Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Marine Corps Officers & UU Ministers

As is probably revealed elsewhere in the blog, I'm a Washintarian (a Unitarian, now UU, from Washington, DC), the son of a WW II vet who spent most of his civilian career in the Pentagon, and a retired Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employee. Most of my life has played out surrounded current and former members of the armed services and their families. This is not the typical UU story, especially here in Berkeley.

I returned to DC to work in the VA headquarters slightly before the Carter Inauguration. Ed, a Marine Corps Reserve officer, trained me in my duties. Though our job was to support the staffing of senior positions throughout the Department, I also had the opportunity to learn a little about some of his duties in the Marine Corps Reserve.

One thing Ed told me over 30 years ago has become permanently implanted in my brain. He said that all Marine Corps officers were outstanding, but some were more outstanding than others.

Ed also told me that Marine Corps had a 20-year "up or out" system for its officers. This meant that once officers had 20 or more years of service, they were retired if too much time had passed since their last promotion. I couldn't wrap my mind around the following question: If everyone was outstanding, then how did the Marine Corps decide who was promoted and who was retired?

Ed explained that while everybody was outstanding, some officers were more outstanding than others. Promotion panel learned how to read between the lines in fitness reports to assess whether the officer was being recommended for promotion or for retirement.

The Marines Corps officer corps is a very tight-knit, caring bunch. They literally are willing to lay down their lives for one another. They certainly do not wish to badmouth one another in fitness reports. Giving nearly everyone outstanding ratings is one way of recognizing the contributions of these hard working, talented, and dedicated individuals. When officers not yet eligible for retirement do need to work on their growing edges, the outstanding ratings demonstrate the respect in which they are held and the confidence that they have the capacity to make the needed changes.

Although I am new to UU ministry, I have already seen parallels to the Marine Corps ethos among UU ministers and candidates for ministry and among clergy and clerical candidates from other religions. I support this ethos of evaluation. My concerns are that aspirants and candidates not used to such systems may be believe their own press, and as search committee members and other laity who are as naive as I once was may also be misled.

A major caveat to the above concerns: my experience with ministerial evaluation is limited. Maybe like one of the blind men touching the elephant, I have mistakenly inferred that what I've perceived is true for the whole enterprise. Your comments and insights will be appreciated.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Regionalization, Baffling Information, & Independent Review

Thanks to Christine Robinson at iMinister for this continuing dialogue on ministerial credentialing. Her latest post on the subject, to which this one is in reply, is here.

Regionalization - The fact that ministers often move among regions is not a significant objection to the establishment of 4 regional MFCs to match the 4 regional RSCCs. It does speak to the need to assure consistency and equity among regional RSCCs, as there needs to be consistency and equity between MFC panels now.

My experience with process innovation suggests that vertical integration--reviewing the record from application for aspirant status to final fellowship--is likely to be more important than horizontal integration--a single body reviewing all ministers in a step on the path, e.g., preliminary fellowship. One of the most valuable things that the MFC now does is look at multiple evaluations across time. When this is done, items that may have seemed minor in a single evaluation become magnified when they are repeated and unaddressed.

I do wholeheartedly agree that non-MFC individuals and groups can help the RSCCs and the MFC. For example, the drafting of standards and evaluation methods and studies of MFC processes and results can be performed outside of the MFC. In fact, the UUA Board recently charged a non-MFC work group to look at all UU credentialing.

Baffling Information - Christine rightfully points to the "baffling information" (or the baffling lack of information!) that sometimes accompanies a "3" from the MFC or a "yellow light" or "red light" from a RSCC. Christine tells us what happened to her 30 years ago. Today, David Pettee and others are ready to help "decode" these baffling comments. While it would be ideal for the MFC and RSCCs to provide more information in writing, this may not happen until they are given further resources.

Maybe another question might be helpful: "When is it appropriate to require additional preparation by a candidate before the candidate is allowed into preliminary fellowship?" As we strengthen the common and public understanding of the answer to that question, greater clarity and detail in the information provided to aspirants and candidates is likely to result.

Independent Review - Ah, it is terrible to waste a good miscommunication. I was not recommending a preliminary fellowship review outside the MFC; I was lauding the merits of having the annual MFC review because it is in addition to those provided by individuals and committees who work directly with the minister. The danger of direct observation is that the observers sometimes become so close to the minister that they become unwisely biased in their evaluations. However, I'm glad for the happy accident of the fuzziness of my recommendation because there is wisdom in Christine's recommendations that others be involved in the review process and that the mentoring process be strengthened.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ministerial Credentialing: Four Questions from Wayne Arneson

What a wonderful time to catch up on backlogs.

This post is in reply to the 4 questions from Wayne Arneson, Chair of the Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee (MFC), posted here at iMinister on 12/8/09.

1. The UUMA already plays a major role in accrediting ministers. There are UUMA reps to the MFC. Other Committee members, including the chair and the senior UUA staff advisers, are UUMA members. Having the UUMA take over the process entirely is very unlikely and risks isolating the process from the various constituencies served by UU ministers.

2. There may be merit in regional credentialing. The MFC has a massive workload that could be divided by regionalization. There would be the challenge of consistency across the regions; however, that challenge isn't likely to be insurmountable and is already faced by the Regional Subcommittees on Candidacy (RSCCs). The great challenge would be to locate the resources, both human and financial, to create such regional MFCs and to develop and provide the training and evaluation needed for valid and consistent examining in all of them.

3. The broader question is the following: Should there be a substantive review/examination before a candidate is accepted for preliminary fellowship, or should a candidate automatically be accepted for preliminary fellowship when the candidate has successfully completed all the requirements (M.Div., CPE, internship, etc.)? This question revolves around whether this examination is worth the resources expended. Without going into a long argument here, let's just note that some ministers have reported that getting a "3" (do "X" and come back for a 2nd interview) helped prepare them for ministry.

To return to the narrower question, if you accept that a final substantive review/examination is needed, then it's legit to ask whether an interview should be a part of it. The interview does produce information that can assist the MFC. It's also true that the interview and the process of preparing for it could be further demystified so as to reduce the attendant anxiety and improve its validity and reliability.

4. Even Christine Robinson's proposal seems to be another form of a probationary period, a time of trial during which a determination is made whether a person receives "tenure." As long as you retain a 3-year probationary period, it makes sense to have annual reviews and a continuing mentoring process.

Finally, it's of benefit to have someone or group other than the mentor who is outside the immediate setting evaluate progress during preliminary fellowship. This does not answer the questions of whether there is too much paperwork involved in the current process and whether we can streamline and improve the reviews.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas & Credentialing

Merry Christmas everyone!

I just got caught up on my e-mails yesterday. When that happens in Gmail, a little message appears asking whether you'd like to look at Google reader. I did so and found this most interesting post about ministerial credentialing at iMinister. Here are some responses to the points made there:

1. A cost-benefit analysis of UU credentialing is an excellent idea. I believe it is within the charge to the workgroup now being formed by the UUA Board in response to a recommendation from the Excellence in Ministry Summit.

2. A brief, high-stakes interview is a terrible way of determining who is qualified to be a UU minister. However, it's important not to confuse the culminating event in a process with the entire process. Now having served as a liaison to candidates, I am more aware of the importance of the packet review in the decision-making process of the Committee. From the outside, the interview appeared to have more weight in MFC decisions than it actually has.

This is not to say that the ministerial examining process could not be improved. A subgroup of the MFC Process Working Group is being created to further examine the interviewing process.

3. I couldn't agree more that "it would be best to be clearer and more transparent about who needs ministers to know what." It's even more important to be clearer and more transparent about who needs ministers to do what.

Furthermore, there's a disconnect between how the MFC sees itself, and how it is perceived by others. More transparency in the examining process, including how the MFC determines what questions to ask, can help to close this gap.

Yet an important part of the gap is not informational. It is, to use a phrase made famous during the Johnson Administration, a credibility gap. This credibility gap isn't generated by misdeeds and deceit. Rather it is a consequence of the fears generated by the high stakes involved in the MFC's decisions, the need to protect the privacy of candidates, the weight of tradition, and the paucity of resources. We can reduce it.

In this paragraph of the post, there is a misconception that the MFC interview is primarily fact-based, like a game of Jeopardy. Candidates can't afford to miss all the fact-based questions, but they are not the primary focus/point of the interview.

