All applicants preparing for fellowship are required to obtain sponsorship by a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation.
What is the purpose of this requirement?
The purpose of this requirement is to ensure familiarity on the part of new ministers with UU congregational life, and encourage congregations to take a responsible role in the recruitment, preparation and assessment of our future ministers. Our congregations, our ministries and our religious movement all stand to gain if we can work together creatively to identify and support potential leaders.
When does sponsorship occur?
The request for sponsorship from a congregation now occurs as part of the process of becoming an aspirant with the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Who should decide who is or isn't sponsored?
In most instances, sponsorship will be decided by a vote of the Board of a congregation and rarely by vote of a congregation. If the congregation has a minister, he or she may have a recommendation, but it is not the minister's role to make the final decision.
Is some kind of documentation required?
Yes. Documentation of congregational sponsorship should be provided using the following form found in the Requirements for Fellowship Appendix.
What happens if a congregation chooses not to sponsor an applicant?
The Ministerial Credentialing Office would appreciate being contacted in the event a congregation chooses not to sponsor a candidate so appropriate steps can be taken to address the concerns regarding why this decision was made.
What is being said with the decision to sponsor an applicant?
At the most basic level, congregational sponsorship indicates confidence in the applicant's potential and suitability for UU ministry. The Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) regards sponsorship as evidence that the applicant is actively committed to the Purposes and Principles of the UUA and the institutions which uphold them. A congregation is not indicating that the applicant is presently ready for ministry when the congregation commits to sponsorship. The final decision to grant fellowship to a applicant is made by the MFC after careful consideration of written materials, evaluations and a personal interview.
What are the other requirements for UU ministry?
The general qualifications, as stated by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, are these:
“All candidates must have satisfactorily completed all educational and skill training programs and demonstrates the qualities, skills and aptitude required for Unitarian Universalist ministry as determined by the MFC. Those qualifications and requirements include, but are not limited to, the following: satisfactory completion of an approved clinical pastoral education (CPE) program and an internship (as described in Rule 12), or the equivalent; have completed the required reading; have undergone an approved career assessment program; be able to demonstrate an understanding of and experience with UU congregational life based on at least two years active involvement or equivalent; must demonstrate a strong motivation for our ministry; must be sponsored by a member society; and must demonstrate a balanced and healthy personality, a capacity for self-understanding, a concern for others, and ministerial leadership skills. The Committee will further require that the candidate be well informed on the history and development of Unitarianism and Universalism, familiar with the Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and fully committed to the purpose, objectives and guidelines of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association. A candidate for the ministry shall also have a Master of Divinity degree or its equivalent from a theological school approved by the Committee or have had an equivalent educational experience. Any exceptions to these qualifications must be approved by the MFC.”
In addition to the general qualifications for ministerial fellowship, there are many specific requirements for candidates.
Doesn't this requirement have the potential for creating an uncomfortable situation in the congregation if the congregation is not enthusiastic about sponsoring an applicant, especially if the applicant is a long-term member, big contributor, etc.?
Yes. This is an important concern which needs to be dealt with carefully. It is especially important, however, not to back away from the challenge of providing the person with honest feedback. Chances are if a congregation has severe reservations about a person's potential for ministry, the applicant will not be well-served in the long run if falsely encouraged.
The MFC does not recommend that a congregation risk conflict over sponsorship. In expressing reservations to an applicant, it is important to try to stress concern for an applicant's well-being and success in employing their unique gifts, which might not necessarily be for ministry. If a congregation comes to an impasse or don't know what to do, please call the Ministerial Credentialing Director.
In many instances, a congregation will be asked for sponsorship by a person who is away at school or simply moved away for other reasons. If the person is reasonably well known within the congregation, it is certainly appropriate to consider sponsorship. A congregation may want to recognize an applicant's aspirations through, for example, newsletter articles, announcements, and invitations to participate in congregational activities when the candidate is in the area. A congregation could invite an applicant to write a newsletter article sharing with the congregation some of the excitement of their journey.
If the congregation has a minister, their relationship with an applicant is important. The minister may be a mentor, role model, teacher and spiritual guide of considerable influence. The minister may also have mixed feelings about the applicant or the role that person is playing within the congregation. In any case, it is important to be sensitive to the possibilities and pitfalls inherent in the relationship and include the minister when developing policies regarding congregational response to applicants.
Who's supposed to be providing all this support?
