For Unitarian Universalists, ministry is not a supernatural state of any kind. It’s a choice, a process, and an ongoing relationship.
Ministers are welcomed into preliminary and full fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association during the Service of the Living Tradition at the 2017 General Assembly in New Orleans. (© 2017 Nancy Pierce/UUA)
How do people become Unitarian Universalist ministers? And didn’t I read once that Jared Kushner is an internet Unitarian minister?
He isn’t. Unfortunately for everyone, the letter U is a very common letter to start a religion’s name with, and that creates a lot of confusion. When you hear about internet ministers, that’s generally the Universal Life Church. Not only are there no internet UU ministers, there couldn’t be. Only congregations have the power to ordain ministers—and without a congregation ready to perform the ceremony of ordination, there can be no Unitarian Universalist minister. In fact, this is technically the only requirement—but note the italics.
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This requirement speaks to our commitment to congregational polity, which is sometimes understood as a fancy term for “congregations make their own decisions.” It’s more than that, though. Congregational polity is also a fancy term for “we support each other and hold each other accountable.” To embody this support and accountability, there is another layer to what makes a minister, called fellowshipping, which basically involves getting approval from the wisdom of the larger group.
Most UU ministers undergo a fellowshipping process prior to ordination that involves psychological testing, much hands-on experience and mentorship, a master’s degree, and the reading of a truly intimidating list of texts that can later be used to line their office walls for both decoration and insulation. At the end of this process, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee—which is populated by both clergy and laity—agrees that the candidate is ready to go. And then the congregation ordains them. (If they so choose. There is, of course, a vote. There’s always voting.)
What exactly are the requirements for ordination? Does the minister pledge celibacy, poverty, and obedience, and declare their adherence to a strict creed? As you might imagine, they do none of these things. Matters of celibacy would generally be considered none of the congregation’s business (as would matters of gender or sexual orientation). There is no vow of poverty—ministers draw salaries, like other professionals. And obedience is out of the question, although ministers do have a mutual covenant through which they agree how they will relate to one another. It involves matters of support and mutual accountability, and very much does not involve obedience.
As for adherence to a strict creed, that’s not only not a requirement, it’s explicitly stated in the Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws that it cannot be a requirement.
What happens at an ordination service? Does the bishop lay hands on the new minister? Well, this would be tricky, because there is no UU bishop. There is often a laying on of hands, but it usually involves everyone. There’s usually a Charge to the Minister and a Charge to the Congregation (these are marching orders of a sort, given by someone the new minister chooses). There’s usually the offering of a collegial blessing such as the right hand of fellowship, where another minister welcomes the new minister into the collegial group. And there’s always the act of ordination, which is performed by the members of the congregation and is usually a reading led by the congregational president.
There is no magical moment of ethereal transformation where the minister takes their place as an intermediary between God and humankind. UUs do not all agree on whether there is a God, much less where such a God might be located. But we definitely agree that whatever transcendental forces exist, ministers do not have a special place in controlling or mediating those forces. Ministry is not a supernatural state of any kind. It’s a choice, a process, and an ongoing relationship.
One final word to confuse matters a little further. In Unitarian Universalist congregations, ministry is not seen as a thing that only ordained ministers do. Ordained ministry is just one type of ministry. There are music ministries and religious education ministries and community ministries, and sometimes these things are done by ordained ministers and sometimes they are done by laity or other religious professionals. Even preaching at the pulpit—something long associated with ordination—is a shared privilege and responsibility. We believe that the truth is not spoken until many voices—and many types of voices—are heard (and even then, it’s still a work in process). UUs will often refer to something someone does in the world as “a ministry,” even when it’s not being done by a minister. Sometimes, the phrase “ministry” means “important work you’re called to do,” and we believe everyone is called to do important work.
Everyone. No ifs, ands, or buts.
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Liz James is a member of the Saskatoon Unitarians, on the Canadian prairie. When not executing elaborate and generally doomed UU-themed practical jokes, she runs the Unitarian Universalist Hysterical Society on Facebook and blogs at Liz James Writes.