We begin with some history of the credentialing/fellowshipping process, in order to illustrate an essential confusion that has caused grief for many, the clarification of which forms the basis of my recommendations.
There is vast confusion about the dual function of the Ministerial Fellowshipping program of the UUA. While the desired outcome of this process is Ministerial Fellowship for the candidate in question, the process is one of both credentialing and fellowshipping; two very distinct and different things.
A credentialing process is one that certifies that the person examined has both a degree of academic practical knowledge to practice a profession that is understood to require a great deal of preparation, and where the malpractice of which is thought to have a significant capacity to harm. Most credentialing processes have their origins in the nineteenth century, when the proliferation of specialized formal education meant that most people were now prepared for vocations by schools, rather than through less formal apprenticeships. This led to some concern that schools may or may not be in close enough touch with the requirements of the practice of the profession, rather than the mere academic study of it. Hence credentialing bodies were formed of actual practitioners, a practice which continues today. Medicine was the first profession to adopt a credentialing process, although part of the history of credentialing is to see this paradigm expanding outwards to an increasing variety of vocations not always previously considered professional.
The Ministerial Fellowship Committee does do the sort of professional assessment that is appropriately labeled credentialing, but it also does more, as the name “ministerial fellowship” itself indicates. The MFC also determines whether a person presents as a minister, and a UU minister in particular. Here people become confused. Often, they either imagine that the fellowshipping process is only a credentialing process, or they confuse fellowshipping with ordination, and claim that the UUA is stepping outside the boundaries of congregational polity in determining who might be seen as a minister. Of course, in congregational polity, congregations alone have the sacred right to install particular persons as ministers to particular congregations, and to the (almost) rite of ordination. In fact, the UUA is an association of congregations, performing those tasks too complex to be well undertaken by single congregations, and the assessment of a person’s general suitability for UU ministry has been understood as such a task for a while now, although certainly not forever. Hence all aspects of the Fellowshipping process mandate the inclusion of lay people, and the appointments to these bodies are given to the UUA Board of Trustees precisely for the special protection of the role of congregations and laity in the process.
I fall into this perhaps seemingly arcane polity lecture because I am convinced that confusion between credentialing and fellowshipping on the part of students and those advising them has been a major contributor to poor outcomes. Students preparing for a credentialing exam only tend to cram on facts and rehearse answers to hypothetical content questions. This often actually impairs the students’ ability to present as a UU minister in the room, as someone who is emotionally present and engaged with the other persons in the room, and as someone who might be said to represent the living tradition.
Common Mistakes in the Fellowshipping Process:
- Delaying too long before seeing the Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy. Students feel like they want more time ―to get ready. Meanwhile, the RSCCs understand that their process is to guide students from early on, and give persons good counsel. It confuses/concerns them, then, when students do not make appointments along the recommended time line. You should know that the MFC itself is recommending rule changes (not yet approved but likely to be) that would take away the RSCC’s ability to deny candidacy (they would only approve or delay candidacy) which is intended to take pressure off this interview so that students can approach it more easily.
- Overuse of coaching and rehearsal. It often does more damage than not, by encouraging students to think only in terms of professional competence and rehearsed responses, not engaged ministerial presence. Also, the vast majority of coaching and mock MFC panels are done by persons who have little no experience or expertise in the process. On the part of ministers, their only experience is often their own MFC interview, often many decades in the past. Meanwhile, lay person panelists, really interested in the process and flattered to be included, can be unreasonably affirming of students. If you chose to do a mock MFC, be sure to select people who are very knowledgeable about the process, and/or people who have seen the MFC themselves not more than five years ago.
- Be yourself. Sometimes students offer each other advice along the lines of, “don’t talk about your passion for x, the committee prefers you to be y.” Don’t do it! You need to be able to speak about yourself, your interests, and your ministry as honestly as possible.
- Take the Wizard of Oz advice: don’t relate to the committee as if they were the big, scary, green face projected on the screen; instead, be sure you are talking to the people in the room. Relate! Minister!
- Know your packet thoroughly.
- Be sure to account for how you have followed up on any and all suggestions that we made to you.
Special thoughts on MFC preparation from former SKSM student and former member of the MFC, Abbey Tennis:
When we are ministerial students, there is a lot of anxiety in the air about the MFC process. We fear not knowing enough detail, or not being able to recall it under pressure. We distrust the process of our years of preparation being judged by a panel of strangers who have only known us for an hour. We don’t fit the “mold” of “standard UU minister” and we fear they will reject us as too unusual.
Those fears may be valid (though many students find detail recollection and conformity matter much less to the MFC than we initially think they do). But our preparation for ministry shouldn’t orbit around our anxiety. It shouldn’t even orbit around the standards set by the MFC. Each of us should simply be trying to become the best UU minister we can be. If we do that, the credentialing process will affirm it.