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.


  1. I notice with interest that some major seminary, in response to the impossible debt that new ministers have, has cut their M.Div requirements so that their education can be completed in three years including internship and other field practice. When I was going through school 30 years ago, this was the norm. You left paid work in August of year 1 and were usually employed by September of year 4. New requirements have made this all but impossible, and that is one important reason that ministers have such debt. Every added month between beginning school and beginning employment adds to debt. Debt is one thing that makes ministers overwork; they add a wedding ministry on the side, have more difficulty saying no to impossible demands, and take on a more challenging (because better paid) position than they are really ready for. We just can't proceed as if a career in ministry requires 4-5 years of full-time, graduate level preparation and then pays no better than a career that only requires an undergraduate degree.

    This is another reason to make Final Fellowship the big hurdle. One finishes one's preparation while in Preliminary Fellowship....and employed.

  2. The belief that the ministry was a boundless vocation that destroyed the health of many of its members was widespread in antebellum 19th century Unitarianism -- and it was reinforced both by example, and the notion that "spiritual" leaders were disinterested in the body, or were somehow closer to God as a result of their frail physiques and physical health. Joseph Buckminster and Henry Ware Jr. were just two of the more memorable examples; there are other illustrations of this notion in my dissertation. Parker's example though was especially influential, both because of his high national profile and the extent of his achievements. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (the source of the quotation in my original post) was a protege of Parker's -- a radical abolitionist, one of the "secret six" supporters of John Brown, commander of a Black Regiment during the Civil War, and later in his career the editor of the Atlantic who carried on a long correspondence with Emily Dickinson and initially published her poetry. He was also an early science fiction writer, and one of the Unitarian proponents of what came to be known as "Muscular Christianity," and its associated programs of physical fitness (such as the YMCA). And you're right -- this has nothing to do with Hallman or Morales per se -- either candidate is going to have to deal with the issues of ministerial formation and radical hospitality, as well as with the wider, day-to-day concerns of managing a small ecclesiastical bureaucracy in tough economic times. Still, it would be interesting to ask them about their gym memberships. As well as their devotional practice....

  3. Christine,

    Thank you for your comment about ministerial debt and examining. It inspired today's post, "Best Predictor."