Dare we do away with professionalism?

Carl Rogers, the great American psychologist, asked a revolutionary question of the American Psychological Association back in 1973: Dare we do away with professionalism? While sympathizing fully with the hard work, the integrity, and the high motives of those who were engaged in certification of psychologists, he pointed out that the drive towards certification and professionalization wasn’t really working. And I think much of what he says applies to the profession of ministry today, just as much as it applied to the profession of psychology in 1973.

Rogers identifies at least three drawbacks to professionalization and certification.

1. The first drawback is that certification is regressive rather than progressive. Rogers said: “As soon as we set up criteria for certification … the first and greatest effect is to freeze the profession in a past image.” This has the additional effect of discouraging innovation. Furthermore, this is an inevitable result of certification: “What can you use for examinations? Obviously, the questions and tests that have been used in the past decade or two. Who is wise enough to be an examiner? Obviously, the person who has ten or twenty years of experience and who therefore started his [sic] training fifteen to twenty-five years previously.” No matter how hard the certification bodies try to update their certification criteria, they will always be behind the times. So, said Rogers, “the certification procedure is always rooted in the rather distant past and defines the profession in those terms.”

This first drawback applies to the certification process of ministry today. To begin with, Unitarian Universalist ministers must complete a three-year master of divinity degree before receiving professional certification; yet theological education is increasing in cost faster than inflation, while full-time ministry jobs are in decline; theological school is preparing students for a ten-year old job market. Some theological schools and professional bodies try to address this problem by including courses and training in entrepreneurship, but from what I have seen these courses and training use concepts of social entrepreneurship from a decade ago; to say nothing of the fact that the main goal of social entrepreneurship as applied to ministry seems to be an attempt to increase revenues in order to pay higher salaries to highly-trained ministers who have lots of theological school debt.

Conversely, I do NOT see certification bodies (the MFC), professional groups (UUMA), or theological schools exploring how they might provide in-service training and support to volunteer or part-time lay leaders who are taking on leadership roles in smaller congregations that can no longer afford professional ministry. Not surprisingly, religious groups that are growing quickly these days include groups like the Mormons and many Pentecostal churches that do not require clergy with expensive training.

2. Which brings us back to Carl Rogers. If we don’t have elaborate certification processes, what will keep the qucks, kooks, and con artists out of religious leadership? Rogers said: “The second drawback [to professionalization] I state sorrowfully: there are as many certified charlatans and exploiters of people as there are uncertified. … Certification is not equivalent to competence.” To prove his point, Rogers asked a rhetorical question: If you had a friend who needed a psychotherapist, would you send that friend to anyone who happened to have a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology? Heck no, you wouldn’t make such a recommendation unless you knew what that person was like as a person and as a psychologist, “recognizing that there are many with diplomas on their walls who are not fit to do therapy, lead a group, or help a marriage.”

The same, obviously, may be said of ministers. It has happened that I have talked with someone who was moving to another state, and they said they would attend the Unitarian Universalist congregation there; but I was morally certain the minister of that congregation was a sexual predator or an exploiter, so I tried to convince them to try a different congregation (of course I could not have come right out and said that I strongly suspected the minister of being a creep). And we all know of ministers who are ineffective or incompetent. There are also ministers who are competent, with impeccable credentials, but they find themselves in a situation where their skills to not match what the congregation needs at that time. It is obvious, then, that Carl Rogers is correct: professional certification is simply not equivalent to competence.

3. Rogers identified one more problem with professional credentialing: “The third drawback is that the urge towards professionalism builds up a rigid bureaucracy.” My experiences with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) of the Unitarian Universalist Association confirm Rogers’s insight. When I went through professional credentialing with the MFC in the early 2000s, the process was a nightmare of complexity; and by all reports it has only gotten worse.

