Excellence in Ministry: the In Care Program

Strategic Review of Professional Ministries

In 2010 the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) conducted a Strategic Review of Professional Ministries. The final report (PDF), published in March 2011, identified the Ministerial Fellowship Committee's concern that some seminarians and candidates for ministry "struggle with finding opportunities to network, be mentored, and experience the larger UU context within which they will be called to serve." The report pointed out:

  • most seminarians today attend non-Unitarian Universalist (UU) schools
  • some attend schools near them part-time while continuing to work
  • some choose low-residency options
  • fewer and fewer schools offer fulltime residential models
  • some candidates experience only their own home congregation during their formation process.

The report's recommendations include:

  • Support in care systems. Funding through the Panel on Theological Education already supports several pilot programs. Learning from the pilots and expanding in care systems could strengthen the role of congregations in supporting those preparing for ministries.
  • Reframe the role of congregations. A striking feature of conversations with congregational leaders was the degree to which they saw themselves as consumers of religious professionals produced by others instead of religious communities from which future leaders might arise...The role of congregations in identifying, recruiting, supporting, nurturing, and educating those interested in careers of religious leadership is not yet sufficiently developed.

Snapshot of Those Preparing for Ministry

Approximately 500 individuals are currently in some phase of preparation for UU ministry.

About 40% of these students are enrolled at Starr King School for the Ministry and Meadville-Lombard Theological School, the two UU identity seminaries. Both schools provide low residency options for education, which means that their students live all over the country.

The other 60% of UU seminarians are spread out at theological schools across the country, with the greatest concentrations at Harvard Divinity School, Andover-Newton, Union Theological Seminary, Iliff School of Theology, United Theological School, and Claremont.

Filling the Gap

Initially, the Regional Sub Committee (RSCC) structure for the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) was intended to provide an early feedback mechanism as well as a process to support seminarians on their formational journey. However, budgetary cutbacks led the regional committees to focus on evaluation alone, and as of the 2016 Fiscal Year, the RSCC's have been defunded entirely.

Some districts have partnered with local clergy to create programs to fill this gap. These in care programs engage theological schools, lay leaders, religious leaders and congregations to help seminarians hone their skills, explore religious leadership, and solicit feedback in an iterative way throughout the ministerial formation process. In addition, they create a quality of relationship in which seminarians feel nurtured by their faith tradition rather than simply put through a series of credentialing hoops.

Defining Excellence in Ministry

In April 2013, the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA)/Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA)/UU Musicians' Network (UUMN) Task Force for Excellence in Shared Ministry (PDF) submitted their final report, which says, “As professional religious leaders we are called to excellence so that we may lead ourselves and each other toward something holy, something of abiding worth, something that merits humanity’s enduring loyalty and love."

The Strategic Review of Professional Ministries Report (PDF) (2011) described a vision of ministry including these key qualities:

  • innovative and practical leadership
  • strong multicultural and multigenerational competency
  • emotional and spiritual health
  • the ability to lift up a vision for what is possible

Achieving Excellence Through In Care Programs

Living into Covenant, the pilot program in Mountain Desert District, uses this definition:

Excellence in ministry is the capability and commitment of ministers, lay leaders and congregations to the increase health, vitality, and spiritual depth of our congregations and our tradition.

An excellent minister is able to:

  • articulate and carry the vision
  • lead cultural and institutional change
  • deepen congregational life
  • connect with the broader community in powerful ways
  • nurture the beloved community
  • encourage generosity
  • reinforce healthy patterns and practices
  • reinvent one's ministry in response to changing congregational need and context

Tools for excellence in ministry include:

  • preaching
  • teaching
  • pastoral care
  • prophetic witness
  • administration
  • strong interpersonal skills

While a theological school curriculum provides academic and experiential grounding for excellence in ministry, it is not sufficient. Ministers and congregations must also provide formative experiences and learning communities to assist students in obtaining the additional knowledge and skills.