Monday, January 26, 2009

Myths About the MFC

The other day I was speaking to a friend who is associated with the MFC (Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee). He said that there are many myths about it.

"Myth" is one of those funny words that has two meanings: one of which is nearly opposite the other. (If there's a technical term for this, please let me know.) The first meaning is archetypal story. The second meaning is a commonly believed falsehood. It was this second meaning to which my friend was referring.

When a subject is veiled in myth, it usually means that there is a shortage of evidence. The evidence shortfall may be a consequence of its unavailability, an unwillingness to look for or at it, the desire to tell a good story, or all of the above.

In the "good story" category, someone observed that before and during MFC interviews, the level of anxiety among candidates from UU seminaries is higher than that of candidates from non--UU seminaries. Is this a consequence of more reliable evidence, or less?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Little Reassurance

Once upon a time, many, many years ago, I was asked to be a mystery guest on a radio talk show. My persona was "Mr. Know-It-All," which some may imagine was not much of a stretch for me. However, knowing my limitations, I decided to focus on familiar quotations. I also decided to cheat.

We started the program by reading and discussing some of my and the host's favorite quotations. Then we invited call-ins. The host would engage and stall the callers while I frantically searched for their quotations in the index of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (a major reference work in the pre-Internet age). Then I could cite the author and the lines of the quote that might have escaped the caller's memory.

Unfortunately, the MFC will not permit candidates to bring a library with them for their interviews. And a library is certainly what one acquires during a seminary education.

My last post may have put the fear of God in those preparing for the MFC interview. Reading the competencies and sample questions, you might imagine that you'd have to have an encyclopedic memory and the talents of a mentalist to be successful.

However, you should know the following:

  • MFC questions are drawn from what's in your package. If you write that you have an extensive knowledge of Buddhism, then you are likely to be asked questions about Buddhism. These questions about Buddhism may seem quite obcure to someone who says that they have extensive knowledge of Islam (and vice versa).
  • "I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable answer. While it is probably not appropriate for every question, it's not a fatal response to one or two questions. It's usually useful to follow it with your strategy for acquiring the information.
  • The MFC appears to be more interested in how you answer questions that in what you answer. Trying to b.s. the Committee is believed to be the worst possible strategy.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Whatcha Know? Whatcha Do? & Meltdowns

There are 15 academic and professional competencies for fellowshipping as a UU minister. 10 are academic, i.e., Whatcha know? 5 are professional, i.e., Whatcha do? Another way of describing these 2 categories (academic & professional) is that they are, respectively, knowledges and skills.

Today I'd like to speak to the knowledges which are the following: theology; church history (i.e., Christian church history); Hebrew and Christian scriptures; world religions; social theory/social ethics; human development/family life education/ministry with youth & young adults; UU history and polity; religious education history, theory, method, and practice; and professional ethics/UU Ministers Association (UUMA) Guidelines. Are you overwhelmed yet?

If the fear of your own ignorance hasn't taken over yet, consider some of the sample questions from the UUA website:

This is a set of world religion questions. What religion is each of the following words from? Then briefly describe them. Five pillars. Karma. Beltane. The sh'ma. Yom Hashoah. I Take Refuge. N'amaste. Four noble truths. Nirvana (Nibbana). The four yogas.

A. I was doing a funeral for the ex-wife of member...she was Jewish. Her family wanted me to lead the recitation of the Kaddish in the traditional Aramaic. Where might you look up how to say the words properly in that prayer? B. A couple came to me recently for a wedding...they described themselves as Neo-pagan. They wanted a Hand Fasting ritual. Do you know anything about that? How would you look that up? C. The young folks in the Coming of Age program in my congregation have to spend an hour or two speaking with one of the ministers on theological issues that they find important. Each of the young people in this recent year have come to me and talked with me about reincarnation, and what I thought of it. What would you say if you were asked about your opinion of reincarnation and what it might mean in modern UU congregations?
Talking about General Assembly leads us right into congregational polity. I wonder if briefly you could compare and contrast the different polities of Catholicism, Methodism and Congregationalism/Unitarian Universalism. What are the strengths and weaknesses of congregationalism? Have you heard anyone speaking of their fear of any "creeping Methodism" in our association? Was the 1997 book produced by the Commission on Appraisal helpful to you? Who are the members of the UUA? Who are the members of the Board Of Trustees? Can you name three communities outside of North America associated with the UUA?
OK, I believe that we can generally agree that this is not easy stuff. Furthermore, the descriptions of the competencies are not reassuring. Let's look at a sample:

RELIGIOUS EDUCATION HISTORY, THEORY, METHOD, AND PRACTICE: Candidates should have an understanding of several current philosophies of educational learning theories, teaching methods (including methods of teacher training,) and the history and philosophy of Unitarian Universalist religious education. Candidates are expected to be knowledgeable about several current philosophical and methodological trends in UU religious education, and be familiar with at least one Unitarian Universalist religious education curriculum at each age level. Candidates should be able to discuss the theological and educational assumptions and methodologies each religious education curriculum uses.
At one UU seminary, the seminarians sometimes speak of "meltdowns." They're not the same as a "breakdowns." Usually, recovery from the former is faster than recovery from the latter.

