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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15 Responses to Open Letter to UUA Leadership

  1. Ruth Rinehart says:

    Very well said, Claire

  2. Thank you, Claire. Well said.

  3. Lisa Kirk says:

    Thank you Claire

  4. Well said.

    And for those of us who are candidates and who don’t yet have appointments, changing the rules mid-stream causes additional problems and mistrust.

    • Claire says:

      Yeah, I’ve been thinking it’s a bit like this. You have a rickety bridge and you decide you want to replace it with a ferry system. Super! But generally it’s a good idea to build the ferry boat before you tear down the bridge – and if you tear down the bridge while people are in the middle of crossing it, there will be screaming.

  5. Sarah Lammert says:

    Thank you for your feedback Claire. I appreciate your perspective and look forward to further conversation.

  6. Rosemary Morrison says:

    Thank you fellow UUA aspirant. Interesting times for sure! Very well written!

  7. Tom Schade says:

    You say: It is not now and has never (to my knowledge) been the responsibility of the UUA to manage seminarians’ financial choices.
    That’s interesting:
    For as long as I remember, the level of student debt that new ministers bring with them is a problem that that UUA was charged with ameliorating. That’s one of the reasons why the RSCC was created — to wave off people earlier, before they accumulated debt. Are you saying that was not an appropriate goal?
    The Living Tradition Fund has raised and disbursed hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt relief because it has been thought that student loan debt was all of our responsibility. If the UUA is not supposed to take some responsibility for the costs of its formation process, why collect and give away that money?

    • Claire says:

      That’s a fair question and I appreciate it being asked here. A student colleague called me on this elsewhere and I feel like my original remarks may not have been entirely clear.

      UUA efforts to reduce seminarian debt are noted, logged and appreciated. Ameliorating debt is a worthwhile goal of our association because doing so is one of the means by which we distribute the cost of training ministers. There are plenty of problems with the way we do it – inefficiency being one – but it’s the system we’ve got.

      I am out on something of a limb here, but I want to tease out the distinction between money and power/authority/agency. We like to look at money, it’s easy to count and it’s frequently a functional substitute for those intangibles. But I am strongly of the opinion that while it was absolutely appropriate for the RSCCs to exist and to be charged with providing feedback on whether a student seemed to be an appropriate candidate for ministry, the decision of whether to continue to accrue seminary debt (or make equivalent expenditure from other resources) was always the student’s alone.

      This is why we need more conversation between levels – conversations that include staff and committees at both central and district/regional levels, ministers in fellowship, students in formation, congregational lay leaders and any other stakeholders that don’t come immediately to my mind. There is a world of difference between the model where the response to a request for help or complaint of inequity is either “That’s not our problem, you need to figure it out,” or “We’ve fixed that for you, now it’s this way,” and the more nuanced response of “How do you understand this problem and what do you think the solution might be?”

      To me, the presumption that an unfavorable RSCC decision should naturally lead to students reducing debt by quitting seminary was both paternalistic and failed to account for the reasons a student might want to finish even if they concluded that ordained UU ministry was not their call.

  8. Just to second what Tom Schade said: When I went through the RSCC process in 2001 (and, yes, again in 2002), it was still pretty new. The understanding I was given for why this extra layer had been created included, among other things, a concern that people manifestly unsuitable for ministry were not being told and were therefore amassing debt in anticipation of career they wouldn’t have. RSCC’s were not created “to manage seminarians’ financial choices,” but were created, in part, to compassionately redirect people who weren’t cut out for ministry before they did further financial harm to themselves. There was a feeling that it’s cruel to string people along with false hopes — the accumulation of pointless debt being a part of that cruelty. Better to dash those hopes sooner than to do it later. I knew in 2001 that this was a part of the function of RSCCs. If current seminarians don’t know that this has always been one of the purposes of RSCCs, I’m sorry to hear that.

    • Claire says:

      Institution of the RSCCs (especially when they were actually regional) was, as I understand it, a vast improvement over the previous system when candidates basically received little or no formal feedback or evaluation until the MFC interview at the end of the process. The most recent iteration of the process did not authorize RSCCs to deny candidacy altogether, only to grant or postpone. There was, as I understand it, always a tension between the evaluative / gatekeeping function of the RSCC’s and the discernment / in-care support function, both of which are essential.