Finally, while we have congregational polity, we have an increasing number of community ministers. The needs of the communities they serve--hospitals, shelters, prisons, birth control clinics--should also be taken into account in designing and implementing ministerial examining processes.

4. Yes, written comprehensive exams--and alternatives to accommodate candidates with learning disabilities--would be fairer that a short oral interview covering 16 competencies if it is decided that the candidates' ability to recall such factual information is critical. In today's wired world, this is an anachronism. UU ministers should be able to locate facts, not be walking encyclopedias. Our exams should speak to whether they are mentally, emotionally, and spiritually ready for UU ministry.

5. The point of the Gladwell article is that in many occupations, the examining (and possibly the educational) process is flawed and does a terrible job of predicting success in the occupation. We can't conclude from it or from our current experience that all examining processes would not be predictive of ministerial success.

It is possible to put more weight on internships and residencies. It may even be possible to hold internship and residency supervisors accountable for their recommendations. Then the MFC examination would be likely to be more predictive of success because it would be based on more reliable and valid evaluations of candidates doing ministry.

6. The MFC's workload is massive. And it ties into orge's remark about competencies propagating like tribbles (for non-Star Trek fans, think "rabbits"). I am making recommendations to the subgroup of the Process Working Group on both of these topics.

As mentioned above, in addition to the MFC subgroup, a UUA Board inititated workgroup is being formed to look at all UU credentialing processes.

I am so pleased that this topic is generating such interest. It's a wonderful Christmas present.

Friday, December 18, 2009

More Difficult Than I Thought

One of the drivers of the quest for improved examining and interviewing was equal employment opportunity. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Department of Labor, the Department of Justice, and the Office of Personnel Management ( the Federal government's central human resources office, then called the Civil Service Commission) issued The Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures in 1978 to address the need for "a uniform set of principles on the question of the use of tests and other selection procedures." The two major issues in examining are validity (does the exam measure what it's supposed to measure) and reliability (is it consistent in its results).

Though I can't find the citation now, I remember a discussion about examining for the professions that was the material issued by the agencies to assist in implementation of the Guidelines. It made mention of peer examining because of the difficulty of quantifying competence in the professions.

At the time, I wondered whether this latitude given to the professions might have been due to pressure (or expected pressure) from the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, etc. Now my experience as a Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee (MFC) liaison to candidates has given me a new appreciation of the difficulties of examining in the professions while affirming my conviction of the importance of doing so.

I will be making suggestions for changes in MFC processes in the days to come. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what you'd suggest.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

See a Minister?

One of the critical questions, if not the critical question, Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee (MFC) members ask themselves in the examining process is whether they "see a minister" in a candidate for ministry. Serving as a liaison to candidates has changed my understanding of this inquiry. I'll blog about in the future.

In the meantime, I'm curious what this phrase means to you.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Do the Right Thing

For the December meeting of the Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee (MFC), I was one of the two liaisons to candidates. After all this time thinking and writing about the MFC and ministerial examining, it's been fascinating to observe the process from the inside. I'm going to do some posting based on what I've learned and inferred.

This first post is on observations and recommendations made by a Centers for Ministry (CFMs), Regional Subcommittees on Candidacy (RSCCs), Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) supervisors, and intern supervisors and committees. I have been critical of some of these recommendations and of actions based upon them for the following reasons:
  • "Requirements" are sometimes masked as "recommendations," especially by CFMs;
  • Some recommendations are vaguely written and difficult to interpret; and
  • The risks that aspirants and candidates will be penalized because of differing interpretations of these recommendations.
While I will say more about this issue in the future, I want to remind aspirants and candidates:
  • Do not ignore recommendations--no matter how tentative or vague--that appear in the material that you'll be submitting to the RSCC and/or MFC;
  • Either follow the recommendation, implement a solid substitute, or provide strong evidence that it's groundless; and
  • Unless the recommendation is clear and it's clear how to address it, seek guidance from several trusted mentors on interpretation and implementation.
I'm reminded of a colleague who received a 3 (come back and see us again) from the MFC and was unsure how to interpret and implement the recommendations. She sought help from a senior minister and developed and implemented a plan. When she returned to the MFC for her 2nd interview, she received a 1.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Resistance is Futile! Join/Create Study Groups & Support Systems

Knowing that some of you may wish to read only the guidance for ministerial examining preparation in this post and skip the philosophy underlying it, the guidance comes first and the thinking behind it is afterward.

The recommendation is to join or create a study group for your RSCC and MFC interviews. I participated in one at Starr King School for the Ministry. We jointly read material from the reading list, prepared short reflection papers, read the papers in the group, and discussed the readings and our papers. It was a very useful way of obtaining and digesting multiple perspectives on the readings and to be supportive of one another.

Join/create a study group and take what we did a step further: share and discuss critical feedback from your Center for Ministry, CPE, internship, and other evaluations. Talk about the accuracy of the evaluations and what steps you've taken to address the concerns raised in them.

Study groups should augment having advisers, mentors, and friends reviewing your RSCC and MFC packages, especially the essays, and having a mock interview.

OK, now for a little philosophy:

Those of you who are Star Trek fans know that "Resistance is futile." is the motto of the Borg, who according to their Wikipedia article, are:

The Borg manifest as cybernetically enhanced humanoid drones of multiple species, organized as an interconnected collective, the decisions of which are made by a hive mind, linked to subspace domain. The Borg . . . operate solely toward the fulfilling of one purpose: to "add the biological and technological distinctiveness of other species to their own" in pursuit of perfection. This is achieved through forced assimilation, a process which transforms individuals and technology into Borg, enhancing, and simultaneously controlling, individuals by implanting or appending synthetic components.
The Borg represent nightmares of totalitarianism, automation, and assimilation. They carry on in the traditions of Orwell's 1984 (totalitarianism) and the computer HAL 9000 in Clarke's and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Contrast these visions of the threats of automation and collective thinking with the words of Eamonn Healy, a chemistry professor, from the film Waking Life. (The 3.5 minute clip from the film and transcript are available here.) Healy offers up the vision of a new evolution based upon two types of information: digital (technology) and analog (biology) life. He states that under the old evolutionary paradigm, digital intelligence would replace biological intelligence. Under his new paradigm, the two intelligences augment one another, accelerating evolution.

It's quite possible that the digital will be the savior of the biological. Just as the scary computers of the 1950s and 60s turned into the useful tools of today, the internet has many "hive mind" aspects. Healy imagines that the blending of the biological and the artificial will lead to greater individuality. It already has lead to great interconnection. The two visions are compatible.

Questions about sharing and privacy are important. Yet, we grow and become more resilient when we share ourselves with those who are trustworthy. I am incredibly grateful to the mentors and friends who guided me through the fellowshipping process. Don't wait to build your own support systems.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Facing Failure

"Failure" is not a pretty word. We like to use euphemisms such as "crash and burn" and "learning experience." However, not getting selected for a job, promotion, or assignment can feel like failure. Divorce feels like failure. Being told by the Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee (MFC) that they do see in you a minister (a #4 rating) feels like failure.

And failures have consequences. Sometimes we never try again. Other times we dust ourselves off and get back into the fray.

Rev. Robert Fulghum, UU minister and Starr King School for the Ministry graduate, wrote that he walked into a kindergarten class and asked the children who could draw, sing, and dance. All the kids raised their hands. Then he walked into an 5th grade class and asked the same questions. This time only a few of the students responded to each question. They'd already learned to define themselves by their failures.

I was very lucky that one of my greatest failures--not getting selected for a promotion--seemed so unjust to me that I was more mystified than angry. Of course, anger, denial, bargaining, fear, depression, and sorrow all appeared before acceptance arrived.

My father taught me that experts and libraries were the sources of solutions to problems and questions. Luckily, I'd also learned that speaking to nearly everyone you know is sometimes a better solution, or at least a good supplement.

I spoke to my boss, my boss's boss, my boss's boss's boss, my boss's boss's boss's boss, other leaders, peers, friends, family; in short, pretty much the waterfront. I learned more about what people thought of me. I asked the leaders whether they thought I had potential for advancement and whether there was anything I should be doing differently.

After much reassurance, I came to acceptance. Within two years I was promoted to an equivalent position that was better suited to my talents.

Hiding in shame--though very, very tempting--no longer seems to be good strategy. We see wounded animals do so because they are afraid that predators will take advantage of their injuries to kill them. Do you believe that those around you are that predatory? If not, seek their help.