The increasing complexity or professional credentialing does not arise out of malice or from some dark conspiracy; it grows out of the best intentions of caring and committed people. However, despite the good intentions behind professional credentialing, the end result is a rigid bureaucracy that is at best burdensome. At worst, from what I have seen, this rigid bureaucracy of the MFC sets up barriers that keep out talented people, including non-white people and lower class people; this moves beyond being merely burdensome to a species of evil. It is worth noting that the Pentecostal denominations that have minimal professional credentialing seem to have lots of non-white ministers. It is also worth noting that the early Universalists didn’t worry about professional credentialing, and (not surprisingly) those were the peak years of their growth.

To reiterate Carl Rogers’s question: Dare we do away with professionalism? Dare we, for example, reinstate the category of licensed lay preachers that we inherited from the Universalists, which remained in our denominational bylaws until 2000 (I was one of the few dissenters in that General Assembly vote)? I doubt it; the powerful Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association has too much investment in supporting highly-paid ministers to tolerate legitimizing lay preachers. Do our theological schools dare to find new ways to provide training to religious leaders? I doubt it; their business model depends too much on providing expensive three year degree programs to persons seeking ordination. Does our upper-middle class white-majority denomination dare to let go of professionalism, when professionalism privileges white people with lots of assets and expensive college degrees? I doubt it; the white majority within Unitarian Universalism has shown no real interest in letting go of the cultural norms it holds dear — including the cultural norms of credentialing and professionalism.

Dare we do away with professionalism? Probably not, but it could be really exciting if we did….

[All quotations from Carl Rogers, “Some New Challenges to the Helping Professions,” address to the American Psychological Association, reprinted in Howard Kirschenbaum and Valerie Land Henderson, ed., The Carl Rogers Reader (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1989).]

On March 21, 1924, in Reading, Pennsylvania, 27 year old Dorothy Fassnacht Harper gave birth to her first child. The new baby was named Daniel Robert after his father, though he was called Bobby.

Bobby’s father, Dan, had gone to college to study for the ministry, and while he was in seminary served for two years as a minister in the Evangelical Association, a German-language Methodist group. But Dan found out that ministry was not for him, so he became a newspaperman, starting as a sportswriter, and then moving into other jobs in local newspapers in Scranton, Reading, and Hazelton, Pennsylvania. Bobby’s mother, Dorothy, was the daughter of a minister in the Evangelical Association, and her father officiated at her wedding to Dan in 1921. She completed the eighth grade, then worked as a dressmaker before her marriage. Bobby’s younger brother, Lee, was born in 1928.

The Great Depression hit the year after Lee was born. Dan found it hard to find steady work. In 1932 he got a job as a rewrite man with the Staten Island Advance, Staten Island, New York, far from Pennsylvania Dutch country where he had and Dorothy had always lived. He went by himself at first, not wanting to move his family until he was sure the job was going to last. It turned out to be a good job; according to his obituary in the New York Times: “Within four years, he was promoted successively to night editor, city editor and editor.” For the rest of the Depression, and until his retirement, Dan had a steady, secure job.

Dorothy, Bobby, and Lee followed Dan to Staten Island later in 1932. When Bobby started school in Staten Island, he ran into a problem with his name. He later wrote that his “name was changed from D. Robert to Robert when the New York City school system refused to allow any student to have an initial before a name.”

While Bobby did reasonably well at school, he had a lot of outside interests, too. Both he and Lee joined his father on fishing trips, and to the end of his life he kept photographs of fishing trips and strings of fish the three of them caught. He once wrote that the point of fishing was not necessarily to catch a lot of fish: “I remember my great uncle Spencer Fassnacht saying, after four of us had fished all day without catching anything, that seeing a kingfisher catch a fish had made it a good day.”

By the time he was ten or twelve, he started a neighborhood newspaper. Although some issues of this newspaper, “The Raven Call,” didn’t have much content, there were some real stories, too. The front page headline for the August 18, 1935, edition screamed, “WOMAN BURNED TO DEATH,” and the next story arrested your attention with the headline, “ONE CASE OF TYPHOID REPORTED.”

