many beginning second or third careers – who are quite conscious of the high costs, both financial and personal, of pursuing the call to ministry. We enter this process understanding that it demands a major commitment – of time, of money, of effort, of sacrifice, of everything. To devote one’s life to a calling is a daunting endeavor – and we choose it anyway. There is a level of commitment at work that has nothing to do with money.
It is for this reason that appropriate support from our institutional systems is so critical. The personal transformative work that is part of the formation process is difficult enough, and looks a little different for every student in formation. We who are called to the work of ministry arrive with diverse strengths and vulnerabilities, gifts and growing edges; the ministries of the 21st century to which we are called demand no less. We need credentialing structures and processes that facilitate the development of the vast resources we bring, not ones that make a difficult process even harder.
No system will be perfect. The RSCC system was not perfect; the system it modified was not perfect; the in-care programs that exist now are not perfect and the ones that are under development will not be perfect either. They will not be flawless – and therefore they will not ever be complete; rather, all our systems must be subject by design to ongoing feedback at all points in the process from stakeholders in every situation.
“Nothing about us without us!” This rallying cry from anti-racism, anti-oppression and multicultural work applies more broadly to all relationships with significant power differentials, particularly those where one powerful party assumes decision-making authority on others’ behalf. It is is a cry to be seen, to be heard, to be acknowledged as dialogue partners in a shared process and not objects in a machine. Please solicit feedback from seminarians and ministers in preliminary fellowship – early and often and ongoing – while in-care structures are being developed. Nobody knows how this part works – and where it doesn’t – better than those of us in the middle of it.
As Unitarian Universalists we are frequently called to prophetic action in the public sphere, holding the systems and structures of the wider community up for evaluation in the light of our values. But when we are unwilling to lift up the prophetic lens through which we evaluate our social and cultural context and to turn that lens upon our own systems and structures we, collectively, risk hypocrisy and irrelevance.
We can do better.
We must do better. I write “we” because I am in relationship with you, the governing body of the UUA and the committee charged with responsibility for the credentialing of students in formation, and with each of your members through the Association whose future we share. I write “we” because my hope for my own future in this work lies with you and in the systems and structures which are as yet in your control and not in mine. I write “we” in the hope that the future we create is for the greatest good of all stakeholders in this process and for the good of the wider world of which we are a part.
May it be so.
— Claire Curole
aspirant to the Unitarian Universalist ministry