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.