Polity Problems: How is it helping in the Modern World?

After my last post, Kim Hampton asked me about my views on polity, specifically as it relates to ordination, but my answer had to reach beyond that. As such, I had to post it front-page, because I think this is a serious issue. I admit to being a lay person. I am not a student of the Cambridge Platform and I have not been to so much as tour a seminary. I am a concerned and passionate UU who believes that we do have something wonderful to offer to the world.

Kim asked, specifically about my concerns with congregational ordination, so I will start there.

“there is clergy misconduct now–under the system we have; which is as close to ordaination [sic] standards as one can get in a congregational polity system. You are never going to be able to get rid of that.”

The problem isn’t the inability to prevent all misconduct; Kim is right to say that we cannot do that completely. I don’t think that we should refuse to do more, though. I think that we can limit it more with proper vetting of candidates, and why shouldn’t we do what we can?

Additionally, consolidating the the ordination process means that we can deal with misconduct more efficiently, as some body within the UUA will be able to revoke credentials and keep someone who misrepresents our movement from continuing to speak with the authority of office.

“if East Podunk wanted to ordain Jane X, South Podunk has the right not to recognize her ordaination if she happens to visit South Podunk.”

It matters to me, personally, who the minister at East Podunk is, and I don’t care where it is, because I care that the UUs there are getting professional leadership and pastoral care. I care that the liberal religion being preached is in line with the 7 Principles. I care that all the sources are being respected. I care that every UU congregation is being encouraged to positive growth as individuals, as a faith community, and as a force in their greater community.

We aren’t growing. People used to leave and come back, and I know from talking to young adults that one reason that isn’t happening is that Young Adults are moving around for school and work, and they aren’t feeling welcome when they get where they are going. Our message is too inconsistent. There is little we can do about that, but we need to address it.

I don’t want to take away the power of the congregation to choose their leadership, including their minister, DRE, ect. I don’t want everyone to be in lock-step. Locally, we have very spiritual congregations, very humanist, and one that focuses on Earth-based spirituality. I love that. I just want to make sure that they are all still being UU at their core.

Again, my problem is with covenant. It is about how we hold each other in that covenant. Not just as congregations, but as people who claim to be Unitarian Universalists. I deserve to be able to trust every single UU minister to be able to counsel me or any UU. I need to know that in a county with only one congregation, if it has an ordained minister, that person can present our Principles well to any visitor who comes in, because across much of the country, the locals don’t have a second option.

“You can’t stop clergy misconduct. You can’t stop congregations from going the route of out-of-the-norm ideologies and theologies.”

We can’t stop clergy abuse, but we can limit it and deal with it better. We can’t stop rogue congregations from going off the reservation, but we can keep them from having the authority of ordained clergy, and we can implement methods for addressing groups who fall out of covenant with the rest of us.

In short, the world is not a series of tiny places, stung together with dirt roads anymore. The US is wired and networked. If we refuse to define ourselves, the world will invent a definition. They have, and I, personally, hate it. I am tired of being the butt of jokes for Colbert and The Simpsons.

We can do better. We owe it to James Luther Adams, Theodore Parker, and theologians going back to Dávid. We have to admit that the time for what we are has past, and if we still have anything to offer the world, we must evolve to truly be a religion for our time.

So, dear readers, please guide me in my search for the truth of the issue: How is polity making things better, other than feeding the rabid individualism and egos of the boards? My GF compared it to early American politics, and I see us heading for more than one civil war as is. Where does it make things more efficient? Where does it improve our message? Where does polity make our movement stronger?

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8 Responses

  1. [...] on the Material Sojourn blog a case is being presented that there needs to be codified ordaination standards. The thinking being [...]

  2. In the issue of ordination, this is one area that an organized board such as a denomination or district can be especially useful. A private list of ministers disciplined, and ecumenical communication in both sharing and asking other denominations for proper background checks is an ethical way for search committees to privately understand the past nature of their ministers. So yes, basically, good communication skills.
    Second, on the side of ministerial education: a stronger understanding of why there is a code of ethics and what exactly they are intended to prevent or foster. There are a few things (“no clergy sexual abuse”) that are so easily agreeable to the basic nature of spiritual community that it could be required as agreeable without violating local polity. There is a thin line though, that easily crosses into control. It’s one thing to personally sign a commitment that you will not sleep with a married woman besides your wife, and another to sign a commitment saying you won’t BE a married woman sleeping with a woman besides your wife (if that makes sense.) Leadership development, in general, is often overlooked. Seminaries don’t always do a good job of this either.
    As for the rest of it, I’m not sure how much is polity questions or more missional based “who are we? Where do we come from, why do we come together, and for what purpose do we need to continue to exist?” type questions. A form of church government can’t function very well until you know why’re you’re coming together in the first place.

