The last of the licensed ministers

There has been some buzz, both associated with the #sustainministry theme and the fear of shortages in the ministry, that there should be some intermediate ministerial status. To which I noted to those within earshot that the Universalists once licensed ministers, and that we could consider doing so again.

There were licensed ministers — holdovers from before consolidation — within my time as a Unitarian Universalist. They even had their own section in the UUA directory, but year by year their numbers declined by death.

In time they were all gone; I don’t know who was the last. The right the UUA reserved (or at least claimed) to recognize such licensed ministers seem equally a dead letter, so it was cleaned out of the bylaws at a General Assembly.

When? More recently than you might think. The year 2000.

I was present at that GA and was both sad at the moment passing and thought that without a prior claim, any church was free to so license ministers. And I still feel this way.

Here’s how the bylaws read, just before the provision was removed, for those who want the details.

effective June 28, 1999
[…]
Section 11.4b
[…]
The Ministerial Fellowship Committee may also with the approval of the Board of Trustees make rules pertaining to the status of, and recognition by the Association of, lay preachers and the granting of licenses to them.

A year later, that was gone. The bylaws effective July 1, 2000.

Economics of Ministry, 1856 edition

Before the #sustainmininstry thread fades (presumably to revive at General Assembly) I wanted to meditate on how our ancestors coped. In my last blog post, I opined that ministerial shortages were practically a tradition. So is coping with meagre funds. This theme cropped up continuously when I worked on my never-finished master’s thesis — golly — about a quarter century ago. But those lessons learned over microfilmed antebellum newspapers made an impression.

  1. Have a sideline. Perhaps seasonal. Perhaps not farming.
  2. Your sideline? Call it media production. There was a reason why there were so many Universalist newspapers. (Which inspired me to create my first websites.)
  3. But don’t expect to get paid. Those minister-editors had a terrible time getting their subscribers to pay.
  4. Seminary may not be in reach, but an apprenticeship may be.
  5. If you can’t get a minister full time, perhaps you can be in a circuit. Some little societies only saw the minister every few months. But it was consistent. Ish.
  6. Be ready to pool your resources to memorialize a dead minister, or to support surviving dependents. But people may still mumble and grumble about the expense…
  7. Plant churches to make better use of public transportation. Who can afford a carriage, horsed or horseless?
  8. And follow migration patterns. When church members move, start a church where they go.
  9. Inactivate churches when there’s no minister, leadership or money. Call them dormant, but don’t lose contact with with a would-be reorganizer: it may be re-started.
  10. Use home hospitality at conventions. Well, I guess that one never really went away.

A ministerial shortage is practically our tradition

It’s hard for me to get too wound up about the prospect of a perceived ministerial shortage in the parishes, as reported in the UUWorld. (“Demand for interim ministers outruns supply“)

Until a generation or so ago, ministerial shortages were common. Low pay, poor prospects and frequently harrowing conditions meant that ministerial supply has been less than demand, often leading churches to do without a minister, or share one. A broader view of ministry means you can’t limit faithful service to the parish, and the whims of those who dwell therein.

What’s different today is that there are more ministers, but evidently no more who are willing to face the parish. And with so many churches reputed to be “clergy killers” or otherwise dysfunctional, who can blame them? And even if the church is even-keeled, the pay may be far less than what one’s skills would fetch in another field. Is it the minister’s duty to bear the time and cost of preparation, and then effectively subsidize the church through lost income?

Ideally, the burden should be (at least) shared. And since I don’t recall the same measure of concern in that relatively brief period when there was an oversupply of ministers, I have to wonder if the ministerial college isn’t expected to sacrifice too much again. Having a rich pool of ministers for parishes to choose presents huge costs for those preparing for the ministry and a huge financial and professional cost for those who have to necessarily “sit out” this year or that, and take whatever other employment is available.

Good people have left parish ministry, but not the ministry itself. The ecosystem will have to adjust, and congregations seeking ministers will have step up, or adjust.

The automated ministry

The prospect of job automation is more than a bit scary. Everyone likes a bit of help, provided that bit doesn’t help them out of a job. NPR ran a feature (“Will Your Job Be Done by a Machine?,” May 21)

Selection_135While some professions will almost certainly be automated to some degree, there’s only a 0.8% chance that the clergy will be automated.

This made me think of a particularly odd episode in Universalist history where it wasn’t the clergy that was to be automated, but the works of divinity.

To be fair, John Murray Spear had left the Universalist ministry in 1852 for Spiritualism, which was intensely popular (and controversial) among Universalists.

In Lynn, Massachusetts, he gathered a group of followers to “[create] the ‘New Motive Power’, a mechanical Messiah which was intended to herald a new era of Utopia.” [citation] Like made of machinery.

It didn’t work. But it is an intensely weird and wonderful episode that deserves a read. (One version of the story.) But in re-reading the story today I discovered that Spear channelled Universalist founder (and namesake) John Murray, and published his revelations in Messages from the superior state: communicated by John Murray.

“Important instruction to the inhabitants of the earth”? That’s something I’ll have to read!

Should Christian worship have non-biblical readings?

Having non-biblical readings has become such a canon among mainline Unitarian Universalists that Unitarian Universalist Christians face a crisis on the subject of readings. Is it proper to have non-biblical readings in worship?

