30 June 2008

Congregations, Ministers, and the New "Incompetence" Rule

There has been some concern in the Unitarian Universalist blogosphere over the new rule concerning ministerial incompetence that was approved at the 2008 UUA General Assembly. You can read about it here, here, and here.

See the UU World online article titled "Ministers can be terminated for incompetence" for more details. Here's a summary of the new rule change:
"The fellowship of a minister may be terminated by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee for unbecoming conduct, incompetence, or other specified cause."
First, it seems funny to me that any professionals should be this concerned about protecting colleagues who are incompetent in their profession.

A minister who demonstrates serial incompetence through several congregational postings does impact the public perception of ministry throughout the UUA. This requirement to be professionally competent is just as "vague" as the requirement to not engage in "unbecoming conduct."

This is especially important in light of the fact that our denomination considers ordained clergy to be an option for congregational formation and sustainment within the UUA. Ordained clergy are not a requirement for a congregation to be in the UUA and many congregations exist and even thrive without ordained clergy.

However, payment of pro-rated fair share contribution to the UUA Annual Program Fund and 30 members at the time of application are requirements to be a UUA member congregation -- check out Article III and Rule III in the UUA Bylaws for what it takes to create a new UUA member congregation.

If we want to see lay-led congregations grow to the size where professional leadership is needed for further growth, then these lay-led congregations should be satisfied that ministry as a profession is generally competent. A few negative examples will be enough to convince these smaller congregations to forgo hiring a minister.

Second, in spite of the language we use to describe ministers as "called," what we're really doing is "hiring" a religious professional through a formal congregational vote. I'm not a big fan of high-falutin' language. Ministers are employed by congregations (even if they are treated as "self-employed" for IRS purposes).

Third, Scott Wells is right that the UUA does very little to require competency in the various local "franchises" that carry out the local business of this association of congregations.

For example, my local congregation did a horrendous job with the Welcoming Congregation program a few years ago -- you can read about my congregation's "incompetence" here.

The local congregation's decisions have impacted our growth and outreach efforts to folks in the bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender communities. Our decisions have also affected outreach to allies (e.g. families who have BGLT relatives). We have lost members over our Welcoming Congregation decisions and many in the BGLT communities perceive us as unwelcoming.

The really strange thing about the Welcoming Congregation issue for our congregation is that one of our board members sent an email out to our minister and 31 of his closest friends where he wrote that our minister was "incompetent" for speaking in favor of the Welcoming Congregation program in our pulpit back in the fall of 2007 (we all know that email is always the best way to communicate in a congregation where there is a disagreement).

The sermon podcast audio where our minister spoke in favor of the Welcoming Congregation can be listened to here ... judge for yourself if this is "ministerial incompetence" or simply a sermon that made one board member uncomfortable.


Chalicechick said...

I don't think it is incompetent to push a congregation that is not ready into being a "Welcoming Congregation," I do think it is unwise.

And cruel.

Nothing like telling gay folks needing spiritual home that your congregation will accept them, only to have them trust that attend and find out that it was a lie.

A good friend's congregation, a small rural one in a college town, did this. I thought it was inexcuseable. If the congregation isn't ready to be a welcoming one, it's not. And lying about it will only hurt the folks you're trying to help.


Robin Edgar said...

Perhaps CC might care to explain why she apparently does not think that it is "unwise" "cruel" and "inexcusable" for the UUA, and no shortage of individual U*U congregations, to tell God believing folks (gay or otherwise) that their local U*U congregation will accept them and encourage their "spiritual growth", only to have them trust in that misleading publicity, attend a U*U "church", only to find out that it was a lie. . .

:First, it seems funny to me that any professionals should be this concerned about protecting colleagues who are incompetent in their profession.

Actually it's not that funny Steve. . . If you read the UUMA Guidelines, and read a bit further between the lines, you will discover that U*U clergy seem to believe that protecting incompetent colleagues under a security blanket of complicit silence is something of a sacred duty.