Bobby liked to read, and I have a few of his childhood books. On the title page of one of them, “Mark Tidd in Business,” part of a juvenile series by Clarence Budington Kelland, he wrote in pencil, “THIS BOOK BELONGS TO ROBERT HARPER GRADE 6B5”; above that I’m a little surprised to see that I inscribed my own name when I was a child; I have a vague recollection that my grandmother gave me the book. Another book he gave me when I was young was “Ken Ward in the Jungle,” a book from a juvenile series by Zane Grey, and though he didn’t write his name in it he told me it was his when he was a boy. I also have his tattered copy of Ernest Thompson Seton’s “Two Little Savages,” which I took from his condo when we were getting rid of all his books just before he died. Other books of his I remember seeing when we went to visit my grandmother in Staten Island include Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “Their Island Home.” None of these is what you’d call a serious book.

He did not remember rebelling when he was a teenager. He later wrote: “In the middle of the Depression we were thankful that my father had a job. So many of my friends had fathers who had been employed in the shipyards on Staten Island before the Depression. Now they were lucky if they occasionally found jobs as carpenters or laborers…. I seldom heard of any teenagers rebelling. I do remember two of my acquaintances who rebelled. Norman Schaeffer, whose father was a doctor, had enough money to buy an old model A Ford in which he and several others would ride around in defiance of the law (the legal driving age in NYC was 18 at that time). Perhaps rebellion is a luxury that is more likely to occur among those who are well enough off to be bored and then resent the adult world. I and most of my high school friends simply tried to keep our noses clean.”

When he got into high school, Bobby got interested in physics and electronics. He doggedly did the work required of him in school, and at home wrapped himself up in his hobbies of model railroading and radio. He was thrilled the first time he heard the sound of a distant radio station come out of a radio he had built. After graduating from Port Richmond High School, he entered Haverford College, an obscure Quaker college in southeastern Pennsylvania, in September, 1942, intending to study physics.

Two weeks into his second semester, he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps. He served overseas, in the European theatre, as a ground-based radio operator mechanic in the 437th Troop Carrier Group. He was part of the Headquarters Battalion, and was stationed in England and France during the invasion of France and Germany.

He didn’t talk much about his war years, though he did say that he never saw a shot fired in anger, and that those three years in the service were almost entirely unpleasant. He was fortunate to be part of the ground crew; he told us how he’d be talking (using Morse code, not voice) with a returning bomber when suddenly their signal would disappear; they had been shot down. He told us of another time when a plane came back carrying paratroopers returning from a mission; when they got off the plane, they just kept walking past their officers, and they walked right off the base. When he told this story towards the end of his life, he said the paratroopers told their officers to fuck off.

His mother saved his letters home, and I read them all not long before his death. I read some of the letters aloud to him, while he was still capable of understanding them. One of the last conversations I had with him, before he became unable to speak, was about how he finally realized at the end of his life that he had post-traumatic stress disorder from the war. Unfortunately, his letters from the war years disappeared when we were cleaning out his condo, but I remember the tone of the letters growing darker as the war dragged on. He had some kind of romance, or maybe more than one, and I’m pretty sure he lost his virginity in England. When I was in my forties, he gave me a self-published book by a friend of his from Haverford College, which he said accurately reflected his experiences; a significant part of that book concerned the sexual experiences of the protagonist. By this point in his life, I can no longer think of him as “Bobby,” so I’ll start calling him Bob.

After the war ended in Europe, Bob was put on a ship across the Atlantic, the first leg of a trip that was supposed to take him to the Pacific theatre. While he was in transit, the atom bombs were dropped and Japan surrendered, and he was discharged from the Army on September 25, 1945. Two days later, he was back at Haverford College, having received special permission to start school at the last minute.

To be continued…

[Updated Feb. 10 to remove errors.]