  3. Thomas, I read your words and, if I didn’t know better, I would have to assume that Unitarian Universalist congregations are overrun with ministers who have not been vetted by something bigger and broader than a single congregation. That is simply not true.

    The vaaaaaast majority of the people serving as professional ministers to UU congregations are fellowshipped through the UUA process shaped and enacted by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC). Included in that process is a professional psychological evaluation geared specifically to ministry that costs more than $1,500 and takes more than three days. Between the Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy (RSCC) and the MFC, the potential minister’s educational, family, psychological, sexual, spiritual, and religious backgrounds are all brought under the microscope in search of problem areas that would either disqualify or require remediation. The candidate is required to prove competency in 16 areas of ministerial preparation*, is required to have successfully completed a properly supervised internship with evaluations provided both by the supervising minister (who must him or herself be in final fellowship) and by a lay committee who also oversaw the internship, is required to have completed an accredited CPE (chaplaincy) internship that is also documented by a significant evaluation by an accredited supervisor and, to be blunt, is more extensive and direct in its evaluations of ministerial potential and personal strengths and weaknesses than anything else the MFC is likely to see. And that is not all that is required in the process. The MFC process is lengthy and invasive and painful and costly and, yes, subjective, though based on a mountain of facts and figures and evaluations from multiple sources.

    Whatever the process’s imperfections, it is simply not true that UU ministers are not thoroughly vetted. They are probably more thoroughly vetted than ministers in any other tradition. The fact that because of congregational polity any congregation has the authority to ordain the unvetted “town drunk” does not mean that they do. The fact that abuses by clergy exist is not a function of failure to be vetted. It is in the breakdown of or failure to establish or live in true covenants between ministers and their congregations that these issues arise.

    *NOTE: The areas of ministerial competence that must be proven to be fellowshipped by the UUA as a minister are: Theology, Church History, Hebrew & Christian Scripture, World Religions, Social Theory/Social Ethics, Human Development/Family Life Education/ Ministry with Youth and Young Adults, Unitarian Universalist History and Polity, Religious Education History, Theory, Method and Practice, Professional Ethics, UUMA Guidelines, Worship, Music, Aesthetics, Preaching, Pastoral Care and Counseling, Leadership and Organization, Administration and Management, Personal and/or Spiritual Development, Anti-Racism, Anti-Oppression and Multiculturalism, Sexual Health, Sexual Boundaries, Sexual Justice.

    • I am aware of the overly-strict process for fellowship. It proves that there is a recognition that ministers ought to be vetted and trained for their work.
      My point is that all of that is optional. No one has to do any of that to be ordained as a UU minister. Ordination is at the whim and will of the congregations, and nothing prevents any of them from ordaining there preschool nursury if the spirit so moves them.

      Clearly, the UUA doesn’t fellowship people so ordained, so why allow their ordination? Why not just simplify the fellowship process, and offer tracks other than Senior Preacher for people who want to be chaplains or DsRE.

      • But really it is optional only in theory. If a minister is not in fellowship s/he is unlikely to be able to move on to another UU congregation when their ministry at the ordaining congregation comes to a natural or unnatural end. And if a congregation is looking for a minister who is not in fellowship, they aren’t going to have any help in the process from the UUA settlement system. Most congregations, for practical reasons, simply do not exercise their theoretical right to ordain the dogcatcher instead of a minister in preliminary fellowship, making the concern about that happening moot and the idea of changing current structure simply to avoid what is not happening right close to senseless. Change what IS a problem, not what isn’t.

  4. The point is that the UUA has *precisely* no power to do what you’re intimating. It is NOT a denominational authority. It has the power granted it by its bylaws (which are the creation of the congregations) and whatever GA can and does grant it by amending those. But as for enforcing that on congregations… well, congregations are entirely free to opt in–and out–of the UUA. It’s an association of congregations, NOT a denomination. UUism is defined by what the congregations decide it is, grassroots-style, from the bottom up.