Well, looking over the competencies and the questions can lead to meltdowns. More about competencies and meltdowns soon.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

You Ought to be in Pictures

With a tip of the hat to Charlie Dieterich, Starr King student, cinematographer, scientist, engineer, and all around great guy.

Charlie videorecorded my mock interview. Not only did he record my performance, he used a 2nd camera and picture-within-picture to record the responses of the mock panel.

Afterward, I happen to mention to him that I only knew a few of the members of the MFC. I thought it would be an advantage to know who was whom in advance. The material from Boston gives you a short bio on each member, but no clue what they look like.

Charlie had a great idea. He suggested Googling everyone and copying their images into a Word document. Googling provided me more info about each member of the Committee.

I pasted the pictures on a mirror and set about memorizing everyone's names and faces. It was a good investment of time.


Ah, Inauguration Day. A time of beginnings.

This morning as I was catching up on the Books section of the SF Chronicle, I read the following in a review by Eric Rauchway of Adam Cohen's new book, Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America.

Adam Cohen treats the 100 days as largely the product of personalities - Roosevelt, his key advisers and their experiences. Cohen produces fine pencil portraits of the president himself, an aristocratic good-government reformer touched by polio, which imbued him suddenly with a sense of what it meant to suffer; Henry Wallace, his secretary of agriculture, scion of a long line of practical scientific farmers experimenting in the fields; Raymond Moley, his critical banking adviser, a hard-nosed political scientist keen to take credit for preserving capitalism; Lewis Douglas, his budget director, a mining man devoted to fiscal conservatism; and perhaps most important of all, Frances Perkins, his secretary of labor, the first female Cabinet member, an eyewitness to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and a shrewd proponent of working Americans.

Cohen's use of biography works because Roosevelt surrounded himself with such a variety of advisers, each intimately familiar with one aspect of the problem they together approached. Rather than trivia, then, each of these personal stories represents a section of Depression-era America, and in their diversity they suggest why so many Americans supported the New Deal: Almost anyone could see the administration addressing his concerns.

My father, who was born in 1913, didn't believe in God, but he did believe in FDR. He lived thru the Depression and served in the Navy during WW II which were formative events for him and his generation.

May the UUA "surround itself with a variety of advisers" as it looks at excellence in ministry and at forming, examining, developing, and evaluating ministers. Such a strategy served us well at the Department of Veterans Affairs when we were designing our performance-based interviewing process.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Tyranny of Excellence

Thanks to iMinister for posting the keynote speech by Daniel Aleshire of the Association of Theological Schools on the Tyranny of Excellence from the UUA Excellence in Ministry Summit. The following remark are striking:

As you might expect, “excellent ministry” is more likely to become an issue when there are fears that something is not going well. . . . When the question is being asked in earnest, my hunch is that it is often a symptom of some underlying dis-ease.

My hunch is that “excellence” is a topical way of getting at some other question, maybe some worry. I have a hunch that, if UU ministers and congregations were doing well, and if there were abundant money for all the movement’s agenda, including theological education, the question would not be asked.

Ministry always has a communitarian setting and “excellence” must have a definition that a community has agreed to honor.
When I was a child in Washington, DC, in the 1950s, UUism was busting out all over. The sermons of A. Powell Davies, minister at All Souls, not only filled the church's sanctuary and social hall, but were piped into several suburban locations by radio. These locales became the nuclei of five new suburban congregations—Arlington, Cedar Lane, Paint Branch, Mount Vernon, and what is presently known as the Davies Memorial Church—established under Davies' leadership. These "daughter" churches later founded three additional congregations—Fairfax, Rockville, and River Road. Some of these congregations -- and Arlington (which had been established earlier) -- remain among the largest UU congregations.

Yet, on the other hand, in the 48 years since the Unitarians joined with the Universalists in 1961, UUA membership has varied slightly around 160,000 adults while it has dropped from .08% to .05% of the U.S. population which has grown from 180 to 305 million. If you don't believe that numbers matter, read American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips (or at least the Wikipedia article on the book).

