Drive by posting: General Assembly

I promise I have a half written blog post that I did not finish before heading out to General Assembly two days ago. (I think it was two days ago. Only two days ago? The days are long and full and blur together at the edges.) 

Today I am in Portland, Oregon and I have coffee and marriage equality.

It is something to celebrate. It is a victory.  Pause, cheer, love.

It is not a place to stop. The work of equality and justice is not finished.  For people living in states with discriminatory laws unrelated to marriage – those who can be fired from jobs or denied custody of children because of their sexual orientation or gender presentation – the work is not yet done.  For LGBTQ people of color, the work is not yet done. For economically disadvantaged people of all colors and genders and abilities, the work is not yet done.

Today, we celebrate one step.  Tonight, tomorrow, for the rest of our lives, the work continues. 

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By their book piles ye shall know them

It’s been a long time – a very long time, maybe a year now? – since I wrote anything ordinary around here.

It is June. The winter that seemed like it would never end has ended; the mounds of dirty snow long gone, replaced by tangled mounds of rhododendrons and day-lilies and whatever those little green things are. I moved a pile of day-lilies last month and it looks like a few of them have forgiven me enough to bloom this year anyway. (They will be fine. It is all but impossible to kill day-lilies around here. Drive out a remote country road ten miles into nowhere, and you will eventually see a fine bank of orange day-lilies, and know that somewhere nearby there is a cellar wall or an old family cemetery, all that remains of an abandoned homestead. The stone walls and the day-lilies remember.)

The spring term is complete and I am now two weeks into the summer term, which means that I have added a small pile of books, on African-American humanism and theatrical improv, to the previous four semesters’ book piles. It is the navigational hazard of a scholarly life (or the approximation thereof), compounded by a genuine lack of places to put more bookshelves. I have books on the sideboard and books on the table and books next to the back porch door.

And then there are the personal books – books that pre-dated seminary, some of them going back to my undergraduate days, two transcontinental moves ago, and newer acquisitions. Since last fall I have started to attract orphaned books – the remnants of other people’s libraries that are ready to move on to a new keeper. So my basement has four or five boxes now, from two different people’s collections, and when I was offered a chance to go through someone else’s book cull last weekend I was extremely judicious in my selection and still ended up with a small pile of things that will, I hope, prove either interesting or beneficial.

I can’t even really categorize them any more. They mix themselves up by project: pastoral caregiving, poetry, Pagan ritual design, Universalist history, psychology, art, a pile of hymnals and a pile of meditation manuals… and a pile of books on craft technique and another pile of Bibles. I think that pile is all Bibles. I’d have to go look.

I am trying, these days, to buy books electronically whenever I can – if only because I am running out of places to put them.

Sometimes I look at the piles of books on the bedroom floor and want not so much to read them as to have read them, to already have absorbed and internalized whatever wisdom or perspective a particular author has about a particular thing. Even I cannot possibly read fast enough and deeply enough to internalize all of the knowledge that is already contained between covers in my possession — and there is more, new, faster information coming through the computer every single day.

And all these books – a fragment of a fraction of the sum total of human knowledge and understanding – are still too much for any one person to master in a natural lifetime.

The world is changing fast and the things we know turn out to be uncertain. I find this strangely exhilarating, the breathless leap into the unknown, unknowable future. There is a lot of conversation right now that is moving too fast for me to reflect and comment on it; conversation about the sustainability of our economic models, the entangled and interdependent nature of the problems we face (as individuals, communities, institutions, and cultures), the necessity of shifting our fundamental assumptions about how the world works, or ought to work. It is messy and terrifying and – to me at least – a rich and beautiful opportunity.

So what do we do with it?

I’m in favor of indexing. Knowing where to find a bit of information is probably more important most of the time than actually having it memorized, especially for bits of information that are subject to frequent change. Moving from memorization of an established body of knowledge to an efficient indexing system is a piece of the deeper-level shift from “one right answer once and for all time” to “let’s see what works now and come back and check again later if we need to.” It is no longer enough to know what is true; we need to be able to learn what truth looks like, over and over again, as it grows and changes and multiplies.

