Category Archives: Ministerial formation

This blog post is not about Starr King School for the Ministry

So, the Unitarian Universalist-o-sphere is blowing up around a crisis at Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian Universalist-related graduate seminary in Berkeley, California.

I would go into detail about the crisis, but there aren’t many details to be had, and much of the commentary — including an appeal letter from incoming president, Rosemary Bray McNatt, lately the minister of Fourth Universalist, New York — takes place on Facebook, and that’s hardly a reliable archive.

The nut is, or seems to be, this: someone gave confidential documents about the presidential search process to those outside the process, including other Unitarian Universalists, the press and the theological seminaries accrediting board. (I have no idea what these documents say.) The Starr King board has made an inquiry. Two graduating Starr King students have not been graduated (a contingent graduation) pending further investigation. Unsubstantiated reports tell of two board members resigning. Past UUA moderator Gini Courter has established a legal defense fund for the students, who are being represented by lawyers. Talk of ethics, boundaries and leadership abound, with a predicable amount of expressed horror and people supporting their friends.

Rosemary Bray McNatt’s open letter is here. A statement from the lawyers representing the students is here.

Not suprizingly, web searches have brought readers to a post I wrote about Starr King in 2007. My basic opinion about the school hasn’t changed, and (plainly) I have a hard time caring if it prospers or dies. This blog post is not about Starr King School for the Ministry. It’s about Unitarian Universalist self-conception.

  • This is the second time in a year (or so) that an unnamed consultant has been brought in to handle major Unitarian Universalist institutional conflict. Who is the consultant? A forthcoming introduction would go far to instill confidence that the consultant is qualified and has no conflict of interest.
  • The lawyers refer to ‘an investigator for the board’s law firm’ which, if true, is alarming. But is very much in character with Unitarian Universalist culture which claims to create bold leaders yet makes the formation process a gauntlet of circumspection, wildly uneven power arrangements and keeping your head down. You have to pass to play. But you can’t build bravery though fear. (So no points to Gini Couter for “doing the right thing.” I’ve never seen so many good people sigh relief as when she stopped being Moderator. For some reason, people are afraid of her. If this is Unitarian Universalism, you can keep it. But she’s out of office and the rest of us are still here.)
  • Which is, I believe, why Unitarian Universalist ministers are so deeply conformist, at least in public, and why ministers close ranks with the speed and force of a bear trap. Can you think of another denomination that avoids public fights so hard? It’s particularly bitter when you consider the brave souls we lionize, say, like John Haynes Holmes.
  • When you spend all you time being “revolutionary” expect revolutionary justice. As in, innocent blood on the guillotine. But we aren’t that revolutionary, and weirdness is not a substitute. I’ll take sober, thoughtful leadership any day. Our rhetoric doesn’t match our reality, even a reasonable aspiration.
  • There’s a Yiddish word you should learn if you don’t know it. Mishigas. Crazy-nonsense. Boy, do we have it. Good, self-differentiated people smell it and they stay away or leave. Remember that the next time you hear someone mew about the Millenials being our future.

As I said, this is far past a Starr King issue, but it is a test for Unitarian Universalist leadership, and we should all be watching.

Bold experiment in ministry

I’m a member of the Universalist National Memorial Church, and today Sunday the church’s leadership made an exciting announcement at the climax of a congregational meeting: we are moving into the next phase of the church, but it’s not quite like anything I’ve ever seen. In consultation with district and association staff, and after six months’ work from the search commitee, the church is beginning a part-time, shared (but non-spousal) contract ministry by two theologically-trained laypersons. Some of you may know Crystal St. Marie Lewis, M.T.S, from her blogging. David Gatton, M.Div., is a long-time member of the church, but has had a secular career.

So this something new. Neither we nor they know what to call the experiment, or even what titles to use for them. That’s less important than them developing a working partnership, and the congregation providing support. (If all goes well, we hope to increase the percentage to full time within three years.)

Read the outline of the proposal here.

The team ministry begins June 15, and I pray them and the church every success. I’ll return to this subject from time to time.

I was — and am — looking for a practical expostion on Universalist worship like the one from 1901 I found for the Unitarians a couple of weeks ago. In the process, I found the Tufts 1902-03 catalog, and its pages dedicated to its now-lost Divinity School.


A couple of items to note: one could enter as an undergraduate and study through, and option that died very recently in the United States with the closure of Bangor Theological Seminary. And that the curriculum included logic (for nongrads), economics, psychology and the “Biblical languages” of German, Hebrew and Greek. And PE for the men.