Again, congregations will respond to this opportunity in a variety of ways. Some will be able to offer little support at all and will simply deal with requests for sponsorship at the board level on a case by case basis. If this is apt to be the scenario in your congregation, it is still important to have a policy in place which will guide your response to possible inquiries. For example: Who decides? What criteria are important? Will you want to interview the candidate? What happens if someone tries to block sponsorship? What if the board and the minister disagree?
If there is more interest and energy within a congregation for working with applicants, the board might, for example, recruit a subcommittee to develop policies, explore possibilities related to applicants and their needs for support.
In what ways might a congregation support an applicant?
Depending on their interests, resources, and the needs of the applicant, congregations will choose to support the people they sponsor in a variety of ways. Nothing in particular is required.
One of the major concerns for theological school students is their high level of debt; financial assistance can sometimes make the critical difference between staying in school and dropping out. A congregation and applicant may want to work together to raise money in any number of ways, including special fund-raisers and help with locating grant money or with direct backing from generous parishioners. People who are looking for opportunities to donate money tend to believe that contributing to the education of our future leaders is a good and worthwhile investment. Some congregations contribute to the cost of the career assessment program. It is important for persons aspiring to the ministry to do this as early as possible in their preparation. Congregational support and encouragement to do career assessment will benefit the individual and our ministry as a whole. The cost of the program can be considerable.
Valuable support can be offered in less tangible ways as well. Applicants may benefit from opportunities to preach or lead other forms of worship. They may need experience working with committees and the financial aspects of running a church. They might be asked to be leaders in the religious education program, or organize a social action project.
Applicants could be encouraged (and supported financially) to participate in UUA district and continental events. A particularly worthwhile opportunity, especially for people who are relatively new to Unitarian Universalism and/or concerns of the larger Association, is attendance at the UUA General Assembly. Consider having the applicant seek delegate status from your congregation.
With a UU theological school nearby congregations are liable to be deluged by requests for sponsorship. What should a congregation do when the applicant is not well known?
If a congregation is near a theological school attended by many UU students, it will be particularly important to develop policies regarding sponsorship as soon as possible. Most congregations in this circumstance already have developed certain understandings about how to welcome, integrate and support ministerial students and value their presence. The challenge may simply be to become more intentional about a sponsoring relationship.
If an applicant not well known asks for sponsorship, it's perfectly acceptable to expect that person to become involved in the life of the congregation for a period of time before considering sponsorship. Some congregations ask for a reference from a UU minister or other mutually acceptable person who knows the applicant to get more background.
All applicants are expected to have been minimally been actively involved with a UU congregation for at least two years before interviewing with the MFC. For people who became UU's during seminary or for ministers who want to transfer from another denomination, this requirement may seem like a difficult obstacle. Despite this challenge, the MFC firmly believes that those aspiring to professional leadership positions in our Association need to have grounding in, and understanding of, UU congregational life. Congregational sponsorship may not guarantee this understanding, but it is meant to encourage, facilitate and underscore its importance.
Is sponsorship like having a ministerial intern?
No. Congregational sponsorship and ministerial internships are very different. An intern has contracted with the congregation and the minister for supervision as a learner for an agreed upon length of time. The intern is acting in a professional ministerial capacity, even though ministerial credentials have not yet been granted. Interns are evaluated and held accountable in a structured way that is not appropriate for someone the congregation sponsors. A sponsored applicant who is not an intern will participate as a layperson, not a minister. If a congregation has an intern or field education student, it will be important for both minister and congregation to be clear about the distinction so the intern's position of authority is not jeopardized or confused.
Does a person need to be a member for congregational sponsorship?
While it is important for an applicant to indicate their institutional commitment by membership in a UU congregation somewhere, it is not necessary for them to be members of the sponsoring congregation. It would be important to consider this issue on an individual basis. Some applicants seek sponsorship from their internship sites and this is permissible.
This seems like a big responsibility. What's in it for a congregation?
What's in it for congregations is the opportunity to play a pivotal role in promoting responsible, well-prepared leaders for our religious communities and Unitarian Universalism in general. The MFC’s experience with sponsorship is that it is not burdensome. In fact, both congregations and applicants have expressed pride and enthusiasm about the opportunity to claim one another. For more information about sponsorship or a person requesting sponsorship, please contact the Ministerial Credentialing Office.
Those of us who work with people preparing for UU ministry thank you for your help!
The Congregational Sponsorship form is in the Requirements for Fellowship Appendix.