This phenomena is like The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) in reverse. In that film, when Scott Carey, the protagonist, begins to shrink because of exposure to a combination of radiation and insecticide, medical science is powerless to help him. UUism has not shrunk, it has remained the same size while everything around it has grown, like Gulliver's travel to Brobdingnag.

Please, please hear that I'm not saying that the formation and development of UU ministers is the source of the stagnation in UUA membership, much less the rise of politically and theologically conservative Christianity. I'm merely raising the question of whether there is any relationship between the two.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Developmental, Selection, & Gatekeeping Interviews

When people think of employment interviewing, they usually think of selection interviews, which are used for appointment, advancement, and entry. Appointment interviews, a.k.a. hiring or employment interviews, are usually competitive. When we go for an employment interview, we know that we need to show the interviewer(s) that we are the best qualified candidates for the job.

An entry or gatekeeping interview is like an hiring interview, except it is usually non-competitive and our objective is to show that we are qualified -- but not necessarily best qualified -- for the position or occupation.

A developmental interview is noncompetitive and is more about acquiring information than providing it. Let's say an office work wishes to be considered for the office manager position when it becomes available. In developmental interviews, the current office manager and her or his supervisor can guide the worker on the training, education, and experience s/he would need to become well qualified for the office manager job. While the worker's current qualifications are relevant, the main focus is on the gap between current qualifications and those required for the office manager position.

One of my favorite bits of movie dialogue comes from Casablanca. Capt. Renault asks Rick why he came to Casablanca. Rick replies that he came to Casablanca for his health, for the waters. Renault exclaims that they're in the desert. Rick calmly replies that he was misinformed.

While there is often overlap between developmental interviews and gatekeeping interviews, the Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy (RSCC) interviews have been evolving from developmental to gatekeeping interviews. It therefore would be helpful to aspirants for UU ministry to understand this distinction and prepare accordingly.

This evolution is laudatory. It's helpful to aspirants for UU ministry to learn as soon as possible that they may not be qualified.

The reform that would benefit the process is that aspirants be taught that the purpose of the interview is gatekeeping so that they can both demonstrate the qualifications they have already acquired and their knowledge of those that they need to acquire before they present themselves to the MFC (Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Reverse Engineering

According to Arleigh Crawford, "Reverse engineering is taking apart an object to see how it works in order to duplicate or enhance the object."

Wise planners do their best thinking backwards: They start out w/ a goal or vision and then think about what steps would be necessary to achieve it.

Well, we can't take apart excellent ministers to see how they work so we may duplicate or enhance them. However, we can examine excellent ministers to learn how they are excellent and what made them excellent. We could use what we learn to help other ministers improve their ministries and to prepare candidates for ministry. Furthermore, a dialogue among excellent ministers about excellence might help these ministers enhance their performance. (Such dialogues using appreciative inquiry have helped individuals and organizations grow and thrive.)

Anticipating objections:

  • We don't agree what is meant by "excellence in ministry." This objection actually supports doing further study. The goal is not to achieve a single cookie-cutter answer, but to deepen our collective understanding.
  • Different ministers are "excellent" in different ways. This is a good argument for involving a number of excellent ministers and observers of excellent ministers to see the commonalities and differences.
  • Difference ministries require different kinds of excellence, e.g., being an excellent hospital chaplain may require a different set of skills than being an excellent director of a legislative ministry. This is a very interesting concern. The UUA has decided to examine candidates for ministry. It is assumed that those accepted into fellowship have the capacity to move from one ministry to another. This may be true. However, further study might reveal competencies that fellowshipped ministers might wish to strengthen before changing specialties.
  • The very idea of "excellence" will only reinforce hegemony. This objection argues for casting a wide net to get diverse perspectives on excellence. It even argues for reaching out to other denominations/religions to learn how they assess ministry.
What do you think?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Knowing Your Package

One of the mantras among those preparing for the MFC interview is: "Know your package." The package in question is the material you submit to the MFC directly and the material that follows you from your Regional Subcommittee interview. Packages can tip the scales at more than 200 pages.

What is meant by "know your package" is knowing the vulnerabilities in your package. Did your Intern Committee identify a growing edge? Did a CPE supervisor noticed where you were challenged?

The MFC does not expect perfection. However, MFC members do seem to expect progress, reflection, and insight. If one of your documents states that you've been wrestling with the integration of your personal theology with other UU theologies, then don't be surprised if you are asked how the wrestling match is going.

In some ways, this may be one of the best parts of the existing interview system. You and others have provided the MFC with the basis for inquiry. The panel members then ask you entirely relevant questions.

