Rev. Lyn Cox—December 2003
MFC Liaison to Candidates Report
In December 2003, I served as one of two Candidate Liaisons to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC). My role was to participate in the meeting, offer feedback to the Committee, and to write a report for Candidates preparing to meet the MFC.
Most Candidate Liaison reports I read during my seminary years spent a good deal of ink emphasizing that the Ministerial Fellowship Committee is a group of three-dimensional, caring human beings who are committed to the Unitarian Universalist (UU) movement. While this is certainly true, I always wondered why that message bears repeating. Having observed a number of interviews, I think humanity is important to remember because otherwise the Committee becomes an abstract symbol of mysterious authority, which opens the Candidates to the mercilessness of their own anxieties and projections.
During my own MFC preparations, I was comforted when I remembered that Committee members and I had a shared goal: to nurture the strongest possible Unitarian Universalist professional ministry. I was more nervous when I framed the interview in terms of outcomes to which I was personally attached. I was less nervous when I framed it to myself as an opportunity to receive expert guidance on my role in that ministry. Early on in seminary, I was often angry and defensive when I thought about questions the MFC could and might ask. Eventually, I realized that this “inner MFC” was my own self-criticism. I began to stop blaming the real, caring human beings who actually sit on the Committee. After that, preparing for my interview was much more pleasant.
The more I learned about the Committee and the people who have served on it, the more I was able to separate my toxic self-criticism from the insights I gained through the Fellowshipping process. Whatever your personal demons may be, I hope some concrete observations about the MFC and the interview process will help you to take the lead in the dance with your demons.
The MFC comes to each interview spiritually prepared. They worship together each morning during their meeting, meditate as they wait for each candidate, and reflect on the experience together after the interviews are done. All of this preparation allows Committee members to focus during the interviews, observing with clear perception each candidate's unfolding as a minister.
As part of their preparation, the MFC is engaging in a lot of learning and reflection on anti-racism and anti-oppression (AR/AO). They have invited guest speakers to their meetings, designated process observers to comment on AR/AO, and lift up this lens in every aspect of their work together. The MFC could be a model for other committees as well as congregations in the seriousness with which they consider anti-racism and anti-oppression.
If you are reading this, you have probably already heard about the format of the interview, so I won't go into it here. The interview ritual, like a good Order of Service, leaves space for freshness while providing a consistent container.
Most of the interviews I observed were later than their scheduled time. The Ministerial Fellowship Committee takes care with each decision, and spends as much time as they have to in the process. My own interview was exactly on time because the person scheduled before me had cancelled. Candidates seemed flexible about timing.
A few Candidates were prepared with a short (two or four-line) chalice lighting thought, either a reading or a phrase such as “I light the chalice this afternoon for unexpected blessings.” It was a nice touch when done well. Most Candidates didn't have a spoken chalice lighting thought prepared, which was fine. Some Candidates asked the panel to meditate, sing, or participate in a reading to open their sermon. This worked well in one or two cases, but not well in most cases.
I observed several sermon styles. Some were intellectual, some were prophetic, some were poetic, some were thick with poignancy. The style of sermon was not a pre-indicator of success, except insofar as the style grew out of the Candidate's authenticity. Each Candidate comes up with his or her own way to minister through preaching to a group of people committed to spending several days in a stuffy, uncomfortable hotel conference room. The panel noticed when sermons exceeded ten minutes.
The sermon and the first question helped Candidates get grounded. Panelists listened to the content and also watched the Candidates for signs of ministerial presence. Eye contact and a good speaking pace (not too fast, not too slow) made a difference.
While ministerial presence made a big difference, so did the answers to questions. The panel generally asked at least one question about polity, history, world religions, religious education, congregational life, ethics, Jewish and Christian scripture, and anti-racism/anti-oppression. Youth and young adult concerns were sometimes combined with one or more of the questions. More time was spent on questions dealing with areas in the packet that caused concern among the panelists.
Sometimes panelists asked questions that candidates had to clarify briefly. Launching into an answer to a slightly different question than the one that was intended or asking for detailed clarification on several questions made the Candidate seem nervous.
One area with which many Candidates had difficulty was anti-racism/anti-oppression. The Committee expected Candidates to offer thought-out analysis of personal and institutional oppression. Sometimes the questions were couched in terms of a particular situation or context. It helped Candidates to know the phrase “racism is power plus prejudice” and to be able to explain what that means. The trouble spots seemed to be (a) separating personal racism from institutional racism and (b) facility with the language of anti-oppression analysis. Candidates who came from historically marginalized communities were asked the same questions; the MFC did not single anyone out for questions on anti-racism/anti-oppression.
