Sing Like a Canary

The world moves quicker than I do, these days. Juggling all the things is not my greatest strength, and as time-sensitive as blogging can be, it takes a back burner to other kinds of deadlines.

Just over a week ago – Friday night and Saturday morning, just after (US) Thanksgiving – Tom Schade published a two part essay authored by an anonymous UU seminarian, which has been the subject of considerable conversation in various corners of the UU blogosphere, including lots of places on FaceBook that I am aware of and probably exponentially more that I’m not. An unsettling portion of that conversation has centered around the anonymity of the essay rather than the issues raised therein.

I’ve been on the internet a very long time, and I don’t quite understand needing to know someone’s real-world personal identity in order to consider their remarks, but if you are someone who needs to have the name of a real live UU seminarian to discuss these issues with, hi, I’m Claire and I go to seminary. I did not write the anonymous essay, nor do I know the identity of its author, whom I assume to be a peer colleague who moves in the same online circles I do. I am willing to talk about most of the issues Anonymous raises for consideration because they are familiar conversational territory and so is the anxiety that seems to fuel them.

The one issue I’m not interested in discussing is the unfortunate situation at Starr King. I would direct you to the recent article in UU World and associated documents, and then you will know as much as I do, and I have no further comment save to say that I am grateful to attend a seminary which is not to my knowledge in the middle of a meltdown and I am hopeful that it will stay that way until I graduate. I do think that situation merits consideration, but it’s not a conversation I am willing to host or participate in. It’s a big internet, there are other places to go have that one.

As far as the other issues go:

Money. It’s a thing. This is not new or secret to anybody: seminary is expensive, because graduate and professional education is expensive, because higher education in general is expensive; this is true across the board and has been building for around 25 or 30 years now. That it’s a macroeconomic, cultural-system level issue does not negate the reality that for seminarians in formation, money is a major source of anxiety in oh so many ways. High tuition costs, limited scholarship availability (particularly for part-time and other non-traditional students), travel costs for credentialing interviews, internships that don’t pay a living wage (when they are compensated at all): seminary is expensive, credentialing is expensive, and the burden of funding it is overwhelmingly on seminarians and their families in the form of escalating student debt, liquidation of assets (including savings and retirement funds, for second-career students), dependence on the income of spouses or partners, etc.

The other side of the money monster is the across-the-board middle-class squeeze that leaves less discretionary income for everything, including congregational pledging and fundraising. It’s a perennial, interdenominational affliction that the church – particularly liberal and mainline denominations – is starving for cash, congregations selling their buildings or reducing ministerial compensation or closing entirely. It just doesn’t work anymore the way it did in 1950. We hear from all directions that there are far more students in formation than there will be full-time compensated pulpits to call them. The latest buzzword is “bivocational ministry,” which is a nicer way of saying “don’t quit your day job.” I can get into my vision of the future later, but if you think taking on mid-five- or six-figure debt, or gutting your retirement fund, to pay for the professional degree required to enter a field where there are far more candidates than anticipated available positions isn’t nerve-wracking, I would please like to know what you are taking for your nerves. If it’s not too expensive.

We have a lot of cultural shame about money and we, collectively, need to get over that and talk openly about the macroeconomic issues that make higher education so much harder to afford in 2014 than it was in 1994 or 1974. Throwing money at the current system is an inadequate patch at best; the long-term solution is going to involve systemic level adaptive change and that is a major challenge. We also need to come up with short term fixes and work-arounds to minimize trapping people in a broken system because, seriously? It’s broken. This is not new, this is not special, but it is the truth. And we don’t talk about it. Or, we do talk about it – behind closed doors, in private forums, because the shame of admitting that the best we can do is nowhere near adequate is enough to weigh us into silence. That is how folks currently in the system can so easily get the impression that the things which are very evidently broken right now weren’t broken before, and that those who have passed through this particular part of the process have forgotten how bad it was or never understood to begin with. Silence, in the face of systemic dysfunction, is indistinguishable from complicity.