On the road to ministry, you'll have to make your own assessments. Many decide that ministry is not for them. However, if you fall and then decide to dust yourself off and get back on the road, do consider consulting with as many people as possible. It's a grand strategy for facing failure, building relationships, and achieving success.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tyson, the Film and the Interviews

Last night I watched Tyson, a movie about Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight boxing champion, by James Toback. I haven't followed boxing since Muhammad Ali retired (and not very much before then), but between allegations of spousal abuse, a conviction for sexual assault, and biting a boxing opponent on both ears, it was hard not to know of Mr. Tyson.

Based on what I "knew," I assumed that he was no more than a brute without impulse control. I came away from the film with a much more complex and nuanced portrait of the man.

Based on the little bit of research I've done on the film (including watching the DVD extras), it appears that in addition to Tyson's complexity and Toback's skills as an interviewer and filmmaker, their long-time relationship helped Mr. Tyson open up in this revealing portrait. This relationship and other aspects of the film and Mr. Toback's history and oeuvre lead one to question his objectivity. However, there is less reason to question his results, in which we can find important lessons about obtaining a deeper understanding of another through interviewing.

A. O. Scott, The New York Times reviewer of the movie (see the link above), points out what a scary figure Mr. Tyson remains even as we come to see his humanity. In this blog, I have usually been focusing on how frightening interviews such as those by the Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee (MFC) and Regional Subcommittees on Candidacy (RSCCs) can be for the interviewees. This movie has led me to speculate more deeply on the emotions of the interviewers.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Total Recall; Practice, Practice, Practice; and the Power of Misinterpretation

Reading "Total Recall" by Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist, in Wired magazine reminded me of the power of practice and how easily examining can go astray. The subject of the article is Jill Price, a woman with a supposedly "perfect" memory. If you'll click on the link to the Wired article, you'll also see Diane Sawyer's interview of Ms. Price.

After interviewing (please note all fans of the blog: interviewing!) Ms. Price over 5 years, James McGaugh, a neuroscientist, and his team at UC Irvine concluded that she had a near perfect memory in this article first published in the journal Neurocase. An editor at the Free Press went even further, entitling her story The Woman Who Can't Forget: The Extraordinary Story of Living With the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science.

Ms. Price does indeed have an amazing memory, but Dr. Marcus, upon examining her further, discovered that her memory isn't all-inclusive. Rather her forte is autobiographical memory. Dr. Marcus writes that the source of this autobiographic memory is rumination that appears obsessive. She didn't seek out this memory and she didn't know its source; it was an unsought consequence of her journaling and other daily habits.

OK, OK, so what does this have to do with ministerial examining?
  • Examinees can mislead examiners even when they are not trying to do so.
  • Interviewing is a limited tool at best even when in the hands of scientists who should know better. (Being a professional doesn't assure that you are a skilled interviewer, and even skilled interviewers can be misled or can deceive themselves.)
  • Examining and assessment should be based on a multiplicity of instruments, and there should be appeal/review mechanisms because of the possibility of error.
  • Interviewers are likely to be tempted, and may even consciously or unconsciously fall to the temptation, to seek information that affirms the conclusions they've already reached.
  • "Ordinary" people can achieve extraordinary results with practice, practice, practice. (The thesis of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, which is discussed elsewhere in this blog.)
So let's acknowledge the inherent worth and dignity of each individual involved in developing and implementing the current UU ministerial examining process. I am confident that they are doing their best with the best of intentions. I'm grateful for their professional and their volunteer efforts. Yet, I will continue to advocate for evolution in UU ministerial examining.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On the Job Assessment

In the print version of this SF Chronicle article, "More Companies Try Out Workers Before Making Full-Time Offers," the paper highlighted the following quote from a local CEO:
I've had people who are horrible at interviewing but are awesome employees, and people who are great at interviews and horrible employees.
My personal experience of the above was one of my motives for researching examining procedures when I worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The CEO and I are not alone. In interviews of senior VA officials who were being considered for advancement, nearly all reported that the decision they most regretted in their careers was an employee selection.

I mentioned in an earlier post that work samples tend to be superior to interviews as predictors of job success. Naturally, a 90-day work sample tends to be superior to a 2-hour work sample.

Please note that the firms described in the article aren't starting with "permanent" employment and using traditional probationary periods. The difficulty with such periods is that you have to fire a poorly performing employee, and most employers are reluctant to do so unless performance or behavior is egregious. The "test periods" described in the article allow employers to let individuals go without firing them.

Internships and residencies should serve as such "test periods" for ministry. They do to some extent, but not as effectively as they might, because supervisors are reluctant to make negative evaluations, and they don't have to live with the consequences of their positive evaluations. It is rare for a minister to be employed by his/her internship site (a special dispensation from the Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee (MFC) is required).

This reluctance to be candid reminds me of what a U.S. Marine officer one told me about the officer evaluation process. He said that all Marine officers are outstanding, but some are just more outstanding than others. To make comparisons among officers, you had to read between the lines.

The MFC has a tough job. Like senior Marine officers, it too has to read between the lines when reviewing the material in a candidate's package. For example, a seemingly minor comment by an internship committee may become major if it's duplicated in other evaluations. Sometimes the various evaluators have not seen one another's evaluations. The MFC must put the whole picture together.

The above reminds me of Spiderman's code: "With great power comes great responsibility." (Variations of this thought can be found in Socrates, Rousseau, FDR, and Churchill.) I add that with great power comes the need for great humility. The purpose of this blog is to start a dialogue about how the fellowshipping process be the best possible exercise of that responsibility.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Interviews vs. Work Samples

OK, I thought I was pretty radical, but Dan & Chip Heath, authors of the "Made to Stick" column in Fast Company magazine and the book of the same name have exceeded me in dissing interviews in their article: "Hold the Interview: Why it may be wiser to hire people without meeting them."

Their citation of a study at the University of Texas Medical School is compelling, and parallels the findings at the University of Michigan Law School sited by Malcolm Gladwell in his video (see link with discussion here). I love the following quote:
With so little proof that interviews work, why do we rely on them so much? Because we all think we're good at it. We are Barbara Walters or Mike Wallace, taking the measure of the person. Psychologist Richard Nisbett calls this the "interview illusion"--our certainty that we're learning more in an interview than we really are.
The brothers Heath then go on to laud the merits of work samples, which are more valid predictors of job success.

We can do a better job of interviewing through the use of performance-based interviewing techniques. But the Heath article strikes an appropriate cautionary note: We would be wise to place less weight in the examining process on even the best of interviews.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


I've added Facebook to my list of addictions. Recently it suggested I become a fan of Pongo Resume. That's how I found the blog post, Like It or Not, Likability is the Key to Getting Hired.

OK, as a congregant and now as a colleague, there is much to be said for likable ministers. It's hard for me to imagine wanting to have a minister or be a minister who was not likable.

My concern is the risk of giving too much weight to likability in an interview and therefore in the entire examining/fellowshipping process. Even people who behave despicably can give the appearance of being likable for the length of an interview. And quite likable and well-qualified individuals can "freeze up," hiding their merit under the fire and ice of panic. Finally, ministry sometimes calls for not being likable, e.g., when telling truth to power.

Upside Down

Working/interpreting dreams has taught me to look at things both right side up and upside down. The scary monster in a dream may have my best interests at heart, may be a good friend trying to warn me of impending disaster. A death may be the announcement of a healing transformation.

Though I more often hear stories of shock, pain, fear, and anger from individuals who receive a "yellow light" from a Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy (RSCC) or a "2" or "3" from the MFC, I also hear stories from people who tell me that they have come to agree with the decision they received and have benefited from the additional study or the additional activities prescribed. Though this blog contains suggestions for improving the current examining process, it recommends that the UUA continue to examine for ministry and acknowledges that some candidates are not ready for "green lighting" when they first present themselves to the examining body.

My theology is principally drawn from Indian philosophy. When the WRSCC (Western RSCC) told me that I didn't have a fully developed UU theology, it forced me to research the Indian roots of transcendentalism. I found that I was treading a path that held the footprints of Mary Moody Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. The research and reflection helped me integrate my UUism and my nondualism.

