It’s a rigorous path. The Unitarian Universalist Association requires self-analysis, years of postgraduate education, and extensive fieldwork. As a final step, the Candidate goes before the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee for an oral interview and final evaluation. It’s not unlike, say, an oral defense of one’s PhD dissertation.
The MFC, as it’s more often called, is our credentialing body, the “gatekeepers.” There’s no way around them, their assessment is final. Mainline religious traditions all have “discernment” processes at least this rigorous. By contrast, fundamentalist churches require little to no academic preparation, or preparation not unlike a Taliban madrassa. But that’s a topic for a different day.
I was admitted to Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, one of two UU divinity schools. From the first month my eventual MFC interview was in the air. Classes had barely begun when we got to meet the Committee’s members at an informal reception. (This is one of the advantages of attending a specifically UU school.)
I circulated around and engaged several Committee members in conversation. They were friendly and forthcoming about the process. I received a strong sense that each was dedicated and conscientious. They cared about the students. They wished each student the best in our ministerial careers. I detected no joy on their parts, turning down students who were less than ready.
For the next five years my MFC interview was at the periphery of everything I did in school. Meadville Lombard was a four-year, full-time program back then. I also did an extra year of field work, hospital chaplaincy. I had been sexually abused as a child. I wanted to be sure I had a handle on that before I faced the MFC. Again, though, I had no idea I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Just guessing, I would estimate my preparation for my interview was–conservatively–in the top 20% for Candidates for Ministry. I spent years on my “packet” of certifications and documents. In my final year, like a lot of Meadville Lombard students, I asked to do what’s called a “mock” MFC interview. The professors sat around a table with me, listened to my short, 10-minute sermon, and fired questions similar to what I could expect in the real thing. I was very nervous. I didn’t feel as though I did well. As one staff member, Nan Hobart, put it, I wasn’t as “sharp” as she had expected me to be.
So I asked for a second “mock” interview. Staff wasn’t anxious to spend time on two “mocks” with the same student, but Nan helped me recruit several graduates who had done well in their interviews. They could give me a realistic experience. I did much better this time around, and decided I was as ready as I was ever going to be.
To my surprise, I also began to have “flashbacks” of bullying episodes from when I had been a teenager. I would be thinking about my “mock” interview when I would suffer a sudden, invasive memory of being bullied long ago.
I was, by this time, a “Ministerial Consultant,” hired by the Board of a small, southern Indiana congregation. That made me a “sort of”minister, just not fully fledged or full time. I thought my flashbacks were triggered by nerves about my new parish, or perhaps my upcoming interview. I wasn’t sleeping well, either, but that was nothing new. I had been an insomniac for years. I got a prescription for sleeping pills and soldiered on.
My MFC reservation was for December in Berkeley, California, site of the other UU divinity school, Starr King School for the Ministry. I packed my best suit and my sample sermon, planed out to the west coast, and checked into downtown lodgings near the MFC’s hotel. Pricy, but I didn’t want to waste mental energy getting to my interview from a motel farther out.
I arrived a good hour before my appointment. I went straight to the Candidates’ waiting area in the lobby. I sat, went over my sermon and some other notes, and just tried to relax. Good luck with that. I was becoming more jittery by the minute.
The lobby’s wall clock reached the momentous hour. About a minute past, the MFC member who would be my escort, approached me. I am embarrassed that I don’t remember his name. I had briefly met him as a student, a gentle, soft-spoken African American man of advanced years. I do wish I could remember his name. He may have saved my bacon. I didn’t dream I had PTSD, I just knew I was scared stiff.
He asked me how I was feeling. One piece of advice I had received was, “Never try to bluff the MFC.” So I was honest with him. “Scared,” I replied.
“Oh,” he said. He showed no expression. The MFC are experts at keeping straight faces. He asked, softly, “Are you scared of me?”
I hesitated, looking into those brown eyes, nestled amid wise-looking wrinkles. Serious, dignified, elderly. Human being. “No,” I replied. “Good,” he said. “Let’s go up.” I followed him to the elevator.