It matters less what you say then how you say it. Acknowledging both your challenges and your progress is the kind of vulnerable humility and authority that is one aspect of "ministerial presence."

Monday, January 12, 2009

"All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."

By the time of your MFC interview, you may feel a little crazed like Nora Desmond, the character who spoke the above line in the movie Sunset Boulevard.

Many people take umbrage at the thought of an interview being a performance, especially an interview for the ministry. After all, is the ministry about authenticity? Aren't you supposed to bring your true self to the interview and be evaluated on who you really are?

However, there are two meanings of "performance." Sometimes we use the word in reference to pretending, or even deceiving. The actor pretends to be someone else. The con man (con person?) intends to deceive. Yet we also talk about how well someone performed in the Olympics or what a wonderful performance the orchestra gave last night.

It is in this latter sense of performance that I'm using the word here. Sermons and interviews are performances. I am not encouraging deception or even pretense, but I am encouraging as with a good performance, and practice, practice, practice.

In the performance of an interview, body language and tone of voice are as important or even more important than words and their meanings. "Ministerial presence" may be found more in appearance and tone than in content.

Knowing this, it is important to have your mock interview videorecorded. If you can, have two cameras -- one on you and one on the panel. While it is inappropriate to video the panel's deliberations, record the sermon, the interview, and the feedback you receive after the panel finishes deliberating.

Then make this recording your favorite TV program. Pay careful attention to your posture, facial expression, body language, timing, and tone of voice as you view the video. Many of us find that our internal impression of how we did can vary dramatically from what's on the screen. Also, it's often difficult to absorb a lot of feedback at once. Watching the video several times and/or watching it and pausing it for reflection can help one absorb the feedback and make adjustments in one's performance.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Mock Interview - Your Key to Success?

Sorry I've been off-line for a few days. I picked up a bug -- biological, not computer -- that put me out of commission. I'm glad to be back.

Although the main purpose of this blog is to recommend modifications to the examining process for UU ministry, the recommendations (even if immediately accepted) couldn't be immediately implemented. Therefore, individuals preparing for MFC interviews in 2009 can expect to be examined under existing procedures with whatever modifications are already in progress. Not wanting to leave these candidates in the lurch, this blog will also include suggestions for preparing for your MFC interview.

Though I have sought and received input from many individuals, including the aspirants, candidates, ministers, seminary professors, UUA board members, UUA staff members, and WRSCC members and staff, the opinions expressed here ultimately will be mine. (At least, until you start posting comments on them.)

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a small town to raise a minister. Many, many people assisted me in preparing for my MFC exam. Today, I will focus on the Mock Interview, which I found to be the turning point in my preparation.

Those of you who have carefully examined the Competencies for UU Ministry may have some idea of the fear and trembling with which I faced the examination. Whom do you know is well-versed in all 14 of these competencies? After 4 years of seminary and a year of residency, I was aware that there were still gaping holes in my knowledge. Cramming felt like drinking from a fire hose, alternating with despair regarding the impossibility of filling all the gaps before examination time.

Well, in the mock, I learned that I could handle most of the questions that were directed at me. More importantly, I was advised by seasoned ministers that I should give up trying to become "Mr. Know-It-All" (my phrase, not theirs) and focus on ministerial presence.

I have much more to say about the mock, but this post is long enough and the day has gotten away from me. More soon.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Fear, Trembling, & Structured Interviews

The other day I was speaking to a long-time UU minister who said that as a candidate he'd been unhappy with the examining process for UU ministry, but once he'd become a minister he'd moved on to other issues, assuming that the outcomes of the interviews were generally appropriate.

For me, the experience of the Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee (MFC) interview for preliminary fellowship is more recent. I no longer fear that a single one-hour interview will trump years of preparation for fellowshipping and determine my future in ministry. However, I've not forgotten that concern nor the concerns of others who have been interviewed or who are about to be.

But this blog is not predominately about feelings or outcomes: it's about process.

I do not have an insider's view of the entire examining process and may be misunderstanding some aspects of it. However, there appears to be a disconnect between the competencies, such as ministerial authority, that many say the MFC is looking for and the competencies, such as knowledge of church history, found on pages 17 and 18 of the booklet Requirements for Ministry with the UUA (which may be downloaded from "Related Content" box on this link).

To generalize, successful ministry may be more about what a minister is able to do than what academic knowledge the minister has acquired. It appears that both UU seminaries are revising their pedagogies to reflect this insight.

