You may have noticed Celestial Lands has been abnormally quiet these past few weeks. It has actually been about six weeks since I was last in my regular writing/reflection spiritual practice here at Celestial Lands. That is because six weeks ago I made the decision to move my meeting with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA up from March to early December. That meeting was yesterday morning.
The Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA are the “gatekeepers” of our ministry, to borrow a term from the Rev. Barbara Pescan. They are the committee charged with “jurisdiction over all phases of credentialing and fellowshipping of Unitarian Universalist ministers.” To be in “Fellowship” means to be recognized by the Association of Congregations and one “who meet(s) and maintain(s) the high standards and requirements for Unitarian Universalist Ministry.” Rev. David Bumbaugh tells students that the MFC does not necessarily determine whether you are a minister (you, a congregation, peers, and your connection to ultimacy are responsible for that) but they do determine if you are qualified and capable of being in the particular tradition of ministry known as Unitarian Universalism.
To put it shortly, they do not make one a minister… they are charged with determining if one is a minister already, and whether your ministry moves within this particular faith tradition. The MFC does not ordain anyone. In our form of church governance, only a congregation can do that. However, candidates for Fellowship agree early in the process that they will not accept ordination until having been admitted into fellowship.
Six weeks is not a lot of time to prepare to see the MFC… I do not recommend it if you can at all avoid it. In truth, I have been “preparing” for yesterday’s visit for at least 5 years, and probably for my whole life up to this point. But leaving much of the formal preparation for the last six weeks is not something I would recommend to anyone. To put it in perspective, I woke up at 6am this morning because I just knew there had to be something I had to read, write, do, think, classify, create, or request for the MFC…
It’s Sunday… and I’m not preaching. I don’t have to be anywhere until church at 11… but the pace of the last month and a half is going to take a few days to let go of.
If you had not guessed, my meeting with the MFC went very well. I probably would have waited on writing this article if it had not. For those of you “in the know”, the committee granted me a “1”. For those of you who have other things to do than stay up late reading the MFC Policies and Procedures, they affirmed my preparation and entry into the tradition of UU Ministry, and affirmed that the goals I have for my continued formation in ministry are all that is required of me. In essence, I was accepted into the long line of Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist ministry. The formal recognition of that acceptance will be at the UUA General Assembly later this summer, in the Service of the Living Tradition (pending I finally graduate from Meadville).
I do not want to talk specifically about what happened in my committee meeting. The meetings of the committee are confidential, and though that may not specifically apply to me I want to honor it anyway. The members of my committee were wonderful, asking engaging questions and really moving with me in what I encountered as a religious experience. I presented a sermon that is in many ways my “testimony”… a sermon about how my experience in Bosnia shaped me as a religious liberal, and just exactly how radical the Unitarian Universalist first and seventh principles are in a world of such separation, hatred, and strife. Some of you may have heard that sermon, for I’ve preached the longer version in many UU congregations. The committee’s reaction to my sermon was deeply affirming of my pulpit ministry. The longer version of that sermon is here.
I also want to honor that my experience of the committee is not everyone’s experience. I do not know what happens in other’s meetings with the MFC, and I wish to honor that others have a different experience. Mine was positive and affirming, and yet I have good friends who say something else.
What I really want to reflect on though is the experience of these last six weeks of preparation, and perhaps a few pointers from my experience. I received a lot of advice from a lot of people who had seen the MFC over the years, much of it contradictory. Advice ranged from “finish everything a month early and then don’t study or anything for a month before you go”, to “go back and re-read everything on the MFC reading list at least once”, to “just go in and show them you are a minister, and don’t stress about it… it’s not a big deal”.
One lesson has stood out clearly from all of that advice… how each of us is called to encounter the MFC is as individual as a cloud in the sky. I have one general piece of advice… know thyself. However you naturally prepare for bringing your full and authentic self to an experience, that is what you should do. I personally thrive on time pressure, and (thanks to being an intelligence analyst) have the ability to assimilate large amounts of data into a whole quickly… so my cramming for the last six weeks worked for me. It might not work for anyone else. Listen to all the advice, but take a close look at who you are and how you learn, and then intentionally decide how you want to prepare.
The second lesson from the experience is one I wish I had done, but did not… begin the paperwork early. Specifically the “Statements of Competence”. These are statements in sixteen areas of ministerial competence (Religious Education, Anti-racism, Theology, History, etc.) that include every class you took, every book you read, every workshop you attended, etc. I did not do this, but I would recommend that, at the very beginning of seminary, you put your name on each of those forms, and whenever you read a book, attend a workshop, take a class that relates to one of those areas of competency, you put it on the sheet.