Another area that surprised me as a trouble spot was Unitarian Universalist history, especially history after the Civil War. The members of the MFC could tell the difference between lapses of memory due to nervousness and history that the Candidate never learned in the first place.
The panel had specific suggestions for some Candidates who were weak in a particular area. Other Candidates were challenged to develop their own plan to address deficiencies, with help from the Professional Development Director in the UUA's Ministry and Professional Leadership staff group.
Candidates who demonstrated evidence spiritual and emotional preparation were able to meet the MFC with grace, and most of them were awarded Preliminary Fellowship. Candidates who were spiritually prepared but who weren't ready for Preliminary Fellowship seemed to accept their score as a milestone of discernment rather than a personal attack.
I participated in interviews where Candidates attempted to gloss over their flaws and I participated in interviews where Candidates knew their flaws and seemed to be comfortable as they spoke about them. The Committee did not expect anyone to be perfect. They awarded Category I scores to Candidates who answered a few content questions wrong, to people who spoke of personal challenges with which they were still struggling, and to people whose sermons left room for improvement. What made the difference for these Candidates is sometimes referred to as ministerial presence.
Ministerial indicates that someone understands the authority of a minister, has reflected on it, and has accepted it. It is fueled by compassion, professional boundaries, and an assumption of others' best intentions. Ministerial presence behavior communicates calm and confidence without arrogance.
To reiterate what every other Candidate Liaison report has ever said: the Ministerial Fellowship Committee is a group of highly qualified, caring leaders who are committed to Unitarian Universalism. They are three-dimensional human beings who share the goal of a strong professional Unitarian Universalist ministry.
In this last section, I will offer advice as one who has been in the Candidate's chair recently. While I recognize that my personal biases pop up all over my observations in the previous section, this section is unabashedly subjective and phrased in the second person. Be sure to ask around for other perspectives.
Preparing the Packet
Get help with this and allow ample time. I've heard people advise seminarians to work on their packet all along, not to save it for the last minute. I don't know anyone who has followed this advice, at least not someone who admits it. I took two weeks of “study leave” during my internship to work on my packet and I needed every minute.
I began by gathering the people closest to me, armed with my resume and transcripts, to work on my competency sheets. We put up a newsprint sheet for every category and brainstormed. My loved ones honored experiences that I would have discounted. They helped again by reading my packet for aesthetics and for typographical errors.
I compared MFC packets with some friends in order to get a handle on formatting and level of detail. This was a really sweet collegial experience.
Asking for help is one of those self-care lessons of ministry. We need this skill out in the real world.
Writing the Sermon
Write it on something for which you have passion and interest. While a variety of styles and topics will work, ask yourself how your sermon will sound to someone who is in pain or in need. Unitarian Universalism has been criticized for an inadequate response to suffering. Consider this lens when writing.
Some Candidates used stories about CPE clients as the basis for their sermon. I felt uncomfortable about this. I hope if a CPE student ever ministers to one of my loved ones, our story doesn't become fodder for someone else's purposes without permission. Changing the names did not make me feel comfortable. It would have helped if the preacher has secured permission to tell the story and had said so in the sermon. CPE stories about the speaker's own transformation, using few or no details about clients, didn't bother me.
Using counseling stories in sermons is one of those ethical issues that each minister must answer for her or himself. There is a range of acceptable practices. I speak only for myself on the issue, not because I think I am the arbiter of professional ethics, but because my opinion is one among a diversity of opinions on the subject. On the other hand, I am not the only person who feels this way, and I think an MFC sermon is a bad time to take the risk that a listener will wonder about the preacher's ethics.
Forming the First Question
Write something that will help you get grounded. If there's a personal issue mentioned in your packet and you'll feel better once it's on the table, go ahead and make it your first question. You can also formulate a first question that you know you can “bat out of the park” as a warm-up. More Candidates seemed to choose the first kind of question than the second.
Responding to Questions
While the panelists take care to cover most of the major areas of competency, they usually ask about topics that interest them personally. Each question is a gift that tells you something about the person asking it. Because someone passed this advice on to me, I was better able to respond with appreciation and gratitude.
Most if not all Candidates I observed didn't know something they were asked. Accepting limitations gracefully is part of ministry. Answer what you know. For instance, if you know that there were these three guys named Arius, Athanasius, and Eusebius, but you can't remember which is which, say so. Take delight that there are always new things to learn.
