Costs of Becoming a Minister - Part Two, Including a Modest Proposal

In Part One, I left off here: I think the only options that are really viable and just are to either fund our seminarians or ministers better or to decrease our expectations about the seminary process.

Decrease Expectations?

Some people have proposed interesting models of becoming a minister that are not seminary-focused. These are certainly intriguing. As a seminary-trained minister, I see the value in seminary and I am perhaps too invested in this system to step outside of this box adequately. I see our "learned ministry" as an important and defining tradition that is part of our make-up as Unitarian Universalism. It is also in keeping with the denominations that we are closest to. I'm not quite willing to drop seminary altogether. However, there are some interesting proposals about modifying the process. Here's mine.

Shortening seminary is entirely doable. A four-year process to become a minister does seem a bit outrageous. What about a one-year process of essential courses, during which the career assessment is done, followed by a three-month summer CPE and 9-month paid internship and seeing the MFC or RSCC at the end. With one year of seminary expenses, and one year of debt load, the new minister is in preliminary fellowship. The first year would be much of what is the required coursework now: pastoral care, preaching, and UU history and polity would certainly be included. This allows the minister to be in a congregation with a mentor minister and the preliminary fellowship review process in place. The first ministry position would be a two or three-year hired-not-called preliminary position, probably in a smaller church or an association position. Churches taking preliminary fellowship ministers would know that this is the duration of the position (but there could be an option to call the minister at the end).

During preliminary fellowship, rather than just saying what the minister is intending to improve upon, the minister is actually required to take additional courses, which would be readily available as on-line courses or intensive one-week courses. The UUA could provide stipends for these courses to the new ministers. There would be one course per semester or quarter, and therefore three years of this would about equal one year of seminary. Among these classes would be more on church administration, theology, world religions, ethics. Churches taking ministers in preliminary fellowship would know that this was part of the minister's work-load, and adjust expectations to it, and maybe compensation would be decreased accordingly, paying even as low as $25,000 but also paying the part of tuition that the UUA is not paying. Thus the minister has tuition on these classes paid and is making a minimal income. This would be attractive to congregations struggling to pay for full-time ministry, who often have, by default, a series of starting ministers for short tenures. This would institutionalize that and give these congregations a sense of their role in the formation of ministers. And the load for ministers would not be unlike doing a D.Min. during full-time ministry. It's doable. I've been doing full-time ministry and teaching one class adjunct to make ends meet, and teaching one class is at least as much work as taking one class. These three years could also be framed as part of an educational process, allowing student loans to be deferred for the three years.

At the end of three years, five years after starting seminary, the minister is reviewed by the MFC, with an interview that looks much like our current MFC interview. The MFC can give the minister the all-clear to pursue called ministry or can require more work of them. If requiring more work, the minister's current congregation could keep the minister on, or the minister could move to another short-term congregation. In extreme situations, another internship, full-time seminary year, or CPE could be required at this point. More ministers might "fail" the process than currently fail the MFC process, but not more than drop out of seminary, and they would be failing with less debt load, albeit a year later than many see the MFC. The yearly evaluations, however, would give ministers a sense of what to expect at the MFC.

The danger of such a model is the danger that exists when we put fewer controls on our ministerial formation process--that unfit ministers could be serving congregations and doing a lot of damage. This still happens in our current process, of course. This would be lessened by having a process in the first years of ministry that is much more watchful than ours is now, where one graduates seminary, has yearly evaluations and regular conversations with a mentor, but where one is otherwise left alone. During the preliminary fellowship time, a minister would be, therefore, viewed by both congregation and UUA as not really a full minister yet, and this would be more appropriate. It would clear up the problems we have now where the preliminary fellowship process puts congregation and minister in a relationship that is not really appropriate to a minister who has gone through a four-year degree and is now a called minister. The preliminary fellowship process, which requires a board evaluation, makes it feel to the board and the minister like the minister is an employee of the board. In this new scenario, the minister would be an employee-hired and not called, and it would be clear why this is the case.

There are other models, of course, for decreasing the expectations of seminary. This is mine, because I think there are problems with the other suggestions I've seen. I'm not going to go into all of them here.

Increase Funding

Unless the model is drastically changed, such as above, I believe the only other option is to increase funding. Period. This can be done a number of ways. A lot of people favor funding the ministers rather than the seminarians, because then we're not paying for all the people who drop out along the way. This is pretty reasonable. It's akin to proposals where people, like doctors, go to work in under-served areas and their student loans are paid off over time. Even if model for ministerial formation is drastically changed, one must remember, we still have the problem of the current and past graduates who have lots of seminary debt. It would be good to see something beyond what the Living Tradition Fund grants currently are for those ministers with high debt and low income. It's good that there's some funds there, but it's not nearly adequate to what our ministers are facing.