Do you have a tale of how RC and/or MFC prescriptions--no matter how disappointing at the time--eventually worked to your benefit?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Quest for Certainty

Currently, I'm reading The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. On page 157 of the former, she writes that in the 1960s:
The appeal of the Christian fundamentalists was similar to that of strict Hasidic sects in the Jewish community: They offered rules and certainty to some young men and women who had found only unhappiness where others had found personal freedom.
Back in the day, I was one of the youth who was revelling in the freedom of the time. Brought up UU in a diverse Washington, DC, congregation, when I went to the University of Wisconsin (Madison), during the turmoil of the late 1960s, I felt like the rest of the world was joining our free, liberal faith. In contrast to my felt sense at the time, Jacoby points out that the turmoil of the 1960s was the seedbed for neoconservatism, fundamentalism, and the Reagan Revolution.

In Outliers: The Story of Success and this wonderful video from the 2008 New Yorker Conference, Malcolm Gladwell points to a "mismeasurement" problem in many fields that is due to a misplaced quest for certainty in examining. While it's true that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior (the mantra of performance-based interviewing), the value of past behavior as a predictor varies with its relevance to the expected future behavior. Dividing a job into its component parts and testing each of these may not provide good results. Please see the Gladwell video for specific examples.

I wonder whether the complexity and the nature of the current UU ministerial examining process is not in part a consequence of the difficulties of some ministers and ministries. How has our UU history served as a seedbed for our conservatism in examining?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

School of Diplomacy, Inner Peace, & Ministerial Presence

I worked for the Federal government from my early 20s through my early 50s. For much of that time, I was supervised and/or mentored by a woman who was concerned about my lapses in diplomacy. These lapses were most frequent in my 20s, gradually tappering off. As the years passed, I would tease her about being a graduate of her school of diplomacy, and she would tease me about not having a diploma to prove it.

I am currently serving as an organizational development consultant to a UU fellowship. The other day a member of its board complimented me on my people skills.

I briefly felt like a postgraduate of my former boss' school of diplomacy. However, drilled in reflection in seminary, I started to wonder what had changed.

As a young man, I thought that my and my family's current and future well-being were dependent upon success in my career. A workplace situation I found threatening felt very threatening indeed.

At first, I was thinking that my newly found (or slowly evolved) skills were merely a matter of not having the same emotional and economic investment in the consulting work that I did in my former career. Yet something quickly told me that this wasn't the right answer. I care very much what happens to the Fellowship.

What has changed is that I have become more aware of limitations -- my own, others, and collective -- and less attached to outcomes. Some of these changes are situational, and some are the gifts of guidance from mentors and friends.

When this thought appeared, I was reminded of a minister's comments about her preparation for her MFC interview. She said she'd spent months anxiously reading and memorizing. Somehow, just before the interview she found a place of peace. Her inner voice told her that the MFC would take her as she was or they would not. I've heard others referred to this moment as the recognition -- without shame or pride -- of being a minister regardless of the MFC 's decision.

There is some strong connection or even an identity between an inner peace and ministerial presence. Diplomacy and compassion often arise from this place.

Please note that I am not speaking of the mythic or unattainable. This sense of equilibrium is not unassailable. Moments of doubt and uncertainty and even of despair still appear. Yet something has shifted.

Where is your sense of equilibrium? What brings you back to center when you feel unbalanced? How do you find that peace in the midst of stress and anxiety? How do you let go of outcomes? The answers to these questions are likely to be more important to your preparation for your MFC interview than those to any fact-based questions you or the MFC can devise.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Temporary Autism

Autism is defined in Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary as:
A variable developmental disorder that appears by age three and is characterized by impairment of the ability to form normal social relationships, by impairment of the ability to communicate with others, and by stereotyped behavior patterns.
In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell lauds the merits of "rapid cognition," something we sometimes know as "intuition." However, he also points out that it can often go astray. One example he gives is what he calls "temporary autism."

Gladwell is focusing on our ability to assess the emotions of others by "reading" their faces, an ability that people suffering from autism appear to lack. Gladwell says that when those of us who are not suffering from autism becomes sufficiently stressed, we become temporarily autistic, losing our capacity to read in the emotions of others.

I went to the MFC presentation at the General Assembly in 2007 in Portland. A then member of the MFC said that he knew that ministerial candidates were stressed by the MFC interview, but he didn't think that the MFC members were all that scary a bunch and that the candidates would face much greater stresses when they became ministers.

I would have to agree that the MFC members are not all that scary a bunch. In fact I find them to be hard working, talented, dedicated, and well-intentioned. But the former MFC member's assessment did not take into account the situation in which the candidates find themselves when they are facing the MFC.

When working as a chaplain in medical center emergency rooms and critical care, medical, surgical, and psychiatric units, there are people and situations that are more frightening than the MFC and its members. Yet no single interaction has the foreseen capacity to postpone or even derail one's call to ministry.

In the parallel situation of a job interview, you know that if you don't get this job, you are likely to get another. You may also know that there are discrimination complaint and other review procedures if you believe you have been treated unfairly.

None of these options really apply to the MFC interview. If you're UU down to your bones and you're not fellowshipped as a UU, it's not likely that you're to become a candidate for fellowshipping in another religion. Furthermore, there's no review process outside of the MFC for its preliminary fellowshipping decisions.

The pressure therefore is enormous. When I listen to the stories of aspirants and candidates who "froze" in their interviews, it sounds an awful lot like temporary autism.

What do I recommend?
  • Put less emphasis on the interview in the fellowshipping process;
  • Create a review process outside the MFC; and
  • Increase interview training for aspirants and candidates.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the UU Principles Vote

As a delegate to the 2009 UU General Assembly, I became engaged in the discussion and vote to amend the UU Principles. The proposed amendments spoke to UU identity and to competencies for UU ministry.

Before GA, I was aware of, but not deeply engaged in, the Commission on Appraisal review of the Principles. The editing of the Principles was minor. The changes to the Sources provoked some concern, but my attention was elsewhere.

The funny thing that happened on the way to the vote were my multiple visits to the HUUmanists booth in the exhibition hall. They had a petition to reject the changes, and I fell into discussion regarding their objections.

I'm not a religious humanist (or at least not exclusively a religious humanist); I'm a mystical nondualist. The HUUmanists objected to the changes in the Sources because they no longer sufficiently acknowledged "Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit." I objected to the deletion of "Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life" as our first source.

I also objected to the new opening to the Sources:
Unitarian Universalism is rooted in two religious heritages. Both are grounded on thousands of years of Jewish and Christian teachings, traditions, and experiences.
The "rooted" imagery gives the impression that UUism still draws its primary nourishment from Judaism and Christianity.

For many of us, the history of Unitarianism is a newly 200-year movement away from Christianity. We draw our spiritual nourishment from other sources. However, the current list of Competencies for UU Ministry, with their privileging of Christian Church history and Jewish and Christian scriptures, does not seem to adequately recognize that change nor the diversity within UUism.

Someone once told me that hymnals often lag behind changes in theology that are appear elsewhere in worship. Is our list of ministerial competencies also lagging behind? Or are we turning back to Christianity, disappointed with humanism and mysticism?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Malcolmtarian Gladwellversalist

Okay, okay, I'm exaggerating. I have no intention of starting a new religion based on Malcolm Gladwell, nor do I think his books, such as Outliers and Blink, are holy writ. However, I'm beginning to suspect that if he didn't exist I would have had to invent him.

I've referred to Outliers in these 2 posts. Two main themes of this book are the "mismatch" problem of using faulty measures for examining and the importance of practice in the development of expertise.

Though Blink was written before Outliers, I'm just now getting around to reading it. In it, Gladwell points to the many benefits of "thin slicing" and gives examples of "intuition" being superior to analysis. However, he also points to risks and errors of intuition in the story of Warren G. Harding, a man who most looked like but was least capable of being an effective president.

Gladwell's writing provides an excellent explanation of the phenomena I named in the post "15 Seconds." Intuitions can be a critical source of knowledge not immediately available to conscious thought. They can also mislead and support discrimination.

Though Gladwell is a journalist, not a scientist, but he's done a great job of writing about the science and the experiences that support his theses. After you read his books, I doubt that you'll ever again think about examining and thinking the same way again.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Promote Racial Diversity Fairly

Cynthia Tucker, editor and columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote the above titled column that you may find at this link. Interestingly, by the time it appeared in the SF Chronicle, it had been retitled "Achieving Racial Diversity Requires Top-Down Competence."