He led me along a narrow, upper floor corridor and into a softly lit room. It was traditionally decorated, rather Victorian if memory serves. A lectern stood a few feet from the door, with an empty chair beside it. Seven people greeted me, seated in a semi-circle facing that lectern. The full MFC consists of 14 members, but they split into two groups to facilitate the interviews.
On invitation, I laid my folder on the lectern and began my sermon. I knew I had a good one, I had worked on it long and hard. By the end of the second paragraph I was solidly into familiar process, speaking as I had long practiced to speak. One warning I had received from interview veterans, was that it can be unnerving to deliver the MFC sermon. They return no energy, no expression to read whether you’re doing well or poorly. They’re human, though. My sermon began with a touching experience I had as a hospital chaplain, working with a couple grieving the death of their baby. I had practiced enough to get through it without tears of my own, just a catch in the voice. I could see a couple of members struggle to keep straight faces. One was actually squirming. Thus encouraged, I focused even harder on the delivery I had worked on.
I finished, sat in the chair, and one man asked me the first question. The Candidate is allowed to write that first question, and I had been counseled to frame it around the thing I believed would give me the most trouble. “What steps have you taken to deal with the sexual abuse you suffered as a child?”
I gave them my prepared answer. Someone then asked a Unitarian Universalist history question: “What was the Edict of Torda?” I replied, “The Edict of Torda, in 1568, was Europe’s first law comprehensively mandating religious freedom. It was promulgated by Transylvania’s King John Sigismund, who was the first–and only–Unitarian King in history.”
That answer apparently satisfied them that I knew Unitarian and Universalist history. It was followed, though, by a difficult string of world religious holidays, cited in their native languages. Some were totally unfamiliar. I wondered if I had succeeded in “upping” the degree of difficulty with my first answer. Rather than hem and haw, I chose to “let those go by.” The person grilling me then gave me a relatively easy one, “What’s Pentecost?” which I was able to answer.
“It’s not the Hollywood Squares,” one mentor had told me. I hoped I didn’t look as rattled as I felt.
From there they settled into the concerns that were plainly most on their minds: children’s Religious Education, where I had met only the minimum requirements, and my childhood sexual abuse. They questioned me hard on congregational boundaries. Time went by fast. Almost before I knew it, they thanked me and sent me back down to the lobby to await their decision.
I slumped on a sofa and tried to relax my breathing. I wasn’t there long enough to think a coherent thought before my escort reappeared, to take me back up for the verdict. It seemed a fast decision. They were all standing when I re-entered, and the chair told me I had received a “1.” That’s the highest rating. It meant that I was cleared for Fellowship with no further preparation. They added that I should continue to learn about children’s Religious Education, and I should also continue in behavioral counseling. There were quiet hugs and congratulations all around. They asked me if I had any questions for them, or feedback on the process. I replied–honestly–that I was just too tired. Perhaps, I said, I would send along reflections on the process at a later date.
It’s been 15 years. I’m finally getting around to it.
A few months later I ran into one of the people who interviewed me, Rev. Michelle Bently, at a Meadville Lombard alumni event. She warmly told me, “You knocked our socks off.” I thanked her profusely, and still do. She made my day. I certainly didn’t feel as though I’d knocked anybody’s socks off at the time. Let it be confirmation on what over-preparation can accomplish even when you’re scared stiff.
Right after the interview, it was late afternoon when I walked back to my own hotel. Had I had friends in the area, I might have gone out for a celebration dinner. Really, though, I was too drained. I ate a quiet meal alone, then returned to my hotel room, exhausted, to sleep. Now that it’s over, I thought, I should be able to get a decent night’s sleep without a sleeping pill.
I was wrong. It only got worse. That was the night the real nightmares began. They would continue, becoming gradually less frequent, for a decade. They fell into basic categories. One frequent type had me in some kind of a fortress, perhaps made of hay bales or perhaps a wooden stockade. Outside would be wolves with flaming eyes and jagged teeth, howling, slavering, fighting to get at me. The walls of my hay-bale fortress would be crumbling away. Or maybe it would be cavemen, throwing spears and axes that glinted wickedly, while flames raged, burning my “fortress” down around me.