The question of authority isn’t clear-cut. My home library has several works of daily readings: selected sections meant to be read regularly to enrich one’s faith, and not just in private reflection. Robert Atwell, the compiler of one such work (Celebrating the Seasons) notes in the introduction (page iii.) that

In monastic custom… the Scriptural reading at Vigils was supplemented by a non-Biblical lection. In the words of St. Benedict’s Rule: ‘In addition to the inspired words of the Old and New Testaments, the works read at Vigils should include explanations of Scripture by reputable and orthodox writers.’ The reading of commentaries (presumably on what had just been read) enabled the monk not only to engage with Scripture more intelligently, but also to place his personal meditation within the context of those of other Christians from different ages and traditions.

We’re not monks praying Vigils, but in our liberal-Reformed tradition we insist on the considered and thoughtful expounding on the lessons in the sermon. The lesson does not disclose itself, and we rely on the preacher to unfold its meaning.

In this sense, the non-biblical reading acts — or could act — as a replacement for the sermon, not the revealed word. But current Unitarian Universalist practice is far removed from this. When — about a century ago — Unitarian and (to a lesser degree) Universalist ministers cast abroad for non-biblical preaching texts, they drew from weighty stuff: often the classics, or a work of philosophy, or — as a standby — a bit of Shakespeare.

But today, it’s not uncommon for a liturgical element from the back of the gray hymnal, or a segment from a ministerial contemporary to be pressed into the role of scripture. It an odd thought that a minister might visit a church and hear her or his words — not unjustly quoted within the sermon — elevated to the role scripture once held. It’s hard to shake off our flippant and shallow reputation if that’s the norm.

So, there may be a place for non-biblical readings in Christian worship, but to help us hear and understand the word of God: not to become it.

The economics of supply preaching

I’d love some feedback from my readers — anonymous with a legitimate email address is fine in this case — to find out what supply preachers are getting paid, if anything. A denominational identification and a general sense of the area (region and relative cost of living) would also be very helpful.

Why? Because supply preachers — paid per service or sermon — is likely to continue as a solution for churches, particularly as the decline of the influence of churches in the United States escalates. But I worry that the rate is too low. And if it’s too low, the people who will preach supply will be students, retirees, plus perhaps those who have well-paying work (and may not have much opportunity to preach) or who are desperate for every penny. Too low for what? Putting together a living with part-item gig. That itself isn’t ideal, but is probably going to become more common as the United States economy also changes. Supply preaching will have to pay as well as other casual opportunities. This is all the more complicated since prospective mission churches are the ones more likely to need supply services, and they’re less able to afford them.

No answers now, but something worth flagging.

Give to a ministerial discretionary fund

This is the time of the year — after Christmas, before New Year — when I review my charitable giving and either try to do just a bit more, or make up for lost opportunities.

So I review what’s touched my heart over the last year — a months’ old situation is unlikely not to need more money — all the while able to make better choices about who to give to.

But I rarely find a worthy cause as good as a ministerial discretionary fund. So much of funding good work is trusting that the money will be put to the best possible use. (And I’ve never been peppered with mailings to give to one.) Ministerial discretionary fund are built on filling needs that would otherwise go unmet, and presumably you trust your minister’s judgement.

These funds often help deeply; I say this is someone who has run one, donated to several and received help from one. But the funds are themselves often not deep.

Consider donating, and if you have means, donate to others.

Resuming blogging etc.

It has been an eventful month or so, with many challenges and opportunities. None, other than Daisy’s injury, is worth mentioning in public, but together they’ve left me exhausted and occasionally discouraged. None all that exceptional, but as a group… whew.

Daisy, I’m glad to say, is almost healed. Vitamin E on the scar tissue, for instance. The end of this episode is in sight, and I’m also ready to resume my public work. Ready, meaning desiring, if not prepared.

For one thing, I’m not convinced that this is either the best level of ministry activity for me, or the right (that is to say, exclusive) vehicle. And I will be considering my options — and how I may need your help and advice — for future work.

A pastor without a car?

A similar post, like Wednesday’s. Musing on a reality that “might ought could” (as we say in the South) be examined, even challenged.

Is it practically possible, say, in a larger city or even a  large college town, to pastor a church without a car? I’m not sure it is. It assumes your home, church and most parishioners — not to mention civic events — are conveniently clustered, or accessed by reliable (and Sunday-serving) transit.

And a shame, too. Car ownership is a huge cost — and car maintenance a financial crap shoot. My husband and I haven’t had a car in six or seven years, and have saved a bundle, and that’s considering the occasional car rental or cab.

Reimbursements only go so far. I hear so much from ministerial colleagues about student debt and making ends meet. A car-free ministry would be a big help.

But, does anyone here do it?

 

Coding for …?

In my experience, attempts to introduce technology lessons for lawyers means an opportunity for clergy, too. Small-firm lawyers and clergy very often have this much in common: a need for technology, perhaps more than is currently thought, and few opportunities to learn about it, even though they have a deep educational background. I mentioned this resource for typography, later generalized. (Bookmark that second link; you can thank me later.)

So I intend to follow Coding for Lawyers the same way. Using Markdown (lesson2) for sermons — I do — is something I’d recommend for those who just need to “get it on paper” with a minimum of fuss.

Thanks to @internetrebecca (Rebecca Williams) for the citation.