Since this blog is about examining, I was particularly interested in the following paragraph:

To begin with, New Haven shouldn’t have staked firefighters’ promotions largely on the outcome of a classroom test; there are far better ways to determine leadership skills in a fire department. Many departments test prospective leaders by running simulations of real-life scenarios. After all, giving correct answers on a pencil-and-paper test hardly proves the capacity to lead the rescue of workers trapped in a burning building.

It could well be argued that the mini-sermon in the MFC interview is a simulation of a real-life scenario. What would such simulations be for chaplains? spiritual directors? pastoral counselors?

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Past is Prologue

Many folks enter seminary after retiring from another career. Seminarians at the Starr King School have ranged in age from 21 to 60 something.

At Ministry Days before GA, I got into a conversation with a minister whom I had just met. He spoke about the growth of his congregation. I asked him the key to his success. He attributed it in part to his prior career in banking.

If he hadn't been so sincere, I might have thought he was being ironic. Current disasters in the banking industry don't speak well of it as a guide for ministry or any other career/calling. However, I presume he was talking about banking before the excesses (or in banks that weren't guilty of the excesses).

Though the relationship between a minister and a congregation is very different than that between a CEO (chief executive officer) and a corporation/NGO/nonprofit/government office, there are some meaningful similarities. You can acquire significant leadership and managerial skills in lay work within congregations and many settings outside of UUism.

How should these skills and knowledges be evaluated in examining and interviewing for UU ministry? Should these lay and non-UU experiences be subject to the same kind of rigorous examination that is given to CPE internships and residencies and UU internships?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Disappointment, Reflection, Forgiveness, Acceptance

If there's one thing you learn in seminary (or at least at Starr King School for the Ministry), it's how to write reflection papers. And this is a good thing. Ministers and candidates for ministry benefit from reflection.

There have been many disappointments on the road to ministry. I naively thought that the journey would be about deepening my relationships with the sacred, people, and things. Instead, when I entered seminary in 2003, it felt like being in the center of a mined battlefield. You could see the verbal bullets whiz by. Sometimes you and others were hit by them. You had to be careful where you stepped--the ground could explosively open beneath you.

Many were wounded. Some left the field.

Starr King has settled down a lot since those tumultuous school years of 03-04 and 04-05. However, UUA Board member Linda Laskowski's recent post "OK at the Deer Valley Corral" reminds me what a contentious and suspicious community we UUs can be.

I opened up this post with praise for the value of reflection. My dreams for seminary were not fulfilled; however, I did learn that my disappointments called for reflection, acceptance, and forgiveness--both for myself and others. Had I been more skillful and compassionate, I could have helped channel the passions that armed the adversaries and planted the mines. Had I been more compassionate and skillful, I could have contributed more to healing the wounds--wounds I am closer and closer to accepting as inevitable.

I write this post with some trepidation. As a minister, it is my job to be a bringer of hope and inspiration. Yet I also believe that acknowledgment, acceptance, and forgiveness provide a firmer foundation for hope and inspiration than the pretense that "all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

What does all this have to do with examining for ministry? The answer lies in the question of how our seminary experiences prepare us for ministerial examinations. As the UUA considers excellence in ministry, it would benefit from studying the cultures of its seminaries, congregations, and association and the impact of those cultures on ministerial formation and development.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Good Officers for Aspirants and Candidates?

Yesterday, an aspirant told me that she had overheard a proposal here at General Assembly that there be "Good Officers" for aspirants and candidates.

"Good Officers" are ministers who have been designated to investigate and mediate disputes between ministers and congregations. The aspirant stated that an aspirant or candidate unhappy with the decision of an RSCC or the MFC may not feel comfortable discussing that decision with a representative of the body that made it. Talking to a knowledgeable third-party could be of benefit.

The aspirant is a student at the Starr King School for the Ministry and can turn to the experienced and knowledgeable faculty there for guidance. But what about the many UU aspirants and students who do not attend UU seminaries?

I believe that this suggestion has sufficient merit to warrant further exploration by the UUMA. What do you think?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Editors: Don't Let Your Papers Leave Home Without Them

Sinces lots of very personal information ends up in your Center for Ministry report, CPE and other evaluations, etc., you'll have a natural inclination to protect your privacy and not share this information any more widely than necessary.  Overcome this inclination!

I'm not suggesting that you put this material on your Facebook page, but I am suggesting that you find several confidants to look at your material so they can:

  • serve as editors; and 
  • predict the interview questions you're likely to receive.
You may believe that your academic advisor can review your material and satisfactorily advise you.  You might be right.  However, don't wait until after the RSCC interview to be disabused of this notion.  Ask ministers, seminiarians, and loved ones to give you their best guidance.

Another critical bit of info.  Unless they have changed their procedures, the RSCC administrators do not give your paperwork to your RSCC liaison until about 2 weeks before your interview.  If you want to have an informed discussion with your liaison months before your interview (always a good idea), be sure to send your liaison enough information for her/him to be able to give you good advice.


Monday, June 8, 2009

Fire in the Belly; Pain in the Heart

No, I'm not trying to come up w/ a list of symptoms for some undiagnosed illness. Rather I've been looking at my own motives for writing this blog.

The pain in my heart is for all those who have been unnecessarily wounded by our current processes for examining for ministry. Let me stress the word "unnecessarily." We need an examining process. There are those who may not be ready for ordained ministry. For those who are ready, a good examining process endorses their efforts and demonstrates support from our Association.

The question I'm raising is whether our current processes for examining for ministry represent best practices in examining and, if not, what are the best ways to modify them.

The MFC has asked the Board of Trustees to charter a comprehensive review of ministerial examining. It's great that we're on the same page regarding this need.

Yet, the fire in my belly and the pain in my heart are fueled by concerns about the damage that may be done while this review is undertaken. On Sunday, I heard another tale of woe about the actions of a Regional Subcommittee on Candidates (RSCC). My interlocutor wanted to know why the RSCC would substitute its judgment for those of individuals such as CPE supervisors and internship supervisors who had much more experience with his performance.

OK, let's presume that this candidate had "stage fright." Several other candidates have reported having same. After all, it feels like one's entire future is being compressed into a one-hour interview. Let's also allow that susceptibility to stage fright isn't a good trait in ministry. The question remains whether we want to use this as an opt-out in our examining process or merely advise candidates how to prepare to overcome it.

WARNING: I may be radically oversimplifying. There may be many reasons over and above stage fright that are causing these candidates to stumble. It just saddens me that so many are receiving what appear to be unnecessary wounds.


  • Let's not wait several years to convene a blue-ribbon panel. Let's start modifying the process now. The MFC and RSCCs can provide additional guidance about their current expectations. This guidance will inform candidates and provide useful information for the panel.
  • Seminaries, academic advisers, internship supervisors, CPE supervisors, and others should be designing and implementing more opportunities for candidates to become test wise. For example, Fred Helio Fred Garcia teaches an outstanding course at Starr King in Media Skills in Public Ministry, which can help candidates prepare for challenging interviews. (As an aside, the film Frost/Nixon is a guide to some of the the perils and challenges of interviewing.)
  • Candidates and aspirants can do more to educate themselves about the process and prepare themselves for the interviews. I am pleased with the buzz for this blog. We may start a new motto: "Mock Interview: Don't leave for your MFC/RSCC interview without one."

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Best Predictors

The mantra for performance based interviewing was the following: The best predictor of future performance is past performance. Therefore, we designed interview questions that allowed candidates to describe how they had performed when facing tasks and challenges similar to those of the positions for which they were applying.

However, there is an even better predictor of future performance on a job than past performance in other jobs and life situations: Past performance on the same job. Christine Robinson, aka iMinister, well makes that point in her comment below on my last post. Her thinking is affirmed by Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success, in which he criticizes many evaluation techniques as being poor predictors of future performance. He calls this "the mismatch problem," and encourages the use of on-the-job evaluation.

This is a justice issue. One of Gladwell's examples was preference for minorities at the University of Michigan law school. Twenty years after the preferences were granted, minority attorneys who had been granted preferences were performing as well as non-minority candidates who had "higher" qualifications.

In "Minorities Will Strive to Cross a Higher Bar," David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, cites a recent study that shows that undergraduate minority students at elite private universities who receive preferential treatment perform better. People do respond to rising expectations. Kirp shows the fallacies in claims that this preferencial treatment creates another kind of mismatch problem.