A different type was the “water dream,” thrashing, trying to keep from drowning while rapids and waterfalls bounced me off rocks and hurtled down cataracts, falling, falling.
There were less frequent patterns. One one-off example: trapped in a warehouse while trench-coated mafia gunmen walked in with submachine guns, searching for me.
I didn’t dream I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder until the summer of 2014. The so-called “late diagnosis” fell after an unfortunate series of events at a Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association workshop. I immediately began to understand the years of nightmares and sleeplessness. But at the same time, the malady entered a new, more forthright, phase. I was determined to continue in my ministry, but my PTSD was now a continual energy drain. I was already suffering burnout due to other factors. Within six months, I made the decision to retire.
The good news is, I’ve been in treatment and on more appropriate medication for awhile, now. Retirement was a difficult shock to the system for more than a year, but I am now happily blooming to new suns.
What feedback I might provide the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, I’m not sure. They care what they’re doing and, really, they’re quite good at it. I’ve seen a few instances over the years where it did seem as though someone got a worse score than they deserved. (Even a score as low as a “3” does encourage the Candidate to continue, though. They’re automatically scheduled for a repeat interview.) But almost always the MFC seems to succeed in sending the “ready” people on, and the “less ready” people back for more preparation.
I have what’s sometimes called, “Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” It doesn’t stem from a single event, but from a–complex–series of events throughout my childhood and youth. Sexual abuse was part of it. So was the bullying I suffered through middle and high school. In my case the PTSD lay low for 50 years before it was catalyzed into recognizable symptoms. There had been indicators over the years. But I had done much counseling over those years as well, plus the intense psychological evaluation required to become a Candidate for ministry. No one had ever spotted it.
On the other hand it’s not lost on me that, physically, the MFC interview does replicate an adolescent hazing circle. I have intimate experience with those, usually in a locker room after P.E. class. The victim is confronted by a semi-circle of peers, hurling anything from insults to actual brickbats. In the MFC interview it’s a semi-circle of real love and concern, and they merely hurl questions. But I wonder–from the MFC interview to traditional, academic Board interviews–if they aren’t anthropologically descended from real, patriarchal, initiation rituals. Is there a less patriarchal model?
The MFC’s evaluation of a Candidate begins with intense study of the Candidate’s “packet,” that sheaf of essays, evaluations, and competencies submitted months before the actual interview. In other words, my observation has been that the decision may be 75% made before the Candidate even walks through the door of the interview room. Taking the interview itself as a holdover from the days when academia was totally a male enterprise, and male initiation–hazing–rituals were the standard rather than the exception, I wonder if the interview itself is still the best form for a greatly changed world?
On the other–other–hand, I must grant that had the MFC caught on to my PTSD, they might have been doing me a favor. Certainly, had I been too severely handicapped to get through my MFC interview at all, I would not have been ready for parish ministry.
I don’t have answers for such question. Still, I don’t think they’re bad questions. In my case, I received affirmation for a strong performance and for “strong ministry” during my years of Preliminary Fellowship. Our parish, and myself as their minister, were well thought of within our UUA District.
In the end, I suppose, it comes down to that old saw that you never know what struggle the other guy is facing. In my case, even the “other guy” himself didn’t fully comprehend the depths of that struggle.
In my relationships with colleagues, I have often felt the highest heights of collegial love and support. And occasionally, the depths of judgment and animosity. No one outside my immediate family has ever lifted me as high as my colleagues. But neither has anyone been able to wound me as deeply. We ministers can be, let’s face it, pretty competitive and ego-intensive at times. At the same time, I know that many of us do struggle with hidden demons, I’m not the only one. I wonder if the worst clashes don’t come in situations where all involved feel the most challenge.
Would that we could step back and love one another most–at those times when stepping back and loving are, alike, most difficult.