As you have noted "incompetence" and "unbecoming conduct" don't seem to be very well defined by the UUA and the very aptly named Ministerial Fellowship Committee. In my experience the UUA, MFC, and department of Congregational Services will go to considerable, and highly questionable, lengths to pretend conduct that most people would agree is incompetent, unbecoming, or both. . . is acceptable behavior. The Executive of the UUA's Ministerial Fellowship Committee is on record pretending that Rev. Ray Drennan's intolerant and abusive labeling my revelatrory religious experience as "your psychotic experience", Creation Day as "your cult", and my monotheistic religious beliefs as nothing but "silliness and fantasy", "seems to us to be within the appropriate guidelines of ministerial leadership." To this day the UUA and MFC have refused to acknowledge the wrongfulness and harmfulness of this *incompetent* decision on the part of Rev. Diane Miller and the MFC that has had a seriously negative impact on me personally, the Unitarian Church of Montreal as a congregation, and indeed the greater U*U religious community.

I decided to test the UUA and MFC a while back to see if they were somewhat less inclined towards protecting U*U ministers who are incompetent and-or unbecoming in their conduct and they quite miserably failed that test. AFAIAC little or nothing has changed. The UUA, its Ministerial Fellowship Committee, and its Department of Congregational Services under the dubious leadership of Rev. Dr. Tracey Robinson-Harris engaged in all kinds of Orwellian rationalizations in order to refuse to so much as reprimand an obnoxious U*U minister whose well-documented online conduct was (and from time to time still is. . .) far from becoming of a minister. The proof is in the Peacebang.

Steve Caldwell said...

On 30 June 2008, CC wrote:
"I don't think it is incompetent to push a congregation that is not ready into being a "Welcoming Congregation," I do think it is unwise."


I agree that it would be unwise to push a congregation into being a Welcoming Congregation before they are ready.

That's why there is no deadline for the study/discernment process. If a congregation needs 10 years to explore the issues, that's OK.

However, our former minister didn't say "let's do it tomorrow." She simply made a statement in favor of resuming the study/discernment process. Because of this statement in the pulpit, a very conservative board member in our congregation started the email campaign to fire the minister for her statements in the pulpit supporting a resumption of the Welcoming Congregation study/discernment process.

Perhaps I should publish his email text in full on my blog just so you can see an example of "incompetent" lay board leadership in a congregation?

Steve Caldwell said...

On 30 June 2008, CC wrote:
"Nothing like telling gay folks needing spiritual home that your congregation will accept them, only to have them trust that attend and find out that it was a lie."

And there's nothing like telling gay folks and their supportive relatives and friends that you're gay-friendly as long as it's not too publicly known and not too "demanding" of the congregation.

Please check out the "Advisory Commission Report" that's available on my congregation's web site:


This report from June 2005 records congregation member comments that I was surprised to hear in a UU congregation.

One couple that were parents to a gay son left after this 2005 report was published.

The mom felt that people who said they didn't want to belong to a "gay church" were insulting her son. She thinks he is wonderful and why wouldn't everybody want to be like him?

She's also active in PFLAG and local BGLT politics as an ally so her hurt was widely known.

She said that she left my congregation because she didn't want to be associated with bigots.

Perhaps we should have our UU congregational credentials revoked for "incompetence" if this is how we handle tough issues like homophobia and heterosexism?

Robin Edgar said...

I was one of the few (if any) straight males involved in the Unitarian Church of Montreal's 'Welcoming Congregation' program in the mid-1990's. I well remember some of the similarly negative letters that were received and read to the Welcoming Congregations group. AFAIAC If a Unitarian*Universalist congregation does behave in a manner that clearly disregards and violates the U*U principles that it "covenants" to affirm and promote there should be rules and procedures in place to expel that congregation from the UUA if it fails or refuses to correct its behaviour. To my knowledge however no such procedures even exist or, if they do, they are rarely or never enforced. The Unitarian Church of Montreal has made a total mockery of U*U principles and various other claimed U*U ideals in its rather inhuman human relations with me but no one has ever suggested that it be reprimanded for violating U*U principles let alone expelled from the U*U World.