As for the Unitarian Universalist credentialing process itself, with its stages and requirements, it’s flawed, but it’s what we have to work with. I confess that I am an institutionalist at heart, for all my youthful reactionary vision: I need institutional support to the work that I need to do in this world, and I am wholly in favor of healthy, strong, flexible institutions. I am not interested in total devolution to regional credentialing authorities or the prophesied obsolescence of the institutional church. There are people for whom freelancing works magnificently; I am not really one of them. I deeply believe that we are stronger and healthier working together than we are as individuals. We Unitarian Universalists, we human beings are necessarily interconnected and interdependent: we belong to a whole that goes far beyond the aggregate of its component parts.

It is also clear to me, as someone in the middle of our UU credentialing process, that the legacy structure we have inherited is a Rube Goldberg contraption, duct taped and zip-tied together in reaction to various difficulties, which could greatly benefit from a major evaluation and restructuring from the ground up. Instead of trying to tweak the static, clunky process we have, why don’t we – as a movement, as a denomination – start by figuring out what we’re trying to accomplish with the ministerial credentialing process, and then build a flexible, modular, process designed from the get-go to be adaptable in the face not only of the trends and conditions we see coming but also those trends and conditions that are not and cannot be foreseeable from where we are right now? We could start from our deep shared values, consider the question, “What will Unitarian Universalist ministry need to look like if it is to be relevant in the 21st century?” and then create a process that selects for and supports that vision instead of continually repainting the language and adding knobs and widgets (or milestones and competencies) to a model whose baseline assumptions about the people entering ministry are rooted in the wealthy Anglo-Saxon Protestant norms of the early 20th century. The world has changed. Can we?

I want to believe this work is already happening. I fear that it is happening behind closed doors, slowly and deliberately, while the world outside those doors is changing fast and in uncertain ways. I am worried that whatever perfect process and product is the result of years of hard work by dedicated, qualified and well-intentioned committee members will turn out to be obsolete before the ink is dry – or before it tickles the pixels of our mobile devices.

I don’t think we can wait for perfect. I don’t think we can wait for a one size fits all solution – it never does, anyway; there are always outliers. The radical whisper of the future is that there is more than one right way to do this work, and there is plenty of the work to go around. So let there be nationally fellowshipped and ordained ministers, let there be credentialed lay ministers and lay leaders in abundant areas of specialization, let there be parish calls and community ministries and hybrids for which we have no names. Let them be funded by congregational stewardship and nonprofit grants and entrepreneurial endeavors and bivocational careers and the dedication of fully employed spouses and partners. Let this work be done in all the ways it can and must be done, by all the hands that are able and willing to take it up – full time, half time, part time, spare time. Let us figure out ways to recognize and value and support all of it. We cannot afford to be in competition with one another. We are all in this together.

As I write this, as my cursor hovers over the “post” button, I wonder, vaguely, whether naming the situation is enough to get me in some kind of mysterious trouble with the parts of our movement that are reflexively defensive about any sort of criticism regarding our leadership or our systems and processes. I do encounter these people from time to time, when I neglect to keep my head down and my mouth shut.

I’m sorry, y’all. Head down and mouth shut is not what I signed up for.

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5 Responses to Sing Like a Canary

  1. irrevspeckay says:

    thank you.

  2. Marvelous. I’m not on the MFC and never will be (*bows in reverence to those who put that kind of time into our institutions*), but if I were writing a letter of reference for someone who’d lifted her head and opened her mouth to say this, I’d specifically point to it as a reason she’ll serve our movement well.

    • Claire says:

      Thanks for the vote of confidence. My week since writing this post has been full of the sort of AAAUGH that blossoms where finance, formation, and the UU credentialing process intersect, and I have lately been wondering why exactly I am still doing this.

      I’m grateful for this chance to imagine that maybe it will turn out to be for something good.

  3. Pingback: Stories, strategies—and everything else « : The Interdependent Web

  4. This is fantastic, Claire. So fantastic.

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