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?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Academic, Formational, and/or Professional?

I've been researching ministerial formation and examining. The access and assistance offered by a great university library and its staff are hard to beat. (Yes, dear reader, I proudly confess to being a library nerd.)

Only a few journal articles speak directly to ministerial examining. One of the most intriguing is "Beyond Wish Lists for Pastoral Leadership: Assessing Clergy Behavior and Congressional Outcomes to Guide Seminary Curriculum" by John Dreibelbis and David Gortner (the latter is a professor here in Berkeley at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific) in Theological Education, Volume 40, Supplement (2005): 25-49.

Dreibelbis and Gortner are persuaded of the need for "competency-oriented models of [theological] education in which competencies are identified as actions rooted in knowledge, character, and skill contributing to positive outcomes in congregational contexts--the ultimate testing grounds (italics in original) of theological disciplines." They go on to note that the two educational models usually found in theological education are academic and formational. They believe that a professional model must be added if seminarians are to develop the knowledges, skills, and abilities they will need as ministers.

There is a wealth of information in this journal article. For today, I just wish to point out that the Episcopal priests who were surveyed for it generally reported the most confidence in their ability to perform sacramental and preaching job activities and the least confidence in community outreach, lay leadership development, and organizational leadership job activities.

Looking at the 10 knowledge-based versus the 5 performance-based Competencies for UU Ministry affirm a mismatch in ministerial formation. Many a candidate for UU ministry has spent hours memorizing information that they may never use again while slighting important skill development. Those who participated in the Excellence in Ministry conference and members of the MFC recognize that the time has come for a review of the examining and formational processes.

What do you think?