New male contraceptive in development

Jeff, one of the people who is volunteering in our comprehensive sexuality education program this year, pointed me to an article on a new male contraception product now in development: gel is injected into the vas deferens, preventing sperm from leaving the testes. Preliminary trials with rhesus monkeys show minimal side effects with one hundred percent effectiveness. More on this new product, trade-named Vasagel, is available online here, from The Guardian.

One of the challenges of teaching comprehensive sexuality education in the past half decade has been trying to keep up with the many recent developments in contraceptives. As challenges go, that’s a pretty nice challenge to have.

“Behold with Joy”

One type of American sacred song that seems to have gradually disappeared in the past quarter century is the patriotic song. Some religious groups (I’m looking at you, Unitarian Universalists) have no patriotic songs at all in their current hymnals. This is a shame, especially for religious groups that claim to support democracy and democratic principles.

I recently came across a patriotic song written in 1776 by the Universalist and patriot Elhanan Winchester. It’s not the greatest poetry, but it’s straightforward and honest. I especially like the second verse, which I find particularly poignant in an era when elections are bought and sold by rich people and big companies:

Happy the land whose rulers are
Chose by the people’s voice alone
For such will take a special care
To save a country of their own.

I found these words set to a tune written in 1781 by composer and patriot William Billings. It’s a happy pairing of robust and singable tune, with honest and heartfelt poetry.

In the redwoods

On Thursday, I was at a meeting in Camp Meeker, California, in the redwoods. In the morning, I walked out the door just in time to look out at the top of the fog bank in the valley below.

As in a traditional Chinese landscape painting, by anyone from Wang Wei down to the Ming dynasty, you could tell how far away something was by how much it faded into the mist; and then above the mist you could see a distant hilltop covered with trees. I imposed a kind of Western-style perspective into the photograph by finding lines — in trees, in the horizon, in the clouds — that seem to lead to a vanishing point about where the sun is trying to break through the clouds. There was no perspectival vanishing point in the actual landscape: just mist and trees and abrupt hills and valleys. But so it is that we use our familiar conceptual schemas to experience the world, even when they don’t really fit.

Religious tolerance and Trump’s order banning refugees

The BBC has posted the full text of Trump’s executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” here.

The executive order states in part: “The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law.” By the same logic, the executive order itself should support the Constitution, including the right to religious belief set forth in the First Amendment, viz.: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

What is particularly problematic here is that Trump, like both his presidential predecessors, is using executive orders too broadly. This particular executive order has the effect of proscribing persons with certain religious beliefs, notwithstanding that the courts have generally held that, while certain destructive religious practices (e.g., Hindu suttee, human sacrifice, etc.) can be prohibited by law, religious beliefs cannot be regulated by Congress. Trump’s use of a presidential executive order can be seen as an attempted end run around the First Amendment. US District Judge Ann Donnelly has issued a temporary stay of the executive order, though she did not attempt to rule on its constitutionality — that will be left to another court.

Although Trump has stated that this executive order does not target specific religious groups (i.e., Muslims), the effect of the order is to severely limit the admission of Muslims into the United States; under the order, no visas will be issued to nationals of seven countries, including Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, all of which are Muslim-majority countries, according to the BBC. Furthermore, the BBC notes that in an interview of Friday, Trump specifically said that Christians “would be given priority among Syrians who apply for refugee status in the future” (BBC’s paraphrase), thus implying that the government gives preference to certain religions.

All people belonging to faith communities should be wary of this executive order; we have a vested interest in maintaining freedom of our religious beliefs in the United States, and this executive order is a definite step towards establishing state-sanctioned religious beliefs, insofar as it brands certain beliefs as not acceptable. As noted previously, Trump has indicated that Christian refugees will be considered exceptions under this executive order, but Christians should also be worried, unless you’re sure that you hold exactly the right kind of Christian belief that will receive government sanction. Atheists and agnostics, you too should be worried about the creeping establishment of government-approved religion!

Write to Trump right now to express your concern. You can send your email to president@whitehouse.gov — if you prefer to send classic mail, address your letter to:
The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Do this RIGHT NOW. Then tell ten friends to write letters as well. Let’s make sure the White House receives a million or more letters opposing this executive order within a week.

