Stressed out

When a minister is removed from fellowship, or resigns from fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee sends out email announcing the minister’s name, and the reason for removal from fellowship, or the reason for resignation. These emails go out to all other ministers, and also, I believe, to key congregational lay leaders such as Board presidents.

Starting last year, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee finally began maintaining a list of these ministers online at this web page: “UUA Clergy Removed or Resigned from Fellowship with Completed or Pending Misconduct Investigations.” This list goes back to the 1960s, although there is a specific warning that the list “is in no way a complete historic record.” I would assume it is fairly complete for about the last twenty years.

So I just received another email notice of a minister removed from fellowship. That makes four ministers out of fellowship since September. This seemed like a high number to me. But is it?

According to the online list, in the period from 2000 to 2020, twenty ministers either resigned from fellowship rather than face misconduct charges, or were removed from fellowship on misconduct charges, averaging one per year. (The list has not been updated for 2022.) Thus four ministers out of fellowship in six months is a high number compared to the historical average. However, four ministers went out of fellowship in 2019, the highest number in any one year. So having a high number of ministers out of fellowship cannot be blamed solely on the COVID pandemic.

Nevertheless, four ministers out of fellowship within six month is still a high number. I believe the pandemic has contributed to this historically high number. Which makes sense. We know that people in other helping professions are feeling burned out by the pandemic, so we should expect ministers and key volunteers to be feeling burned-out and tender. We also know that emotions are high in all workplaces, and “rage quitting” is a thing, another symptom of workplaces stress. I’m thinking the common thread running through all this is pretty obvious: both lay people and ministers are feeling stressed out after almost three years of pandemic.

What can we do to address all this stress?

Well, many ministers would probably benefit from talking with a mental health professional, to get an outside opinion about their emotional well-being (that is, if you can find a mental health professional to talk with, since there is a shortage of such people). I’ll be talking with a therapist myself in a week or so.

Congregational leaders, for their part, would probably benefit from talking with denominational officials or congregational consultants. Again, the point would be to get an outside perspective: How stressed out is the congregation? And where there is a lot of stress, then start thinking about how to reduce that stress.

To help reduce stress, I would also heed the advice of Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University, from a recent Religion New Service article. “Everything has to be hyper-intentional now,” Thumma said. “The focus should be, how can we become a better church — rather than, how do we re-create what we used to have?” In other words, let’s shift expectations away from what we used to do, and instead set expectations about what we can realistically do now. That should lower stress on lay people and ministers alike.

4 thoughts on “Stressed out”

  1. Or an unaccountable process with little or no hope for justice. Note that at least two of the ministers removed in recent years were for not continuing with the process. The last disfellowshiping was for something that’s only recently a “crime” and a dubious one at that. So for those accused, how many times are you supposed to stand up after being shot at?

    The notification process, too, goes into one-sided explanations and that raises all my red flags about fairness, not to mention the power of self-protecting sources of authority. Unless I have good reason to believe a removed minister did something wrong (say, a particularly bad arrest or trial report) I’m prone to give the disfellowshipped minister the benefit of the doubt. After all, how will we know otherwise?

  2. I’ve also noticed the uptick in colleagues dismissed from Fellowship and have had contact with some who are looking for a Plan B in Community Ministry (which in most settings does not require UUA Fellowship). While I am only getting one side of the story, they tell me they feel they were victims of false accusations that were almost impossible to defend against. For example, what do you do about a parishioner who reports you for being a bully because you supported the committee that decided to paint the nursery tan instead of off-white? Presumably, accusations made against parish colleagues by parishioners go through some sort of reality testing before being taken seriously, but I don’t know if that is true. For decades I have been the chairperson of the Ethics Committee of the National Guild of Hypnotists. We see bogus complaints come in all the time from ex-spouses, business competitors, etc. to the point where we have a process to screen out mischief making complaints. Does the UUA have such a process? I don’t know, and would like more transparency about how they make the decisions they come to.

  3. Hard to know what to do. We’ve known a past minister who was allowed to continue his/her career despite accusations that were validated. UUA might be super-sensitive after the sins of the past.

  4. Scott, I wouldn’t rule out problems with the process (though obviously I don’t know one way or the other). I’d still argue that process problems are more likely to arise (both at the congregational level and the denominational level) when people are stressed out.

    Scot, false accusations are definitely part of the reality of any professional’s career. As one M.D. of my acquaintance put it, “It’s not if I get sued for malpractice, it’s when.” Ministers don’t get sued for malpractice, but the idea is the same — it’s very likely that every minister will face false accusations at some point in their career. On top of that, every UU congregation I’ve been a part of has had weak accountability structures. (As an example, in the last congregation I served, I received one annual review in 13 years.) Weak accountability structures within congregations are breeding grounds for false accusations. Plus weak accountability structures mean that genuine accusations are more likely to get lost in the shuffle. The pandemic has made all this even more so. To paraphrase the quote from the post above, “Everything needs to be hyper-intentional now”; sadly, neither our denomination nor our congregations are being hyper-intentional.

    Carol, you raise an important point. Too many UU ministers have gotten away with sexual misconduct and financial malfeasance with no more than a slap on the wrist. It is all too easy to over-correct. Again, we need to be hyper-intentional: don’t over-correct, and don’t let things slide either.

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