TJ Kahn said…
Speaking as a 2nd-year M.Div. currently attending Starr King, I agree that some of my fellow classmates really aren't prepared for the demands a ministry might put on them. Some are returning after decades of hiatus from graduate-level work, some have almost no public speaking experience, and still others have no clear goals to becoming a seated minister upon graduation - and that's where a problem might arise. If a congregation chooses one of their own to fund through ministry, the restriction on serving your own congregation upon graduation would have to be removed. (Otherwise, why would a congregation feel so obligated to fund such a lengthy endeavor?) And if you, as a seminary student, were to intern with another congregation and decided to switch home congregations, could you be liable to the previous one?

Although the idea of increased funding across the board is generally easier and more accessible, perhaps another model would be a grant whereby a few students have their entire M.Div. paid for, some could have half, and many could have a little. Students who show themselves promising and dedicated to the demands of 'the cloth' could be rewarded for their self-application in a variety of roles. Although... this breeds competition.

If a congregation is willing to spend $30K a year to hire a new minister, couldn't they also be willing to spend almost as much tailor-picking what they need for their congregation?

"Here in Minnesota, we have two positions that take a wide familiarity with UU history."
"California here, we need three LGBT-trained ones."
etc. etc.

The greatest failing besides funding for seminarians, speaking from my personal perspective of course, is not money, it's direction. Who wants us when we're done?

TJ Kahn
Starr King Seminary student
2nd Year M.Div.
Cynthia Landrum said…
Hi TJ. Thank you for your thoughts. Certainly my model would leave less time for questioning and discerning before entering the parish.
Eric said…
I noticed something fairly amazing last year that addresses some of the cost concerns, though not the others, from a federal level. In 2007 an amendment to the federal student loan law was passed that authorized "Income Based Repayment" for federal student loans (i.e. not private loans). Under this program your payment is tied to your household income.

As I understand it there are a number of benefits for people seeking a UU seminary experience and using these loans. First, income does not include housing allowance, so your stated income is already open to adjustment from long-standing ministerial compensation practice. Second, your loan payment is capped based on your annual household income, so if you're getting lower pay and serving a smaller congregation your maximum monthly payment would be more like $200-300 on $60k in loans(assuming you're single, a spouse's income would result in an upward adjustment). If your have a larger household then your payments are also adjusted for that. So actually, having children would cause your payments to go down assuming household income stayed the same.

But here's the part that I found most amazing, and is particularly relevant for seminarians. Under the "Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program" you are only required to make payments for 10 years if you work for government or a 501(c)(3) organization full time while making your IBR payments. After that time the remaining balance of your loans is discharged. Because all of our UU congregations are covered under the umbrella 501(c)(3) status of the UUA serving as a minister in our congregations appears to qualify you for this provision. And if you work in some sort of non-profit community ministry, you're also included.

I'm not saying it addresses all the points you raise, but it does seem like these changes alter the dynamics of whether to use student loans to pay for school, and what kinds of repayment expectations you might have.
Robin Edgar said…
"The danger of such a model is the danger that exists when we put fewer controls on our ministerial formation process--that unfit ministers could be serving congregations and doing a lot of damage."

This speaks to some of my concerns and I was going to respond by saying -

Not that the UUA doesn't have a few too many unfit ministers serving U*U congregations and doing a lot of damage under the current model.

Until I happily saw that you beat me to the punch. :-)

Of course it is not simply a question of screening out unfit ministersb who do damage to not only U*U congregations but ultimately the greater U*U religious community if the word greater can be appropriately used to describe what UUA President Peter Morales has described as "a tiny, declining, fringe religion." From where I stand the quantity of evaluations of U*U ministers both before and after preliminary fellowship is not the major problem. The problem is the *quality* of those evaluations which may be considered to be a form of "quality control" of the "product" of U*U seminaries. If I may continue in that analogy some "products" appear to be wonderful before they are actually used or consumed, but are actually defective or toxic or rapidly deteriorate after being used for their intended purpose. I find that the *standards* of the UUA and MFC, if not the UUMA, for "quality control" of U*U ministers are appallingly low. It seems that U*U ministers can get away with all kinds of "murder" with little or no accountability even when clergy misconduct complaints have been filed against them. Screening is lax, peer review committees simply look the other way when presented with evidence of bad behavior of a minister in preliminary fellowship, the UUA's Ministerial Fellowship Committee allows U*U ministers to insult and defame me and other people with not the slightest accountability. This is *my* own well documented experience and I am confident that I am not alone.

Quite frankly I am not certain the U*U ministers are capable of responsibly policing themselves. I believe that U*U lay leaders should be involved in the process of dealing with clergy misconduct complaints if not preliminary screening of U*U ministerial candidates. If the UUA's Ministerial Fellowship Committee doesn't start dealing responsibly with my own and other people's legitimate complaints about the damaging behavior of "less than excellent" U*U ministers very soon, and yes I do mean responsibly reviewing and correcting past "mistakes" made by the MFC, I would recommend that the MFC should have no part in handling clergy misconduct complaints and that another more responsible and *accountable* body should be set up to handle clergy misconduct complaints and otherwise exercise "quality control" of the "product" of U*U seminaries*.

* Assuming that there will be more than one U*U seminary in the coming years. . .

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