There is a shortfall, a crisis really, in the supply of UU ministers. This widespread crisis is impacting the ability of congregations, large and small, to fill their pulpits.
This shortfall may be a welcomed relief for those appalled by the rise in “wokeism” in the recent crop of seminary graduates. The crisis, however, is ushering in a reform once considered unlikely. But let’s first consider the scope of this crisis.
The shortfall was brought to our attention by Rev. Keith Kron’s widely distributed June 23, 2023 letter. Rev. Kron is the UUA Transitions Director who works with congregations and interim ministers seeking placements. His letter states, in part
In what surely is a bellwether moment, the first round of interim search concluded Wednesday with 38 congregations searching for full-time interim ministry.
Seventeen congregations looking for full-time interim ministry learned they did not have a mutual match. We knew it was going to be difficult.
Other observations in the letter included
This year, in interim search, we saw 4 congregations of between 250 and 400 members not find an interim minister. That has not in recent memory happened before. A shortage of ministers willing to work with congregations is real. (bold added)
The biggest gaps are new ministers going into ministries that aren’t congregationally based.
For years, the Transitions Office would hear from about 25-30 newly fellowshipped ministers looking to consider congregational ministry. The last two years, it’s been 5 ministers, then 8.
Kron confirmed that new ministers are not pursuing congregation work but are seeking positions as community ministers, chaplaincy, and social justice.
This is Not a New Problem
The problem of a shrinking supply of ministers is not new. As early as 2009, incoming UUA President Rev. Peter Morales initiated a task force known as the Strategic Review of Professional Ministries. He commissioned the task force to mitigate a ministerial shortfall expected due to the retirement of nearly half of all UU ministers. Morales also wanted to accelerate the training of new ministers with skills to thrive in the increasingly diverse demographics of the US population.
Six years later, in 2015, a UU World article entitled “Demand for Interim Ministers Outruns Supply” spoke of the “unprecedented situation” when only two ministers entered the ministerial interim training program. Equally alarming was the decrease in the number of ministers entering the search process, dropping from 130 to 110.
Now, in 2023, there is a real ministerial supply crisis brought on by a decade of inattention and, frankly, mismanagement by UUA leadership.
Responses to Ministerial Shortage
This ministerial shortage has compelled some congregations to explore new ideas on how to fill their pulpits. Some are considering lowering their bylaw-defined threshold for calling a minister from 90% to 80%. Other congregations are expanding lay-led services. Still others are forgoing a full-time ministry for part-time ministry. Some blog posts have floated the idea of “minister sharing” between congregations.
It may also be time to re-examine the UUA’s sponsored ministerial search process. A process by which all congregations submit their needs (their ministerial package) at a particular time and then the “minister–congregational matching” step takes place at the same time for all congregations. This antiquated process puts the Association in the driver’s seat, allowing the Association to dictate the timeline, control the supply of candidates, and define the mechanism used by congregations to select their ministers.
Given the internet and ubiquitous social media capabilities, there are far more efficient ways to match needs with skills and turn control over the search process to congregations.
Unanticipated Reform: Non-UU Minister
However, of all the ideas put forward, most ironically, the UUA has offered a viable solution. . . hire ministers not in fellowship with the Association.
At one time, calling a minister in fellowship with the Association was wise and prudent. The Association’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) ensured search candidates had a pre-requisite level of competency. Recent experience has brought into question reliance on fellowshipped candidates. Our UU seminaries, Starr King (Oakland, CA) and Meadville-Lombard (Chicago, IL), have shifted focus from ensuring theological readiness to instilling a proficiency in questionable social justice ideology.
Can We Hire a Non-UU Minister?
In February 2023, a new module was added to the Association’s online training system, Leaderlab, entitled “Can We Hire a Non-UU Minister?”
The answer is “yes.” The Leaderlab module explains its “yes” answer with the following.
Because of our congregational polity, this decision is ultimately up to your congregation. (bold in the original)
This guidance is welcomed. It is also a reversal of the Association’s leadership hostility to congregational polity since the “white supremacy culture” declaration of 2017. The hostility is illustrated by this comment in the Widening the Circle of Concern report.
It seems like we as a denomination have to relearn the Cambridge Platform and understand that our congregational polity does not allow us to just do whatever we want. That there is a relationship between each congregation in the larger movement . . . and this idea that the UUA can’t tell us what to do is bologna. (bold added)
The time is now for congregations to reclaim the process of hiring or calling a minister. Congregations, however, do not have to go it alone.
North American Unitarian Association
The North American Unitarian Association (NAUA), as part of its charter as a member service organization dedicated to supporting and promoting the practice of liberal religion, is exploring an online clearinghouse to help match congregations with ministers and other professionals.
The NAUA Ministerial Services web page states
Honoring the congregational freedom our religion is founded upon, NAUA serves as a clearinghouse allowing ministers and congregations in search to find each other. It is up to each congregation to determine the credentials and experiences they are looking for and to verify both. NAUA provides advice, resources and best practices guides for finding quality leaders for our congregations.
If you would like more information, send an email to Info@NAUnitarians.org.
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