How does all this translate into recommendations for examining for ministers?
  • Use the best measures available and recognize their limitations.
  • Take iMinister's advice and put more emphasis on on-the-job performance rather than academics.
  • Provide preferential treatment when warranted and publicize your processes and rationales. This whole-person approach can consider class and other distinctions and expections that have impacted past performance.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Parker's Legacy for Ministerial Formation & Development

The Eclectic Cleric has a wonderful post "Theodore Parker's destructive legacy . . ." It provides an explanation for his comment on my post "Glory Days."

To read about this exchange in detail, please follow the links above. The short version was my concern that our love of our past--both our shared historical past and the pasts and cultures of our individual congregations--might discourage us from making the changes necessary for a vital future. The Eclectic Cleric wrote the following: "The influence of people like Theodore Parker (in particular) on subsequent generations of Unitarian clergy has in many ways been more harmful than good."

With the best of intentions, I meant to ask him to clarify his remark, but didn't get around to it. Now in his "Theodore Parker's destructive legacy . . .", he's provided that clarity. While I encourage you to read The Eclectic Cleric's complete post, a critical observation he's made is that Parker suicided through overwork, setting a bad example for subsequent UU clergy.

While I'm new to UU ministry, I'm not new to UUism or to overwork. I believe that we set UU ministers on the path of self-destruction by expecting that they will be competent in 15 different areas. We put an "S" on their chests, give them a robe (not a cape), and tell them to make a leap of faith over tall, if not impossible, demands.

Success is often attributable to being specialized and focused. Those who try to be all things to all people may end up disappointing everyone.

It may come as a surprise after the above, but I have some ambivalence around this issue. Ministerial formation caused me to stretch in painful yet growthful ways. The line between a healthy stretch and an injury isn't always clear. The line between appropriately addressing multiple responsibilities and wasting one's energies by spreading them too thin is similarly cloudy.

The mind wants to simplify and is particularly fond of bifurcation. Focus on the congregation or on the community? Hallman or Morales? But the issues we're raising are too complex to neatly fit into dichotomies. Let's continue to bring attention to these questions and encourage others to do so as well.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bringers of Hope; Companions in Despair

One of my CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) supervisors, Rev. Dr. Peter Yuichi Clark, taught me that a critical role of chaplains is to be bringers of hope.  It was a challenge to figure out what this meant to a non-theist like me.

The Rev. Patty Franz, then a hospice chaplain, was a guide.  I asked her what one said to a dying person when you yourself had no clarity about what happens after death.  She told me to ask patients what they imagined would happen.  In time, I saw myself not bringing hope but drawing out the hope that was already within others.

Candidates preparing for their MFC (Ministerial Fellowship Committee) interviews are frequently told that the MFC is looking for "ministerial presence."  Is the candidate able to minister to the MFC?  Is the candidate someone that the MFC members would like to have as their minister?

When I was preparing for my MFC interview, I certainly had my bouts of fear and despair.  Before and during the interview, I had moments of high anxiety. How does one bring hope and be a companion to despair when one is feeling hopeless and afraid?

Before reading my answers, I recommend you reflect on your own answers.  What's below worked for me, but each of us has within ourselves the answers to these questions.

I found myself asking for help and guidance.  There's a long list of UU and non-UU ministers and lay persons who supported me.

For some reason, I am reminded of my work on a unit for persons with serious psychiatric illnesses.  I was frightened.  Yet, I came to learn that I was not alone, that others "had my back."

When you go in for your MFC interview, there will be a whole bunch of folk who will have your back.  The members of the Committee are not nearly as frightening as they may appear in your imagination.  They have your and UUism's best interest at heart.  Bring the hope that is within you and draw out the hope that is within them.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Washitarians & Other Strange Creatures

A wise friend from Charlottesville, VA, home of the University of Virginia (founded by that quasi-Unitarian Thomas Jefferson), once told me that all university towns exist in invisible bubbles that separate them from the rest of the planet.  Now that I've lived in the Berkeley bubble for several years, I better appreciate what he said and the opportunity to get out of town every once in a while to breathe the air outside the bubble.

I am a Washitarian, i.e., a Unitarian (now UU) from Washington, DC.  There are over 20 UU congregations in the Baltimore-Washington metro area.  To be a UU at the Fairfax, VA, congregation, for example, may be different than being a UU at Arlington, All Souls, or Bull Run.

Before I moved to Berkeley, I knew what it was like being this UU in DC; Northern Virginia; Madison, WI; and Tampa, FL.  However, being UU at the Starr King School for the Ministry was honest to God culture shock.  I found this link on the subject and started checking out my symptoms.

What is the relevance of all this for examining for UU ministry?  For me, it speaks to the question of "fit."  A minister might "fit" wonderfully well at the Berkeley Fellowship and bomb at the Tampa Church.   A minister might fit the needs of a church in 1995 and bomb at that same church (of course, it wouldn't be the same church) in 2009.

How do we examine for ministry in a way that recognizes the wide range of cultures, needs, and environments in which our successful candidates will find themselves?  What are the lessons learned from successful ministers who've had to grow into positions in cultures unlike their own?

How to Use This Blog

In my fantasy world, all readers of this blog would be tech sophisticates reading every word of my deathless prose with bated breath. Meanwhile, back in this universe, I know that many of my readers are seminarians and other candidates for UU ministry who are checking it out for pointers for preparing for RSCC and MFC interviews. And, like the rest of us poor mortals, there are seminarians who have not yet achieved tech enlightenment.

Therefore, there are lots of labels, such as "Preparing for the MFC Interview," on the lower right side of this page. Click on one of them, and only those posts related to your interest will appear.

Knowing how stressful it can be preparing for these interviews, I hope this guidance and these shortcuts are helpful to you.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Envy & Evangelicals

Of all the books I read in seminary (and there were many!), one that made a particularly deep impression was The Very Large Church by Lyle E. Schaller.

A lifelong UU who'd never been inside a metachurch, I'd lumped together "evangelicals" and "fundamentalists." I learned that not all evangelicals are politically and social conservative and that the message of many of them is more about hospitality and salvation than about dogma.

The programs and services offered by the megachurches are amazing.   I became jealous, imagining what UU congregations and ministers could do with the resources of churches of this size.  While nationally we UUs were holding our own in absolute numbers, we were becoming increasing insignificant as a percentage of U.S. population. 

In "The Coming Evangelical Collapse," Michael Spencer, predicts a major decline of evangelical Christianity.  His reasons include evangelicals having become identified with culture and political conservativism and their failure to pass onto their youth a faith that can survive the impact of secularism.  He write [italics his]:  We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.

In "The Future of Religion," Jon Cleland-Host raises interesting questions about the future of religion.

What does all this have to do with examining for UU ministry?  Well, when you don't like an outcome, e.g., the flatlining of UU membership since the Us joined the Us in 1961, you may be tempted to round up all the usual suspects, including the formation and development of ministers.  In this case, ministerial formation and development played a role in UUism's failure to grow, but the above articles give us context and perspective for evaluting that outcome and that role.

Have UUs also confused causes with a faith and have we failed to provide our youth--or even ourselves--with a faith that can survive secularism?   How do we form and develop UU ministers who bring hope for our religion and for our planet?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Love-Making Elephants and Moments of Clarity

The last sentence of my previous post was too long, complicated, and obscure. Clarity hopefully follows.

When I worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), we used to say that all the major projects were like elephants making love: the underbrush was trampled, small creatures and flora could be damaged or even destroyed if they were in the way, there was a lot of trumpeting and other unpleasant noises, and there was no visible result for at least three years. (The actual gestation period for elephants is around 22 months, but for VA projects, 3 years could be just the kickoff.)

Over at the UUA View from Berkeley, UUA Trustee Linda Laskowski reports that the UUA Board has created a working group on excellence in ministry that will be convened by Rev. Doug Gallager. Starting on page 3 of its April 16, 2009, Report to the Board, the Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee (MFC) recommended a "comprehensive review of the MFC's role in fostering excellence in ministry" which is anticipated to take 2 to 3 years.

I applaud this recommendation of the MFC and wonder what might be done while the review is being undertaken. My previous post on prototyping was an argument for making adjustments while data collection and analysis occur.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Francis Bacon, C. Otto Scharmer, & the Evolution of Competencies

Since there may be a UU who hasn't yet discovered The Teaching Company, let's start with a shout-out.  The Teaching Company is a purveyor of audio and video recordings of college courses: a great way to fill the gaps in one's knowledge or to challenge one's "knowledge" with new perspectives.