That way you avoid the two days I spent with all of my books, files, transcripts, syllabuses, etc. piled up on the floor of my dining room like a castle to defend against intrusions from my cat as I hastily tried to plug everything I have read or done in my life into one of those sixteen or so little boxes. Of all the days of the last six weeks, those were the worst. I don’t think I ate for 24 hours…
If you keep these up through your formation, they would serve to not only contextualize your learning, but also to let you know during the process where you are strong, and where you might need some additional strengthening. Another realization came for me as I filled out these competencies (ok, after it was done… while I was filling them out I was so busy I did not have time for reflecting on them). It showed me that there are some areas of ministerial formation I have valued more than others, by the amount of preparation I have put into them. The process also put into context for me all the learning that I have done in the last few years, and made it a real whole to me in a way it was not before. I could see how it all hung together.
My third piece of advice is to do whatever you can to manage the anxiety. Whether it should be or not, seeing the MFC is a nerve-wracking experience. Five years of effort and a lifetime of preparation come down to an hour in a room with a group of people, most of whom you have not met ever before. The deepest parts of yourself are being examined, and the things you hold dear might even be challenged. The confidentiality the committee necessarily operates under only increases the anxiety and the stories. Through seminary, we all meet some who have not had an easy time with the committee, and their stories are magnified in the hearing (not necessarily in the telling).
Enter into the process knowing this anxiety… and move with it the best you can. My path in managing that anxiety was to talk about my preparation and anxiety with my fellow Chaplains and Chaplain Residents at Rainbow Hospice and Lutheran General Hospital, continue my meditation practice, bring parts of my MFC Packet and my sermon to ministerial colleagues for advice and affirmation, and focus on just continuing to breathe. How you do it will be unique to you, but as you prepare managing that anxiety will be your salvation, and I think it is a key to effective ministry.
I want to affirm how important visiting a Mock MFC committee was for me, and to thank those who served on mine. It was both affirming and challenging, and the advice I got from my committee guided the last two weeks of my preparation. True to form, some of the issues my mock committee raised came up in my actual meeting with the MFC, and I would not have been prepared without the mock. Find a minster who has seen the committee, (or better, served on it) and enlist their help in setting up a mock.
The last aspect of this experience I want to reflect on in this article is how important all the paperwork has become for me. When I first looked at it I thought “I have to fill out all this stuff? But they already have all my evaluations from my internship, from my CPE’s, from (in my case) the military. They already have my psychological evaluation/career assessment. Why do they need the rest of this stuff?”
I’m sure the committee does need the statements on theology, on anti-racism/anti-oppression, on religious education. I’m sure they do need the Statements of Competence and my life-history essay. I’m sure they do need all of those things and more… but for me there was a more important reason for filling them out. It forced me to contextualize the last 5 years of preparation, my life experience, my strengths and weaknesses, my hopes and dreams, my fears and confusions, all into a cohesive whole than can be internalized as “ministry”. That contextualization is not just for the committee’s benefit, but it is an important and amazing step in a developing ministerial call, identity, and vision… and it allowed me to then present myself and my ministry to the committee as a whole, because I had intentionally conceived it as such.
There is one final piece of advice I want to mention… and I leave it to the last not because it is least important, but because it is the one that many seminarians often forget about. No matter how stressful this preparation for ministry and for seeing the MFC is for you, no matter how much anxiety, fear, hope and possibility is contained in this process… our friends, family, and most importantly our life-partners walk this path with us. Their future is involved in seeing this committee as well… and after many years of preparation and tens of thousands of dollars of student debt they can have just as much anxiety as the candidate for the ministry can have.
Whether they participate in Unitarian Universalism or not, the meeting with the MFC is just as stressful for them, and the outcome just as life-altering. All of the focus tends to be on the candidate, and I think it is the responsibility of the candidate to pay attention to the needs, concerns, and fears of their family and friends, particularly their life-partner and children. When I called Sandy and told her that I had successfully passed the MFC, I could feel the weight coming off of her shoulders through the phone, most of a continent away.
I want to thank everyone who has and continues to walk with me on this journey, seminarians and colleagues, pastors and chaplains, lay-members and non-members of UU churches, the members of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee and my Regional Sub-Committee on Candidacy, and even those of you at Celestial Lands. I want to specifically thank Nan Hobart, Seanan Holland, Katie Norris, and Barbara Pescan for all you have meant to me. And most importantly, though she gets frustrated every time I mention her publically… I have to thank my wife Sandy, without whom I would not have made it this far.
The journey continues.
Yours in Faith,