    We already have the problem of (here and there–it’s not commonplace) ministers who aren’t fellowshipped (and chose never to be). Of course, if their congregation’s happy with them, is that a problem? Or just an irritant to those with more presbyterian tastes? We have ministers who’ve had their fellowship removed (or have chosen for reasons they see as good and legitimate to stop being members of the UUA). Again, if their congregations are happy with them, whose business is it? Whose concern is it?

    Our legitimate concerns start and stop where there is demonstrable harm being done to people–clergy sexual abuse, for example.

    Truth is that most of us who have been through seminary and the whole process of seeing the MFC… know that while there’s a fair bit that’s of value… there’s also a great deal that doesn’t come *from* that education. It comes from work, from time, from spiritual practice, from dedication… what gets called “formation” and is a sort of mystery even as people talk about it and know what they mean. Kinda.

    Congregations used to recognize this (in process, or essentially complete) and ordain people. But we inverted our process and congregations became entities made up of almost entirely converts (which isn’t a bad thing in itself, it’s that they don’t understand our history and process, unless they’ve studied it and immersed themselves in it). Congregations are the authority for who is fit to be ordained.

    Congregations.

    Only.

    Period.

    The MFC is only tasked and empowered to grant and removed fellowship… which is membership in the ministerial association, and does carry with it the implicit approbation of other ministers. But we don’t permit ministers to ordain ministers. We don’t believe that ministers have the authority–and perhaps not even the necessary discernment, as individuals–to be able to tell who should/not be ordained.

    • Right… so… you admit that there are a few problems, “here and there”, with the current set-up, and you offer that this is how we’ve always done things (which is no defense of the practice), but you have not, in my understanding, addressed the essential question I pose:

      How is this good for us? It means more confusion. More division. More individuality.
      It means less community. Less communication. Less trust.
      It means that we aren’t a single tradition. We aren’t speaking the same language.

      I think we have to change that, or we will see the UUA fail before it makes another 50 years. We have to decide what we stand for, and why we stand together, or we will collapse.

      • There are *always* problems here and there, in *any* system. Always.

        Suggesting abandoning an entire system of practice that is the foundation of our tradition–congregational polity–is a pretty radical step. It’s served pretty well. We’ve avoided a lot of ugly problems–and as with anything, the solution creates its own set of problems.

        But hey, how wonderfully has presbyterian polity and episcopal polity worked out for other faiths? If that were the solution to the problems we see in our own faith, we ought to be able to see evidence that *those* practices lead to vibrant, growing communities.

        Uh. Not so much.

        *We* have grown slowly (and are now just barely shrinking) over a period where almost every other faith tradition has shrunk, significantly. We attract a staggering number of people checking us out, and keep a remarkable number of them (we should do better, but that’s another story). Were we not bleeding out in terms of keeping our bridging youth 90%+ loss rate, which is double the worst performing of the mainline traditions), we’d be growing pretty rapidly.

        We have never been a single tradition, and since merger, that’s been a fundamental truth. We’re never going to be a single tradition in the sense that you seem to be arguing for. Oh, there are folks who’d like to purge all the non-atheists. Or all the atheists. But they’re a tiny, tiny minority–and in fact, I’d argue that they’re the folks who really don’t understand who we are and what we’re about.

        So what problem are you solving with this radical proposal? We have a fairly modest level of ministerial misbehavior–which is still being fairly aggressively targeted, as new requirements and competencies are being added for candidates for fellowship. But the idea that *anything* will make all of that go away is, I think, delusional. We’re dealing with people…. Failure of community is a *local* issue. There is no creed that could be installed that would cause an eruption of good will and community.

        What will collapse?

        The UUA is the successor of the AUA and UCA. And its problems at this time are largely a result of the larger economy; there isn’t money to fund things that people would like to fund. But there’s nothing to suggest it’s faltering–and it’s an *association* of congregations. So the illness would have to be local, not floating up in a hierarchy we don’t accept (and won’t). And yes, there *are* local congregations that are sick, even dying. But that’s not because UUism is sick and dying. Because we can point to plenty of local congregations that are thriving and growing.

        Congregations aren’t permanent entities. Some are quite long-lived. But nothing lives forever. If they get dysfunctional, or refuse to change, they die. But their problems haven’t yet been clearly linked to our polity, nor our absolute rejection of creed.

        I can’t think of two things that you’re less likely to persuade people to change. “Let’s institute a creed” and “let’s establish a hierarchy with real authority and power to enforce its will” are the two things that you could probably get near unanimity opposing, if you polled our congregations.

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