I've been listening to Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 3rd Edition.  Lecture 30 is "Bacon's New Organon and the New Science."  The professor, Alan Charles Kors, tells us that when Francis Bacon (1561-1626) entered Cambridge University all university education was essentially clerical (religious) education.  In The New Organon, Bacon argued for a separation of religion and science (then known as "natural philosophy") and for learning by direct observation and inductive reasoning (from the specific to the general) rather than the study of words (Scriptures) and deductive reasoning (from the general to the specific).

 In "Addressing the Blind Spot of Our Time: An executive summary of the new book by Otto Scharmer Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges," C. Otto Scharmer, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claims that "we" weren't properly educated for innovation.  (His "we" is engineers, scientists, managers, and economists, but I suspect his claim also applies to ministers and lay leaders.)   He writes about his experiences learning about prototyping from Hans (Nick) Roericht, a design professor at the Berlin Academy of Arts.  Scharmer was impressed with Roericht's design teams producing prototypes in four hours that most managers would not have undertaken without years of analysis.  Scharmer learned:  

The prototype is part of the sensing and discovery process in which we explore the future by doing rather than by thinking and reflecting.  This is such a simple point--but I have found that the innovation processes of many organizations are stalled right there, in the old analytical method of "analysis paralysis."

The division between science and religion isn't as neat as we might assume reading about Bacon's innovation in thinking and education.  Throughout this blog, I have been arguing for applying scientific methods to examining for the ministry.

Scharmer provides an interesting correlative to this purpose.  Rather than limiting ourselves to exhaustive analysis to support inductive reasoning about examining for ministry, it may be more beneficial and expeditious to prototype examining and formational processes first and then start testing the prototypes.  I will provide future posts describing what this might look like.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Glory Days

Glory days well they'll pass you by
Glory days in the wink of a young girl's eye
Glory days, glory days
--Bruce Springsteen
Growing up in Virginia in the 1950s and 60s, there were lots of opportunities to reflect on "glory days." With Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all Virginians, it was easy to reflect back to the glory days of Virginia, the Mother of Presidents.

With the pride and the offended honor that only the defeated possess, there were also the glory days of the Civil War, immortalized on Monument Avenue in Richmond. If Virginia has a saint, it's Robert E. Lee; a martyr, Stonewall Jackson.

I compounded the problem by falling in love with Greek mythology. We were an agnostic household, but every boy must have his gods. With wonder, I contrasted these glory days of ancient Greece to Greece's standing in the modern world.

OK, OK, I bet you're wondering what the above is doing on a blog on examining for UU ministry. Like Virginia and Greece, UUism has a proud and significant history. In a culture where so many have never heard of us or confuse us with Unity or Unification, UUs wear "famous UUs" tee shirts just to claim our identity and differentiate ourselves from followers of other religions.

In this reverence for our history, we risk falling into a glory days syndrome. Let's return to the Boss for a reminder:

And I hope when I get old I don't sit around thinking about it
but I probably will
Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture
a little of the glory of, well time slips away
and leaves you with nothing mister but
boring stories of glory days

If you'll excuse the cliche, we must find a way to honor the past while preparing for the future. In a religion where the average age is creeping upwards past 55 and we've remained at about 200,000 members (adults and children) since consolidation in 1961, we want to make sure that we're not left with nothing "but boring stories of glory days." Our stagnancy in numerical growth has resulted in a dramatic decline as our percentage of rapidly growing U.S. population.

Currently, I'm serving as an organizational consultant to a Fellowship where the average age is much, much higher than the nationwide UU average. The minister and the Board are supporting the development of a young adult program and an oral history project so that this congregation's wonderful legacy of social justice work may be passed on to another generation. The Fellowship is participating in a "quadrilogue" with two other congregations and the Starr King School for the Ministry to see how all four UU institutions may support one another.

We are cheered and inspired by the stories of growing, vibrant UU "breakthrough" congregations. While it's clear that many factors--including lay leadership, governance, location, and facilities-- contribute to such breakthroughs, the role of the minister is significant. As we contemplate revising the examining process for UU ministry, we should focus on the lessons learned from these successes to identify ministerial performance and competencies that will lead to a whole new set of glory days.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Of Guilds, Gatekeepers, and Paraprofessionals

The Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee (MFC) plays the very important role of gatekeeper of fellowshipping as a UU minister. We want it to exclude those not ready for ministry and include those who are.

No gatekeeping function is perfect. However, the greater the validity (measuring what you intend to measure) and reliability (consistency in measurement) of your examination the less likely you are to exclude those who are ready and include those who are not.

Examining can be a delicate balancing act. You want to assure the competency of practitioners for the safety and well-being of those whom they will serve. Yet there is a temptation to restrain trade/oppress/exclude as may be seen in this Wikipedia article on guilds.

Examining for the professions should include both professionals and nonprofessionals as a way of fostering professionalism and of assuring that the profession remains responsive to those whom it serves. The mixture of clergy and laity on the MFC reflects this wisdom.

Over at the UUA View from Berkeley, UUA Trustee Linda Laskowski expresses concern about the anticipated turnover in UU ministry of 50% during the next 10 years. She writes the following:

Add to that the calling many lay leaders feel for ministry, especially in their later years. Is devoting yourself to several years of seminary the only option to satisfy this deep longing?
The answer is clearly "no." Some UU congregations have wonderful worship associate programs. At least one, the UU Congregation of Fairfax, VA, has an outstanding lay pastoral care program developed by a psychiatrist and a hospice nurse. You don't need to be an ordained minister to have a ministry any more than you need to be a physician to perform the duties of a nurse practitioner. Let's go for a both/and solution that recognizes the need for professional clergy and lay ministry.

Resistance is Futile (and Unwise): Excellence & Oppression

Often people are wisely concerned about the relationship between examining and oppression. A powerful historical example of oppressive examining is the "literacy tests" that were used to deny the vote to African Americans in the South from the 1890s through the 1960s.

The other side of the examining coin is presented in this history of the relationship between barbers and surgeons. Suffice it to say that we all may be thankful that the examining of surgeons is much more rigorous than it once was.

A third interesting example comes from the film Jazz. Listening to Wynton Marsalis wax poetic about Louis Armstrong, we are reminded of the roles that genius can play.

Incompetence in the professions is dangerous. People do not die on the operating table because of an incompetent chaplain, but incompetent and unethical ministers have done much damage.

Ministers have also inspired. While not every minister may have the genius of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we may all--ministers and laity--be inspired by his example.

Resistance to examining is futile and unwise. It's important to make judgments about competency, excellence, and genius. However, it's also important that such judgments and the processes by which they are reached are congruent with the first (the inherent worth and dignity of every person) and second (justice, equity, and compassion in human relations) principles of UUism.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Competencies & Performance

"The best predictor of future performance is past performance."

The above was our mantra for the Performance-Based Interviewing project at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Jobs at VA were described in terms of duties and responsibilities, the competencies required to perform the duties and exercise the responsibilities were identified, and interview questions were developed to assess whether candidates possessed the required competencies.

In Hire With Your Head: Using Performance-Based Hiring to Build Great Teams, Lou Adler suggests a more direct approach: figure out what you want done and ask the candidates to describe or demonstrate the capacity to do it.

In one way, this is a very old idea. When I entered the workforce as a typist, I took a typing test. (AKA keyboarding for the post-typewriter generations. :-) )

The idea of performance testing gets much more complicated when dealing with duties and responsibilities that are more difficult to demonstrate in an interview. Adler gives the example of an interview for a position involving the development of marketing plans. The interviewer and interviewee outlined a plan during the interview. The interviewee was hired and used that outline to complete and implement the plan.

If we try to apply this concept to the MFC (Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee) interview, we can see that the first challenge is deciding what we want ministers to do. The tasks of healthcare chaplaincy, community organizing, and parish ministry overlap, but are far from identical.

The second challenge is evaluation. During an interview, you can demonstrate skill outlining a marketing plan or delivering a 10-minute sermon. Neither assures is that you will be successful at implementing a marketing plan or regularly leading worship that inspires a congregation/community.

That these challenges are daunting should not be discouraging. The reflection and dialogue required to address them will be strengthen and deepen our religion.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Of Ministers and Movements

My Unitarianism started at age 5 in the 1950s when my father took me to Sunday school at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, DC. The minister there, A. Powell Davies, was responsible for extraordinary growth in Unitarianism in the area. Davies believed that Unitarianism needed to end its identification with Christianity and become a world religion.