      The RSCCs were a good idea in theory. In practice, they were underdeveloped and underfunded and left big gaps. I was actually looking forward to the interview for which I had been scheduled later this year, prior to the discontinuation of the RSCCs. While I can envision a robust in-care system that would make a mid-formation feedback point unnecessary, I’m not sure that any of the extant models do that – and in any case, I’m at roughly the midpoint of my seminary studies and I reside in a district that as yet has no in-care structures whatsoever. So now I get to add “design and build mid-formation evaluative feedback structure” to my do-list.

  9. Andrew Evans says:

    As someone relatively new to the UU church, considering membership, I must ask: So UUs have (or have had) an organization devoted to discouraging prospective church leaders in the training pipeline?

    As far as “compassionately redirecting people who are not cut out for the ministry before they did further financial harm to themselves,” I fail to see that, as a guiding principle, being compassionate at all. To me, it’s a little like a coach walking around the basketball court, observing kids taking a few jump shots, and telling them, “Quit wasting your time.”

    It seems the UUA could benefit from a good shot of “growth mindset” philosophy (see Carol Dweck). Why not set up a counseling and development program, instead of a discouragement program? Am I wrong? Am I way off the mark? I’m new to this discussion, so I definitely could be.

    Thanks for any feedback.

    • Claire says:

      (edited to close a bad HTML tag)
      Hi Andrew,
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’ll give your questions my best shot here.

      The UU ministerial credentialing process is complex and multi-layered; the people who emerge from it into ministerial fellowship are considered (and nearly always are!) well prepared to enter whatever parish or community ministry calls them. You are welcome to read through the full process at the UUA website here; the short version is that it requires among other things a Master of Divinity degree, a background check and psychological evaluation, an internship (usually in a church), a long list of required reading and, until recently, two levels of credentialing interviews.

      That MDiv is expensive. Many seminarians today graduate with $50K or more in debt on top of whatever they had for undergraduate; at the same time, many smaller congregations struggle to provide compensation that would allow a new minister to pay their student loans. It’s the same kind of systemic financial strain we see across the board.

      Anyway, the RSCCs were not originally about money alone; before they were established, a certain percentage of ministerial candidates got to the final interview (the MFC) and were determined then, at the end of their process, to be unsuited to the UU ministry. This can happen for a variety of reasons; it’s always sad. The idea behind the RSCCs was that they would catch these people earlier and give them the opportunity to address serious issues (“No, sir, you really do need therapy.” “Are you sure you’re in the right denomination?” etc.) before reaching the end of the process, or to reconsider whether they were on the right track. (Sometimes compassion means saying no, or breaking bad news gently.) It was – as I understand it – always a structure with a dual support/feedback and gatekeeping function, at least in theory.

      In practice I am told it varied. As someone in process for two years now working my way toward that interview, I really feel the loss of having that feedback point – a snapshot, if you will, based on some fairly substantial documentation as well as the face-to-face interview. Many of my peer colleagues have spoken gratefully of the feedback they received; there were also folks for whom it is a “Good riddance!”

      The current plan as I understand it is to move away from this particular structure into a so-called In-Care process similar to those in other denominations, where members in discernment and preparing for the ministry have access to resources for support, networking, etc. rather than the single-point evaluation of the RSCC. There have been pilot programs in several districts; mine is not one of them, and I am keenly interested in what will be developed here. So I think this is moving toward what you might be talking about; we just aren’t quite there yet. This transition has happened very quickly.

      It seems to me, though, as someone in process already, that any In-Care structure worth its salt is going to have some measure of gatekeeping in there with the support. People find their way into seminary for a lot of reasons; many of them excellent ones, but a few that might be better served by a different degree somewhere else. It is my hope that in-care structures will also find ways to support the development of various lay ministries as well as professional ordained ministry – not everyone wants to be a parish pastor, chaplain, or ordained community minister! Nor, I think, do we all need to be – the preparation is expensive and sometimes heartbreaking and as with art and theatre, if one can do something else for a living one probably should, or at least try that first.

      Oh, and welcome to UU!
      -CC

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