I’m also in favor of… I don’t know what the professionals call it, but what I think of as pattern analysis or the big-picture view: being able to perceive what emerges through considering lots of disparate data points all together; the chronological arc of history, perhaps, or parallel timelines, or comparing the distribution patterns from one group of data sets to those of an unrelated group of data sets. (I’m reminded of James Gleick’s Chaos, which I read back in the early 1990s. I have a copy around here someplace. I think it’s in the pile next to the back door with Starhawk and Clinebell and Welch.) It’s about looking for similarities and parallels, appreciating correlations and releasing the need to attribute causality or blame. “Whose fault was it?” and “How exactly did it start?” are less important questions than “What are we going to do from here?”

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At the Speed of Internet

I had hoped to write this sooner.

That has been my mantra all month. It’s not that I do not want to write, or that I have not got anything to say; it’s that writing takes time, and so do other things, and I have not yet mastered the art of doing all the things, full throttle, on time and under budget and in top form on every occasion. I am strongly motivated by deadlines but that does not mean I always succeed at keeping them.

And the world, this modern 24-7-365 interconnected world that does not ever sleep, it just keeps on happening while I am trying to catch up to it, or doing other things. Perhaps this is how being human works these days. It is, at least, how I am doing it: by littles, as time permits.

So I would like first to express my appreciation to Rev. Lammert for her quick reply to my open letter earlier this month. I am grateful for open communication and to confirm that the conversations about process that are happening in my circles are also happening elsewhere. I still hope that eventually we will be able to have those conversations with all stakeholders at the same table at the same time, but that is the kind of systemic adaptive change that we have not quite made yet.

I am also tumbling around some thoughts around congregational relationship to ministry. The recent adjustments to our credentialing process have moved congregational sponsorship of the student minister from late in the process (a requirement to schedule the final MFC interview) to much, much earlier in the process – it’s now a requirement for aspirant status, pretty much step one. Those of us in mid-stream just need to get it taken care of.

I feel in general like this will be a good thing going forward, although it presents some challenges for students who do not have a relationship with a congregation. I also feel like having a relationship with a congregation is important for ministerial students, but I think I am biased because I have a good one.

What I am more curious about is, what will the effect of this be on congregations? It seems to me that establishing the relationship between a congregation and a ministerial student early in the student’s formation process serves to draw the congregation more deeply into that process. That might be the intention, or not, but it is going to poke the relationship between congregations and ministry, at least in some cases.

I have a lot more thoughts about this, but the weather is beastly humid and I do not have the spoons to be eloquent right now.

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Response to Open Letter

I received today by email a response from the Reverend Sarah Lammert, Director of Ministries and Faith Development, to yesterday’s open letter which I am sharing here, with permission.

PDF here, text of the letter behind the fold.

Continue reading

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Open Letter to UUA Leadership

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

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Drive-by posting

Whoops, it’s gone almost a month without a blog post. That can happen this time of year.

When I got back from Chicago it was still definitely not spring yet here in Maine, but the last few days have been clear and beautiful and the snow that I thought would be here forever is mostly gone. It is mud time, soft earth and last year’s limp dead leaves on the ground, the tiny shoots of growing things just barely making their first appearance.

It’s finally warm enough to varnish paintings so I’ve been working through the backlog of art from this winter.

And it’s the end of the semester, so I’ve been engaged in epic procrastination around my end-of-term projects. I have thoughts about interesting things – some of them end up on the Sand Hill Diary’s facebook page these days – but long form writing is likely to wait until next month.

Blessed be the turning of the day, of the seasons, of our lives. Amen.

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All the Colors

The weather in Chicago has been beautiful the last week – for a day or two I was lamenting that I had not packed more short sleeves, and the last several days have been cool and clear. Nothing lasts forever, though, and we are expecting to see a little bit of snow soon. At least I packed for that.

Staying in a different part of town this time, a little further away than I have been in the past. I have appreciated the pleasant weather on the half-hour walk down to school, but I suspect the snow will send me scurrying for the L tomorrow morning.

I am in love with this place. It is so perfectly imperfect, a kaleidoscope of improbable quirks that put together are so real and vivid. Continue reading

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