I’ll put the text of my email below, along with a sample email you can tweak for yourself….

Continue reading

Multifaith Service of Concern and Commitment

Last night, our congregation hosted a Multifaith Service of Concern and Commitment, an event sponsored by Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice. Held on the eve of the presidential inauguration, the event aimed to demonstrate that many people of faith do not agree with the stated agendas of the incoming presidential administration, especially religious intolerance and anger directed at immigrants. We had an overflow crowd, with people seated in the lobby and a few standing along the walls.

The service opened with the sounding of the Jewish shofar by Ted Kahn, a Christian call to prayer by Eileen Altman, an Islamic call to prayer by Ahmed Saleh, and a Quaker invitation to silence by Eric Sabelman. Longer reflections came from a Native American tradition (Chastity Lolita Salvador), Judaism (Sheldon Lewis), Christianity (Annanda Barclay), Islam (Samina Sundas) Buddhism (Ayya Santussika), and an immigrant reflection by Guadalupe Garcia. Here’s Samina Sundas giving her reflection on what it means to be a Muslim in the U.S. today:

We had music by an Islamic ensemble, two Jewish singers, a Catholic pianist, and a Unitarian Universalist choir. To close the evening, Amy Eilberg and Diana Gibson, two of the organizers of the event from Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, asked everyone present to talk in small groups and commit to one or more actions to keep us moving in a positive direction over the next few years — that is, moving away from hatred and division and towards acceptance and love. Here are some of the commitments that people wrote on sticky-notes and posted for all to read:

This was a good way to mark the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, a presidency which had its faults but which was marked by an attempt to move the U.S. towards greater unity and acceptance of each other. This is a good time to commit ourselves once again to the moral ideal of loving one’s neighbor as oneself — it’s going to take a bit more effort under the new presidential administration, which so far has been distinguished morally by selfishness, defensiveness, and self-righteousness. Time to gird up your loins, campers, and get to work — ’cause we haven’t reached the promised land yet.

For reference, here’s a PDF of the program for the Multifaith Service.

“There Is More Love Somwhere”

I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but if you like the hymn “There Is More Love Somewhere,” there’s another version you should know about.

This is not a widely-sung hymn; I can’t find it in in the vast collection of hymnals at the Hymnary.org Web site, and the only hymnal I’ve seen it in is the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition. The version in Singing the Living Tradition closely follows the melody sung by Bernice Johnson Reagon on her 1986 album “River of Life,” and you can hear Reagon’s version on Youtube. In the booklet that goes with the CD, Reagon says that she learned the song from Bessie Jones. (The only other commercial recording I’ve been able to track down is one by Eileen McGann, a Canadian folk singer, on her 1997 ablum titled “Heritage.”)

Reagon might well have learned the song directly from Bessie Jones, but there’s also an Alan Lomax recording of Jones singing “There Is More Love Somewhere.” Now Bernice Johnson Reagon is a hugely talented singer, but I much prefer Bessie Jones’s rendition of the hymn. Reagon was making a commercial recording, and her performance is highly polished and meticulously crafted. Jones sings the tune in Alan Lomax’s living room, and her performance is by no means a commercially polished recording; yet I feel she gets deeper into the feeling and meaning of the song. Musically, Jones’s version is more direct; Reagon adds carefully articulated sixteenth notes (all of which are carefully reproduced in the Singing the Living Tradition version), where for her part, Jones varies and improvises on the melody, shades pitch and plays with the rhythm, and goes whither the Spirit leads her.

Lest there be any question, the lyrics Jones sings make it clear that this song comes from the African American Christian tradition. Her lyrics begin with “There is more love somewhere,” then go on to “more joy,” “happiness,” “Jesus,” “more peace,” and “heaven,” before reprising “more love” and “more joy.” (If you don’t like heavenly love and joy, you may not want to sing this song.) And as you’d expect from a song out of the African American Christian tradition, there is no pretence that we all have plenty of joy and happiness right here and now; joy, happiness, heaven are all theological ideals, the end towards which we direct our lives, with no guarantee that we will achieve that end now or in the immediate future — we can only hope to find them “somewhere.”

