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).]

7 thoughts on “Dare we do away with professionalism?

  1. Will Shetterly

    Three excellent points.

    And I hadn’t known about lay preachers. Was it thought that they hurt the brand?

  2. Charlotte Lehmann

    Was just re-reading JLA’s essay on “The Indispensible Responsibility of Voluntary Associations” and he makes some important points about the potential shadow side of such organizations when they do not act in the interest of the common good, often colluding to make happen what may not even be in their own interest in order to have some future payback opportunity with those with whom they are colluding. Makes me think again about making sure that all voices are heard. I appreciate this essay, Dan. I have experienced the drawbacks of the credentialing process. I’m doing great in my first FT ministry, but it took me 8 years to get there.

  3. Daniel Harper Post author

    Bart, I hadn’t seen that, thanks for the link. Also of possible interest, the latest issue of Christian Century magazine has a big article on restructuring seminary education. This is a conversation that’s taking place in many faith communities throughout the U.S. right now.

  4. Daniel Harper Post author

    Will, the lay preachers vote was ostensibly a way of cleaning up the bylaws — we hadn’t been licensing lay preachers, so why leave it in the bylaws? While that argument made a certain kind of sense, there were some of us at that time who thought: Gee, licensing lay preachers sounds like a pretty good idea, maybe we should look into this instead of simply discarding it.

  5. Pogo Possum

    I’m struck by this passage, and what else it may inadvertently reveal:

    “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).”

    Why couldn’t you come right out and say it? If you were certain of it, I’m sure many of your peers were certain as well. And yet you could not openly act, as an individual or collectively, to protect current or potential victims from this predator in minister’s clothing, and a member of your ranks.

    The UUMA, as a professional guild, is strong and protective of their turf, as you indicate. Allowing non-professional clergy would dilute the labor market and the value of their paid positions. Does exposing corrupt or exploitative clergy potentially reduce the value of their own positions as well? Are they hesitant to toss out the bad apples for fear of reducing trust in the whole barrel? In other words, is there a perverse incentive for our professional clergy to hide or minimize the incompetence or misconduct of their peers? Does the UUMA end up colluding to keep the “certified charlatans and exploiters of people” active among their own ranks? I don’t want to pick on the UUMA in particular: this may be a natural consequence of having professionalized & unionized leadership.

    (I’m using a pseudonym because I’m early in the path of seeking ordination, and I worry about raising these questions openly. Oh, the irony.)

  6. Daniel Harper Post author

    Pogo Possum — Why couldn’t I come right out and say it? For the simple reason that that minister had a habit of having his lawyer call up people dared to accuse him of sexual misconduct. And I didn’t have any legal proof of his misconduct, so if he brought legal action against me, he probably would have prevailed. I thought this would be obvious, so I didn’t spell it out; I guess I have become too cynical.

    Aside from that, you’re asking all the right questions. Ministry is no different from any other profession — scientific research, politics, clinical psychology — all professions have a certain number of practitioners who are morally bankrupt.

    And you are absolutely right to worry about raising these questions openly when you are early in the path of seeking ordination. My advice, for what it’s worth: keep your eyes open, your morals intact, and wait until you get a secure job — and even then pick your battles carefully.

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