Scientific research has much to say about interviewing and other assessment techniques. At this link, there is guidance on developing effective interviews from the Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology (SIOP), Inc., Division 14 of the American Psychological Association APA, re effective interviews. At this one, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) provides guidance on developing structured interviews. Both the SIOP and OPM web site contain a wealth of information about assessment and examining.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Assessment Techniques

Federal employees do have a sense of humor. They realize that many people believe that the third great lie (after the two others about "checks in the mail" and "respect in the morning") is: "We're from the government, and we're here to help you."

We've all be frustrated at times by customer service inside and outside the government, but please consider the politics behind the above ridicule as revealed in this NY Times article. As we're about to see, there is great help and great expertise is available from the government.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) sets human resources (HR) policy and issues HR guidance for most civilian positions in the Federal government. At the OPM website, you may find an Assessment Decision Guide, which includes an Assessment Decision Tool, and information on Structured Interviews. There is also a Guide to Structured Interviews.

Not all of this material is directly applicable to ministry. However, a surprising amount of it is.

For example, the Assessment Decision Tool doesn't have already-identified competencies for ministry (or chaplaincy, the nearness occupation found in the Federal government). It does have such competencies for psychology and other related occupations.

Included in the Assessment Decision Tool as possible competencies for psychology positions are conflict management, creative thinking, customer service, flexibility, influencing/negotiating, integrity/honesty, interpersonal skills, leadership, vision, etc. Obviously some of these competencies apply to some ministries.

The Assessment Decision Tool discusses assessment techniques such as accomplishment records, assessment centers, biographical data (biodata) tests, cognitive ability test, emotional intelligence tests, personality tests, reference checking, situation judgment tests, structured interviews, training and experience evaluations, and work samples and simulations. It recommends specific techniques for assessing specific competencies.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Foundation - Occupation/Job Analysis and Competency Identification

When you plan to examine individuals for entry into an occupation (including professions such as ministry), the best place to start is identifying what people in that occupation do and how they do it. Once you've identified the duties and responsibilities, the next step is to identify the competencies required to perform them.

In considering the competencies for UU ministry, we are blessed to have the work of the Market Voice Consulting for the Panel on Theological Education. At this link, you can download "Report on Excellence in Ministry." Market Voice Consulting found consistent agreement on the following competencies:

– Strong interpersonal skills.
– Self-aware, understands boundaries, mature.
– Compassionate and caring.
– Inclusive and supportive.
– Thorough knowledge of UU history and traditions.
– Solid grounding in theology – history, sacred writings, beliefs, cultural impact – not just UU.
– Savvy about organizational and institutional dynamics.
– Passionate about the work, a strong sense of calling.
– Challenges people and congregations to be their best.

Furthermore, they added:
Some people say excellence is determined by how well-matched the minister and the position/job are.

While these competencies require further review to turn them into behavioral standards, it seems like we're off to a good start in competency identification.

While there is little doubt that there are shared competencies for serving as the senior minister at a large congregation, the sole minister of a small congregation, a minister of religious education, a prison chaplain, a medical chaplain, a military chaplain, a community organizer, and the director of a legislative ministry office, it is quite likely that different positions require different competencies.

It is understandable why the Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee (MFC) would not want to examine all ministerial candidates on all competencies or even on the competencies that are specific to certain assignments. However, it appears that individuals who are not preparing for parish ministry are much more likely to be tested on uniquely parish ministry competencies while individuals who are preparing for parish ministry are unlikely to being examined on competencies not required for parish ministry.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Welcome Janus

January was named after Janus, the god of the doorways and beginnings and endings. He has 2 faces, one forward and one backward, so he could guard both doorways from both directions. Janitors, caretakers of halls and doorways, draw the name of their occupation from Janus.

I will start being 2-faced by both supporting and challenging the examining process for UU ministry. Ministers have fiduciary responsibility. Fiduciaries are not only financial guardians; they are any people to whom property or power is entrusted for the benefit of others. This not only includes accounting, but law, medicine, and the other professions. Examining processes should be designed to help protect those served by fiduciaries from incompetence and misconduct.

While there is wisdom in having formation and examining processes for professions, sometimes such processes can get out of hand or out of date. Have the examining processes gone out of balance when considering academic and experiential knowledge and preparation.

Recently, a mentor of mine who is a experienced UU minister wrote:

In the very old days ministers (and lawyers, physicians, carpenters, et al.) "sat at the feet" of those who knew what they were doing and were pushed, prodded, pulled into acquiring the sensitivity and skills they needed. At it's heart, this was also the SK method of education. At the end it wasn't just the mentors who knew a person was ready, more important, the person knew.

How does an examining panel weigh the assessments of mentors? What are the fiduciary responsibilities of mentors to mentees, to the MFC, and to UUism?

Thoughts and comments on this issue will be appreciated.