Tuesday, December 30, 2008

iMinister, the Summit on Excellence in Ministry, and Other Shout Outs

Thanks to iMinister for the shout out about this blog. iMinister is the blog of the Rev. Christine Robinson, a participant in the Summit on Excellence in Ministry, a 12/10-12/08 conference of UU leaders engaged in the formation of both our professional and lay ministers. This conference was convened by the UUA Panel on Theological Education at the request of the UUA Board of Trustees. Rev. Robinson's live coverage of the Summit thru her blog was one of the inspirations for this blog.

And while we're shouting out, please look at this post by Politywonk. Politywonk effectively argues that the Renaissance person is a myth. Candidates for ministry frequently quake in their boots because they know that they don't know it all and can't be all things to all people. And yet under current practices, they are more uncertain than is necessary because they are often under-informed about what is expected of them.

Peacebang talks about this "profound insecurity" that affects some seminarians preparing for MFC or Regional Subcommittee interviews and states:

When I prepared for the MFC I simply thought, “I trust that these people will tell me what they see and, if need be, direct me to do more work to prepare for the ministry.” I was very worried about the financial implications of being instructed to do more work, as I was already $60K in debt from my M.Div. degree but I went before the MFC prepared to heed their advice even if it should cost me more time and money. I considered genuine humility and obedience to be part of the process — and neither of those qualities come easily to me (surprised, right!!?).

Her comments remind me of government reform under Clinton and Gore. Then Vice President Gore went around to the Federal agencies saying: "We have good people in bad systems." After all the beating up on Federal employees by Reagan and Carter, it was great to hear someone who wished to engage us as allies in improving the government.

We have talented, well-intentioned, generous people who volunteer their time to help in the formation and development of UU ministers. However, the system in which they are participating can be improved. May this current dialogue in the blogosphere help inspire such improvements.

15 Seconds

When I was involved in promoting performance-based interviewing (AKA behavioral-based interviewing) in the Federal government, someone told me that there was research showing that most interview decisions were made within the first 15 seconds of the interview. While I'm not sure which research he was referring to, there is some information at this link about the validity and reliability of such decisions.

As I have reflected upon this phenomena, I have wondered about the impact of reviewing application material before an interview. Does the application material help preprogram the interviewers in their decision-making?

My deeper ethical concern is about the possibility of discrimination in the absence of structured interviews and trained interviewers. There is an excellent video called, "More Than a Gut Feeling," about performance-based interviewing. While the above link points to the surprising accuracy of 15 second evaluations, it also sounds a cautionary note, especially regarding culturally variable assessments. And, arguably, all assessments are culturally variable.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Hard Work But Not Rocket Science

In 1978, agencies of the Federal government responsible for implementing the fair employment provisions of Civil Rights Act of 1964 issued the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. These guidelines apply to any measure or procedure used as a basis for an employment decision, including, job analysis, crediting plans, interviews, and the selection process itself. While the UUA and its member congregations are not part of the Federal government and ministers are not traditionally "employees," the Uniform Guidelines may be used to promote fairness and non-discrimination in any evaluation process. Using non-discriminatory processes for evaluating candidates for UU ministry promotes anti-racism and anti-oppression in UU ministry.

As mentioned in an earlier blog, the two key criteria for evaluation processes are validity and reliability. Creating and implementing valid and reliable examining procedures is hard work, but not rocket science. There are several strategies. For one of these strategies, the basic steps are:

  • using job analysis to identify the required competencies;
  • interviewing high performers;
  • developing descriptions of competencies and a rating guide;
  • screening candidates;
  • training the interview panel;
  • interviewing; and
  • notifying candidates of the results.
I will be writing further about this process in the future posts. For now, let's look at a single competency -- ministerial authority -- and see how parts of this process would apply to it.

The lack of "ministerial authority" has been used to deny fellowship to candidates for UU ministry. But what is ministerial authority? We all might have a sense of what it is, but do we really have a shared understanding?

Our first difficulty would be to convert this attribute or construct into content or behavioral descriptions. In evaluating candidates for UU ministry, it would be more helpful to learn whether they have demonstrated the ability to effectively exercise ministerial authority than it would be to make an intuitive and possibly discriminatory judgment about whether they "have" ministerial authority.