I should also note that Singing the Living Tradition names the tune “Biko,” but as much as I admire Stephen Biko I consider this to be a misleading name that doesn’t relate to the actual origins of the tune. Bessie Jones told Alan Lomax the song came from the Georgia Sea Islands, so “Sea Islands” would be a better name.

In any case — listen to the Bessie Jones version of this tune. Now that I have Jone’s version in my ear, any time I sing it I can’t help but remember that the song comes from the Gullah people of Georgia’s Sea Islands, people who managed to keep their direct cultural connections to Africa; that it’s a song of deepest spiritual longings and hope for the future; and that you don’t need to sing it like a commercially produced recording, you can sing it from the heart.

Local religious data

I love poring over data on U.S. religions, and a motherlode of such data can be found on the Web site of The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA).

Tonight, I’ve been looking over religion data for Santa Clara County, the county which includes the UU Church of Palo Alto, as found in the County Membership Report.

ARDA’s Web page shows that 43.6% of the county population are religious adherents, essentially unchanged from 43.3% of the county’s population in 2000. The count includes 1,005,614 people as unaffiliated; 447,369 as Roman Catholic; 148,599 as Evangelical Protestant; 125,165 as Other (this includes Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, UUs, etc.); and 44,623 as Mainline Protestant. 927 people are counted as members of Unitarian Universalist congregations.

These counts are based on self-reporting by 236 religious bodies, and any interpretation should take that into account. Obvious problems: religious bodies may have different reporting procedures; some of us (like me) are regular attendees but are not official members of a congregation, so are not counted; counts may include people who are not really adherents; etc.

The basic data sets come from the Assoc. of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, whose Web site is also of interest.

My main interest in the ARDA Web page is how it helps show the incredible religious diversity of Santa Clara County. Admittedly, they miss some smaller religious groups, particularly adherents of Orisa Devotion, and several New Religious Movements; but these are groups that may deliberately hide from, or give incorrect information to, researchers. Even with the obvious gaps (Cao Dai, Scientology, Santeria), their list of religious groups shows impressive diversity: a bewildering variety of Christians; Baha’is; Buddhists; Hindus; Jains; Jews; a few New Religious Movements; Sikhs; and Unitarian Universalists.

Definitely a fascinating Web site for exploring data on religion in a given geographical region.

Noted, with minimal comment

“In the Enlightenment, ‘natural law’ functioned as a radical critique of the existing order. … [N]atural law’s most salient exponent is, without doubt, late nineteenth-century Social Darwinism. The Social Darwinists co-opted Charles Darwin’s theories of biological evolution — specifically, the idea that in nature there is an ongoing amoral struggle, in which the survivor is the most fit in a specific place and a specific time, or, simply, the most powerful. For the Darwinists this was an indisputable fact. Furthermore, the cruelty of the victory guarantees the development of the species and its advancement. Social Darwinism is the application of a biological principle to the sphere of human affairs: what is perceived as a fact of life in the natural world is deemed applicable to human affairs. The two most obvious examples of Social Darwinist thinking are Nazi ideology on the one hand, and a certain idealization of capitalist competition with its relentless preoccupation with egoistic self-fulfillment, on the other. In other words, the theoretical laws of the biological world are hereby transformed into normative social doctrines. Natural law came to be understood as amoral.” — Shalom Rosenberg, “Concepts of Torah and Nature in Jewish Thought,” Judaism and Ecology, ed. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson (Cambridge, Mass.: Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School, 2002), pp. 190-192.

Yes indeed. To hell with the homeless, the poor, and the unemployed. It may seem cruel to let them starve to death, but it’s just nature’s way of weeding out the unfit — so sayeth many of our politicians today, in their twisted misunderstanding of biological theory.