Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The MFC & the Olympics

No, I'm not about to suggest that interviewing become an Olympic event, even though some schools have interviewing competitions and prizes.

Rather I was caught by the parallels between the MFC interview and an Olympic event when a speed skater said that she had had an emotional breakdown on the day of her event. Her statement was part of an NPR segment on the psychological preparation and coaching. It was good to hear of the preparation and that the skater recovered from her breakdown and earned a silver metal.

Both Olympic athletes and ministerial candidates spend years preparing for "tests" that are over in minutes. The emotional and psychological tension can be quite intense.

An MFC member once said, "We're not so scary." Another posited that successful candidates will face much greater challenges once they become ministers. Yet there is something special about the years of preparation and the few brief moments of the "test" that is different than other challenges. The parallels should led us to question how we prepare ministerial candidates and what we might learn from Olympic coaching.


  1. The MFC is invested in thinking that it is not a scary body and that there are much worse trials in ministry. That is an understandable defense which people who are making extremely important decisions about other people often adopt.

    But it is a rare minister who is in a situation in which a poor performance in a few minutes can cost them a year's pay or spell the end of their ministry. The only ones I can think of involve moral lapses like drunken driving, sexual misconduct, or secret-telling. And while it is true that the "real life" of a minister will have far greater and more important challenges than the MFC interview those challenges are, well, real, and therefore to at least some kinds of people, much easier to surmount.

    I've been in this business for 30 years and can think of only one trying situation in my entire ministry that raised anything near the anxiety that the MFC raised in me (the second time I went, when I knew better what I was up against.) That situation involved a first degree antagonist who knew just how to reduce me to quivering fury. And, as a matter of fact, in that last show-down, she did it again. As a board member told me in disgust, "Well, Christine, you snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory." But I didn't lose a year's pay, stayed at my church, and continue to think that in spite of that low point, I am a more or less competent minister. Not that the MFC interview was quite that bad, but those two events rank high in my memory of anxiety.

    But...great suggestion! What can we can learn about ministry from Olympic coaching?

  2. Great comment! That was exactly the drift I was heading for, and I appreciate a minister of your experience affirming my supposition.

    I once went to a presentation by the psychologist who was then working with all the athletes at West Point. He had several suggestions that we might use in ministry. Visualization, a practice often used in spiritual circles, was one of them.

    And, we may also help address the situation by providing more information to candidates--one of the purposes of this blog.

  3. Two other points: Olympics races have the "false start." If a race doesn't start according to Hoyle, they start over. The MFC will simply say, "You got off on the wrong foot. Too bad." Then they'll either recommend a year of remedial work or suggest the minister doesn't pursue fellowship. They could easily instead say, "This didn't seem to go right. Let's start over" at the initial meeting and try for a "successful" interview.

    Second, the Olympics have an appeal process. If a competitor feels slighted, first the judges on the scene and if necessary the governing body of the sport consider the appeal. The MFC's rules specify that there is no appeal. Since the candidate is interviewed by a panel, there should at least be an appeal to the full MFC. As Rev. Robinson noted, otherwise, it's (at least) a year out of the candidate's progress. The MFC doesn't even seem to have the option to invite a candidate back for the next meeting in three months.

  4. I want to add a third difference between seeing the MFC and the Olympics. Most Olympians have been competing world-wide in their sport for years before arriving at the Olympics. They have a pretty good idea about the competition, they have probably met at least some of the judges, and have a good idea what the standards are by which they will be judged.

    None of that was true when I saw the MFC. The RSCC does not operate under the same standards as the MFC, so it does not serve as a guide toward those MFC standards. I had never met a single person on my MFC panel before arriving (and I'm pretty involved in denominational affairs, as I was district staff, a church administrator, and a fairly regular attendee of GA). I did know 5 members of the MFC, but none of them were allowed to be on my panel.

    Most of what I knew about the MFC's expectations came from that vaguely worded packet, anxiety and sometimes anger filled reflections by students who had already seen the committee, and the Mock-MFC interview that I did in which only one former member of the MFC participated (and he long ago).

    I think the true lesson to be derived from the Olympic metaphor is that to be an athlete at the Olympic level you have a clear idea of the standards, who the judges are, your competition, and what is expected of you... and I would say that none of those are clear in seeing the MFC.

    My MFC interview went fine, in fact I would call it a religious expeirence for me. But the first thing I said to them after they had told me I passed was that the anxiety is real... and it is.

    Yours in Faith,

    David Pyle