Preparing for Anti-Racism/Anti-Oppression Questions
Reading the books on the reading list is only the beginning. Go to at least one Unitarian Universalist anti-oppression workshop. I found the “Multicultural Religious Education” Renaissance Module to be helpful. Developing an anti-racism/anti-oppression lens is a paradigm shift for most people, and the experience of reflecting with others can be more effective than reading alone. This area is a really exciting one to engage with and is vital for ministry in the 21st century.
Handling Personal Questions
A wise mentor once told me that every minister has something in her or his personal life that she or he wouldn't want on the front page of the newspaper. The MFC will likely ask you about whatever your thing is. As a minister, you want to deal with your private life as a self-care issue, and you want to be able to speak about it non-defensively. Search committees may ask the same question, so consider your MFC interview good practice.
The MFC may be interested to hear about insights you have gained in therapy or spiritual direction. Again, longevity in the ministry is partly determined by our ability to reflect and to integrate self-knowledge. The Committee has good reasons for asking.
Thinking Beyond Your Interview
If all goes well, you will probably go into some form of search very soon after your interview. Read a few search packets so you know what they are like. Ask your Intern Committee to take pictures of you in the pulpit (stage them to avoid interrupting worship) and at congregational activities. If you have to delay your search, you will at least have a nice memory album.
As someone who is probably nearing the end of a graduate degree, you have probably figured out by now the best way to study for your learning style. I think some people forget about that when it comes to MFC preparation.
I am an auditory person and an extravert, so I needed more than the printed word to awaken my formation. I probably listened to about 60 hours of books on tape while commuting and working out at the gym. A loved one made color-coded flash cards from the sample MFC question list. Renaissance Modules, study groups, and professional retreats were all opportunities to engage with the areas of competency. Just because the reading list is all text doesn't mean you have to study like a visual learner.
Study as Formation
Somebody, maybe it was Augustine, said a person doesn't find God by reading scripture, but that the practice of engaging with the text could open up a pathway. The same can be true of studying for the MFC. I don't think I became a minister by reading books on congregational polity, but struggling with issues that arose out of the text – issues like what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist and to be a minister in relationship with a congregation – did help me form a ministerial identity.
Professional Development, including the Fellowshipping process, is a journey. One can approach it as a pilgrimage or a tedious commute.
The Ministerial Fellowship Committee interview is a door. Once through it, you will see that other doors are waiting in the vast mansion of Professional Development.
Let your preparation be ingredients in the stewpot of ministerial formation. All of the flavors balance each other, but nothing can replace the time it takes to stew.
Corny metaphors aside, best of luck on your path. Blessed Be.
This is the format I observed for Ministerial Fellowship Committee interviews:
- The Candidate and his or her chaplain arrive at the hotel at least 20 minutes ahead of time and find the pre-interview waiting area.
- A member of the Committee designated as that Candidate's first questioner comes to meet the Candidate and get his or her first question, usually on an index card.
- The first questioner returns (leaving the Candidate in the waiting area) and shares the first question with the panel. Panelists plan the rest of the questions.
- A member of the UUA staff leaves the panel's meeting room to meet the Candidate while the rest of the members of the committee meditate.
- The staff member returns with the Candidate and introduces him or her. The Candidate shakes the hand of each member of the panel.
- The Candidate gets situated behind the pulpit. The chair of the panel calls attention to the glass of water that has been poured for the Candidate.
- A member of the panel lights a chalice. The member may or may not ask if the Candidate would like to offer chalice lighting words before the flame is lit.
- The Candidate preaches a ten-minute sermon.
- The Candidate hands a clean copy of the sermon to the recording secretary.
- The Candidate comes around to the front of the pulpit and sits down.
- The first questioner reads the question provided.
- Members of the panel, including the UUA staff member and the Candidate Liaison, ask questions.
- There is a meditation chime and a moment of silence halfway through the interview.
- After the panel has asked all of the questions they intend to ask, the chair of the panel asks a UUA staff member to escort the Candidate to the interviewee waiting room. This may be different than the pre-interview waiting area.
- When the staff member returns, the panel deliberates. Staff members and Candidate liaisons have a voice but no vote.
- When the Committee members have come to a decision, a UUA staff member goes to bring the Candidate back to the meeting room.
- The Candidate sits down. The first questioner delivers the decision and asks if the Candidate has any questions or feedback.
- When the discussion is done, the Candidate and the panelists all stand and shake hands in farewell. A UUA staff member may or may not escort the Candidate to the waiting room.