Formation in Peril

Filed under: Con Spirito, Dissonance — Jess at 12:04 pm on Tuesday, May 27, 2008

If you have any interest in or concern for the future formation of Unitarian Universalist ministers, I suggest you take a look at the materials posted at Celestial Lands regarding proposed fundamental changes at Meadville Lombard Theological School.

On the public relations side of things, the school is touting their road ahead as nothing but positive. Underneath, however, is a painfully familiar story of opacity and stubbornness on the part of the administration, particularly noted by the lack of involvement by both the students and the faculty in the changes to the educational program. Add to that the turnover of at least 14 staff members in the last few years, and you have one hot mess.

I can’t say I’m surprised. I was struck, repeatedly, during our four years in Chicago while I supported my husband through this program, by the sheer myopia of the administration, especially in regards to their dealings with students and alumni/ae. The students were and still are consistently left out of formative discussions, told that the school would “take care of them,” while the alumni/ae were and still are consistently pumped for funds without regard for how they were treated as students, or the cost of a seminary education that continues for years with astronomical student loan payments.

The faculty, on the other hand, seemed to be much in the same boat as the students — their input belittled, their resources limited, their ranks thinned in favor of more administrative positions (like the highly paid new provost) — and yet still managed to provide outstanding academic grounding to the students, and support on many levels during the process of ministerial formation. It should be noted that the faculty and the administration are completely separate entities.

Institutional issues aside, what troubles me most about the proposed changes to the academic curriculum is the seemingly arbitrary decision that a full year’s internship in a congregation is no longer a necessary step in the formation of a parish minister.

Sorry, but this is simply wrong. I speak as someone who has witnessed the formation of four years’ worth of seminary students, through their internships. They leave the school after two years of classes, still as students very much grounded in theory, go off for a year of internship, and come back secure in their authority and callings, having been through the trenches of an entire church year with all that entails. Not to mention that this internship is required by the Fellowship Committee, as a good measure of the kind of ministry this student will practice, and it doesn’t seem that committee has signed on to the proposed elimination of it from the M/L program, though the students have been “assured” otherwise. Not to mention that when a first year graduate is in search for a full time job in a congregation, the experiences of their internship provide a good measure to the search committee of what kind of ministry they might be getting.

Would you want to hire someone to run your church right out of seminary, if they have not served an internship under the supervision of a senior minister? It’s the equivalency of a doctor’s residency, before they are permitted by licensing boards to go into private practice.

It may seem that I’m talking out of my ass about things that I’ve only witnessed from the outside, so I’ll close by referring you to the words of one of the most valued and respected members of the M/L faculty, not to mention throughout the Unitarian Universalist movement, Rev. David Bumbaugh:

“We’re headed for a trainwreck.”

If you believe ministry is important to this movement, this is something to which attention must be paid. Are we witnessing the death-march of one of our most valuable institutions, one of only two Unitarian Universalist seminaries? How indicative of more widespread problems in our movement is the brokenness of this institution?

Is it time for a louder call from the outside of the value our movement holds for our ministers and our seminarians?

2 Singers in the Choir

Comment by Sean

May 27, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

Hm. The first thought I have is that it doesn’t seem a very good tactical move, considering the Panel on Theological Education’s emphasis on “Excellence in Ministry” that is centered in/on congregations.


Despite the perceived competition between M/L and Starr King, I have a lot of respect for M/L and think this move is rather short-sighted. But I do have to say that the cry of “not enough input” from students and alums is a familiar one.

In my short time on the Starr King Board I have come to realize that student input is exceedingly valuable. At the same time, it is ultimately the Board that is accountable for the institution’s future. Much like the congregants in our churches, students tend to like the school they chose to attend. Change comes hard, especially when one is in the middle of a life-altering experience.

Anyway, all of this interests me, none of it really surprises me, and I hope with all my heart that both Meadville Lombard and Starr King come through this time of change stronger and more grounded in the gifts they bring to our movement.

Comment by Jess

May 27, 2008 @ 7:50 pm

In this case, it’s also the lack of input from the faculty, who just completed a lengthy curriculum review process to only see their work thrown aside as so much garbage in favor of this hare-brained scheme that the administration hasn’t even bothered to put into writing yet.

I’m all for positive change, to make the process better. But not when that change is enacted without considering, much less consulting all of the stakeholders — the proposed implementation of this plan, which is already being touted to alumni/ae and the general public as a done deal, before the Board has even seen it, will directly affect next year’s incoming class, who applied and were accepted to a very specific model of ministerial formation. If I were one of those incoming students, I imagine I would feel misled and possibly even betrayed to show up the first week of classes and have it be something completely different from what I signed up for.

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