One way to get a better handle on what is meant by ministerial authority and its criticality for effective ministry is to interview ministers and other stakeholders about what is meant by ministerial authority and how it is demonstrated. These interviews could include such questions as:

  • What is ministerial authority?
  • When is ministerial authority exercised?
  • How do you know when ministerial authority is exercised effectively?
  • Are measures of ministerial authority absolute (i.e., you either have it or you don't) or relative (i.e., individuals have it to differing degrees in differing situations)?

As a result of these interviews, a description of ministerial authority, including behavioral examples, could be developed and published as part of the application material for UU ministry. This would have several advantages:

  • Candidates for the ministry would have a clearer understanding of what's expected of them. They could use this understanding to prepare for fellowshipping, to identify when and how they had demonstrated this competency, and in assessing whether they were ready for fellowshipping.
  • Supervisors and mentors could use this information to guide candidates in their preparation.
  • The MFC could use these descriptions and examples in developing rating guides and interviewing candidates.
  • Greater clarity and uniformity would reduce the likelihood of unintentional discrimination.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Right Path

Twenty years ago (1988), Bill Moyers interviewed Joseph Campbell on The Power of Myth. During those interviews, Campbell famously said "follow your bliss," indicating that when you were on the right path doors would open where you didn't know doors existed.

A little over five years ago at an informal gathering with members of the Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee (MFC), their answers to questions about their examining process--such as, "How did you validate the process? What do you do to assure reliability? Who is your psychometrician? Are the interviews performance-based?"--raised concerns. However, as a first-year student and an aspirant for UU ministry, I judged that I lacked the standing (and/or the courage?) to challenge their process beyond asking my indelicate questions.

Earlier this month I was welcomed into preliminary fellowship as a UU minister by the MFC. After they announced their decision, they asked me whether I had any comments on their process. I made several, and they asked that I provide further information to David Pettee.

Research on this subject has demonstrated Campbell's principle or possibly the more common one that "timing is everything."

  • The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) conducted a Summit on Excellence in Ministry. (The Reverend Christine Robinson covered the conference live via her blog, "iMinister,"an inspiration for this blog.)

  • Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink, has been commenting on what he calls the "mismatch" problem between examining procedures and occupational performance in this excellent and interesting video and his new book Outliers. While Gladwell doesn't mention ministers, many of his comments about preparation, qualification, and selection procedures for professional sports, teachers, and attorneys apply to UU ministers as well.
Many may argue for the uniqueness of the ministry, that it's not comparable to other professions. Others may question whether a newly minted minister has the qualifications to be commenting on examining for ministry. However, this is precisely the point: the qualifications for ministry should the clear, public, and readily understood. They should be developed and revised with input from multiple sources. To do so would be a service for ministers and candidates for ministry, as well as the people and communities they serve.

The next post will speak the process of developing examining guides.

Friday, December 26, 2008


The purpose of this blog is to explore the examining process for Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministry. It will also stray into the areas of training and education for the ministry and definitions of ministry.

Examining procedures vary widely in their validity and reliability. The validity of an examination is a measure of the degree to which it does what it's intended to do. The reliability is the consistency. To be effective and just, an examination must be both valid and reliable. In this context, the word "examination" is used very broadly, including such examinations as reviews of applications and other written submissions, oral exams and interviews, written examinations, and performance tests (e.g., typing tests).

Another critical aspect of examining is transparency. The competencies (knowledges, skills, abilities, and other characteristics) covered by the examination should be public information.

Secrecy is also a characteristic of examining. Examination questions and rating scales are nonpublic information.

Finally, to the extent possible, examinations should be reasonable. There is a tendency to "kitchen sink" competencies so that candidates may believe that they have to be everything to everybody. This risk is particularly strong in ministry and other helping professions.

This blog will focus on the process of examining for ministry, including how to identify the competencies, how to describe the competencies, how to develop rating criteria, how to develop interview questions, how to interview, and how to evaluate. Others may contribute their ideas about the content specific to the UU ministry that should be included in these processes.