Class of 1897

Class of 1897

If you were approved, you would have gotten a generous scholarship — to imagine an early pastorate without student debt! — from the Universalist General Convention, though non-Universalists were admitted. Lodging “heated by steam and lighted by gas ” included, but you did have to provide your own “sheets, blankets, pillow cases, and towels.”

A fun read.

 

The lure of the bright lights…

So I was trolling for Universalism in digitized newspapers (as one does) and I found a short article from 1913, entitled with lurid lettering: Clergyman Turns Actor.

Frederick A. Wilmot, a Tufts grad and assisting (presumably licensed) minister at the Church of the Divine Paternity, New York (now called Fourth Universalist) gave notice and left to tread the boards.

“The humdrum of parish life bored me stiff.” That is the real why, the real wherefore of the transformation of Frederick A. Wilmot from parson to actor…”Why should I devote my life to becoming a fair preacher when all my inclinations point to my becoming a good actor?”

Little did he know then; the Broadway stage wasn’t his future. The Daughter of Heaven was his only credit and it closed after 98 poorly-reviewed performances.

But later that year, he was ordained and installed as the minister of the West (Third) Somerville (Mass.) Universalist Church serving until 1916, and later pastoring in New Bedford. Later references point to a Fitchburg, Mass. pastorate (until 1940), writing the religion beat in Providence, and active participation in Christian ecumenicism. Indeed, it looks like he had a successful ministry.

He died July 22, 1952 in Providence and is buried in the Locust Grove Cemetery there. Shall we visit his grave during General Assembly and give thanks for his ministry: the one that began with such doubt?

Good for him Google (or Facebook) didn’t exist then. And good for him the call reappeared.

Clergyman Turns Actor,” The San Francisco Call, April 13, 1913.

Bookmark this online book resource

Does anyone still bookmark sites? (I rarely do since I got Pinboard.in, worth every penny of the one-time fee. You can also set it up to automatically save the links you ‘favorite’ from Twitter.)

Either way, keep a hold of this link:

Princeton Theological Seminary’s Theological Commons

As some of you have noticed, when I post a public-domain book, I link to the read-in-browser version, hosted at the Internet Archive. Internet Archives worked with Princeton Theological Seminary to scan and host more than 33,000 items. (A recent fire at their scanning plant cost $600,000 in damage; give if you can.) You can read these at Internet Archive, but I think the search feature at the Theological Commons, and since I seek out theologial works, that improved experience — including searching within books — is a big help. (You then get forwarded to Internet Archive.) And there are plenty of interesting works there.

The ministry, or no?

A few days ago, I got an email asking advise about entering the ministry. Here’s an edited version of my reply.

As a rule I don’t encourage people to enter the ministry. To make my
concern as plain as possible, the cost of preparing for the ministry
is more likely to leave you exposed to financial hardship than
provide a path to engaging pastoral ministry. There is too little help
and too few open churches. Little wonder you hear so much about
military chaplaincies and community ministry now.

My advice? Do as much as you can as a para-professional or a amateur
(in the best sense of the word). Work creatively with your
congregation (and minister, if you have one) to shape what you can to
apart from the formal fellowship preparation process. If that proves,
in time, to be insufficient, then you have your answer.

Let me go a bit further. A para-professional isn’t self-appointed and also needs formation, thought I can imagine informal or non-traditional ways to do so. And self-monitor zeal (or prepare to have it monitored for you.) I’ve heard enough cautionary tales about would-be ministerial cowboys who make trouble for those ministers who have the pastoral trust and authority of the parishes that called them. Don’t be one of these.

Figuring on unpaid ministers

I was drawn to the online Economist article about the admission of women to the episcopate in the Church of England by a tweet by British Unitarian and Free Christian Chief Officer Derek McAuley. It had a wry caption about Unitarian (do see) but I don’t care much about that, or an established church or the episcopal form of church government.

I do care about ministers being able to live with the necessities of life, and in not creating systems that keep poor people from exercising a ministry.

See the chart that shows the growing bulk of Church of England clergy working in unpaid settings. Which means those ministers are scraping by; have independent wealth, family support or a pension (a class issue, surely); or work part-time in another job. At which point I leave the Anglicans, lest I get too wrapped up in their ways. Indeed, Universalists were all but planted in this country by a purse-poor evangelist and a wealthy spouse (who later suffered deep poverty) … and many a cash-strapped minister who gave up so much for the spiritual welfare of others.

But when the costs are too high for too long and the burdens go unshared, eventually the system shrinks and collapses. Let that be a warning.