Ministerial Formation

There's a discussion going on in the blogosphere about the costs of ministerial formation, and I was going to jump right in, but realized it's hard to do so without first describing what goes into becoming a minister in our denomination. So this is a description of that process. The UUA describes the process here. I'll go into some detail in a way that will hopefully be shorter and easier to follow. I may mix things up a bit, because the process has substantially changed since I went through it. You go through three stages with the UUA in becoming a UU minister: Applicant, Aspirant, and Candidate.

As an applicant, one applies to the UUA to be in the process of becoming a minister, and starts theological school. UU ministers may attend any accredited theological school. I went to one of the two UU schools: Meadville Lombard Theological School. The standard path to becoming a UU minister right now is a four-year process, although some manage to do it faster and some take longer. This involves three years of theological school, which is a graduate degree program, and a year of internship, and a semester of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), which is a pastoral training program that is usually in a hospital setting, although there are other settings. Aspirants are eligible for $1000 in aid from the UUA. The CPE program that I went to cost about $500. One also had to go through a formal career assessment from a specifically approved center before being a candidate. That was, when I did it, a three-day session of group discussions and taking a battery of psychological exams. The result is a long report from the center assessing one's psychological fitness for ministry.

Becoming a candidate opens the ministerial student up to more scholarships from the UUA, although they are not terribly substantial. Also in candidate status one can, and should, join the UUMA (the minister's association). To become a candidate, the major things one needs to do are to complete a year of theological school and be approved by a Regional SubCommittee (RSCC) of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC). In every year of the process, the average ministerial student is not only doing the work of seminary or internship, he or she is also compiling a bunch of paperwork. In this first year, to become a candidate, that includes applying to see the RSCC, getting letters of recommendation from the required sources, writing a sort of "why I want to be a UU minister" essay, signing a statement of disclosure about any criminal history, and completing a financial planning worksheet. One is also probably applying to do the CPE program in the summer following the first year, if the usual pattern from my theological school days holds true. That CPE application in itself is a monster, asking for a complete personal biography; four other long, in-depth essay questions, a resume, and more.

In the second year, having gotten a green light from the RSCC, a candidate continues theological school, hopefully now with a little more (maybe a thousand or two) in financial aid. This year in the model I was in during theological school, one typically applies for a year-long internship to be held in one's third year. Candidate status is required for the internship, and having completed CPE is usually encouraged.

Following internship, the ministerial student prepares to see the MFC. A final evaluation of the internship is required to see the MFC, and passing the MFC is required to go into search for a job, so the timeline is tight to try to see the MFC in the fall to be cleared while the search process that begins in the fall is still young. The paperwork for the MFC is, therefore, being worked on during this third internship year. That includes the internship evaluation, the CPE evaluation, sponsorship from a UU congregation, a biographical form, five letters of recommendation, completing a reading list, and filling out a long form (at least this is what I had to do) about one's competency in various areas of ministry, such as worship, religious education, UU history, pastoral care, theology, anti-racism, etc.

Let me just say that one cannot start the reading list too soon.

The fourth year of seminary, if one sees the MFC in the beginning of that year, is spent finishing seminary and applying for ministry positions.

What should be plain from this description is that the life of a seminarian is one of not only full-time theological school, but also one where there is a whole extra level of work required by the formation process. And this is probably as it should be for a number of reasons. However, we also do not fund our theological students very well, leaving them with three years worth of graduate school debt. Government grants are not available for theological school students, although loans are, so other than what individual congregations give (which is not very common) and the small amount from the UUA, the rest is usually paid for in three ways--from a student's prior accumulation of wealth, if applicable; from part-time jobs, if possible; and from student loans.

During my second year of ministry I tried to hold down three part-time jobs in an effort to keep my debt load down. I did manage to go a whole semester without taking out student loans. The result was that I was sick for most of the semester, as well. My physical health paid the price for that increased level of stress.

The result of all of this is that many ministers graduate with the level of debt that our doctors graduate with, and make the salaries our teachers make.

More on this and on what can be done next time.


wooddash said…
I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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