Now, nearly 60 years down the pike, most UUs would agree that we are no longer a Christian religion even though there are many Christians among us. Despite our bumper sticker claims to being the "Uncommon Denomination" (which implies that we're still Protestants), I frequently hear references to UUism as a "movement."

It's hard to describe what I think of the use of the word "movement" without giving into the temptation to be scatological. UUism isn't a movement; it's a religion.

All the UUs who say that they are spiritual but not religious are doing themselves and UUism a disservice. What they may be trying to say is that they are not theists. Yet they should learn from UU religious humanists that you can defined "religion" in a manner to include atheists and agnostics. You don't have to be a believer to be a UU, but once you join a UU congregation, you are religious whether you know it or not.

My hard-won understanding acquired through the sturm und drang of seminary is that the critical difference between spirituality and religion is that only the former can be a solitary pursuit. Religion is a messier business; it involves other people.

It is in the nature of the free faith that is UUism that it's often difficult to define what is inside and outside of our tent, what it means to be a UU, and the role of ministry. These are worthy challenges that we must undertake if we are to continue to build our legacy.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

On the Other Side of the Interview Table

In this blog, I have mainly been focused on helping candidates prepare for the UU ministerial fellowshipping process and making recommendations for modifying that process. However, I have also started thinking about another use of examining that is often critical to success in ministry.

A little history first. I first became involved in an in-depth study of interviewing because a senior official at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) told me that he believed that improving selection processes, especially interviewing, was the more important action that human resources could do to most improve employment at VA.

This official based this recommendation on his experience in interviewing people for executive positions. He said that the executive interviewees consistency stated that the decisions they most often regretted were selection decisions.

Recently, several UU ministers have told me that one of the critical areas in which they feel least prepared is human resources. Selecting staff, identifying volunteers, and providing guidance to committees and boards are important roles in parish ministry. I even found that knowledge of human resources principles and practices enhanced my capacity to provide spiritual and emotional care to staff and patients as a hospital chaplain.

I'm not going to try to turn this blog into a human resources manual for ministers. However, I encourage my readers to look at the posts here from both sides of the interview table.

Comments about human resources challenges in ministry will be appreciated.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Structured Interviews: What They Are; Why You Should Use Them

Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee (MFC) interviews should be structured to increase the likelihood of accuracy and fairness. However, when I've made this recommendation, I've received some rather strong reactions that appear to be based on differing understandings of what is meant by "structured" interviews.

Interviews may be structured in many ways. Here's a way to do so for professional positions that increases the likelihood of fairness and accuracy while giving interviewers latitude to improvise and to inquire in depth.

The consistent questions (i.e., those asked of all candidates who are expected to possess a competency) in a structured interview tend to be broad and serve as jumping off points for more detailed, individualized questions. For example, a broad question might be the following: "What has been a significant challenge in your anti-oppression work and how did you overcome it?"

We can imagine that answers to this question will vary greatly depending upon the social location and life experience of the interviewee. Follow-up questions, tailored to the interviewee's response, might be one or more of the following:

  • Were there other consequences to your actions?
  • After your this initial success (failure), were other actions undertaken at a later date?
  • What role did collaboration play in your success?
  • What, if any, networking and research did you do before acting?

Contrasting this strategy for structuring interviews with other types of examining may help put it more in focus. Interviews structured in this way are not:

  • Standardized tests.
  • Foolishly consistent.

Structured Interviews vs. Standardized Tests
Someone expressed the concern that structured interviews were standardized tests and would be subject to cultural bias. As noted below, while some authorities equate "structured interviews" with "standardized interviews," that's not how I'm using the terms here. Furthermore, when most of us thing of standardized tests, we think of multiple choice tests.

Standardized testing risks cultural bias in both questions and the answers. The risk is often greater in the answers than the questions because in many forms of standardized testing, such as multiple choice tests, there is only one right answer.

No form of examining based on content validity (i.e., the test is designed to see whether candidates have the knowledge required for the position) is immune from the risk of cultural bias. However, there is less risk with structured interviewing than with multiple choice tests because in the former interviewers can ask follow-up questions designed to more thoroughly elicit the candidate's competencies and because there is no single right answer to a structured interview question.

Structured Interviews vs. Standardized Interviews
Another interlocutor was concerned that a structured interview would tie the hands of the interviewers. This concern is quite understandable because some authorities use "standardized interviews" and "structured interviews" synonymously.

For some kinds of research, standardized interviews in which all the interviewees are asked the same questions in the same sequence is a strategy for increasing validity and reliability. It also permits the use of interviewers with minimal training.

This strategy is not likely to be effective in interviewing for professional positions. In such interviews, you do not wish to assure accuracy and reliability in a manner that does not permit you to draw upon the experience and expertise of your interview panel.

A structured interview is a wonderful midpoint between free-form interviewing and standardized interviewing. It provides a degree of consistency while allowing the interview panel to delve more deeply in to the qualifications of the interviewees.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Calling Ministers: Calling & Examining

What is the relationship between ministerial calling and ministerial examining?

There was a lot of activity last month in the UU blogosphere about ministerial calling. Here are links to posts on the subject by Transient and Permanent, Lizard Eater, and A UU Minister in the South. They caused me to reflect on why I chose the title of "Calling Ministers" for this blog and what "calling" means to me.

When I came up with the title "Calling Ministers," I had multiple purposes. I wanted to call ministers to look at the blog. I also wanted to look at the process of UU ministerial calling and formation.

"Calling" has at least two meanings in UU context: (1) the call to ministry; and (2) the call of ministers by congregations. Once upon a time, one's calling to Unitarian or Universal ministry came from God and was confirmed by a congregation.

Congregations still call ministers, but today many of us are less certain about a calling from God. Is the encouragement we receive from others the voice of God in disguise? Or, are both an anthropomorphic "God" and "God's voice" misplaced literalisms?

Whoa, I am waxing much to philosophical/theological for the purpose of this blog. Let's see whether I can to reconnect the dots from calling to examining.

In the absence of certainty of God's existence (much less God's primacy in calling), the calling that we receive from others -- ministers, congregants, friends, and family -- becomes primary. However, once candidates move to the formal process of ministerial formation, they find a whole new set of challenges and obstacles, including examinations, that they may not have anticipated.

The challenges and obstacles are part of how candidates develop the strength they will need as ministers. And, despite all you've heard to the contrary, failure -- or at least turning away from ministry -- is an option. It should be our objective to see that to the extent of our powers and wisdom, the examining process guides examinees, examiners, and the denomination in constructive and compassionate decision-making.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Situation Comedies, Film Noir, Tragedy

When I was a child in the 1950s, watching TV situation comedies often frustrated me. The half-hour shows would start with misunderstanding and failure to communicate. For the next 25 minutes, the characters would go through elaborate gyrations, faulty thinking, and emotional turmoil before one of them finally told her or his truth.

I would sit in front of the TV wanting to shout "talk to one another." I soon stopped watching these shows.

Film noir was another matter. In films such as Night and the City (1950), you could see how the protagonist's guile, ambition, and desperation led to his inevitable decline. This was not a simple and stupid miscommunication followed by an inevitable happy ending; this was character as destiny, a lesson of what might happen if you failed to take A. Powell Davies' advice to grow a soul.

Tragedy was even more compelling. As an adolescent, I saw A Long Days Journey Into Night at Arena Stage, a theater in the round in Washington, DC. On leaving the theater, I felt like I was escaping from a spider's web. Each member of that tragic family contributed to her or his own destruction and to the destruction of one another. They could not exit from the web of their own creation.

You may be wondering by now what the above is doing in a blog on examining for UU ministry. I started this blog because I believed that there were opportunities to improve examining for UU ministry for the examiners, the examinees, and the denomination. However, my interest broadened from the question of examining to the question of ministerial formation and development. That, in turn, lead to the question of the evolution of UUism, including the question: Is UUism producing the leadership it needs for the 21st century?

When I was a child in the 50s, UUism was a vital and vibrant faith in the Washington, DC, area. It was a faith for the modern, post-World War II era, not encumbered by the superstitions that weighed down other religions.

Now, 50 years later, with the average age of UUs reaching 55, I wonder whether UUism needs a new sense of purpose and destiny. Is UUism a faith with a future, or will it, like MacArthur's old soldier, just fade away?

I believe UUism can be a faith for the 21st century. I believe it is time for soul growth. Shall we grow together?