Thursday, October 03, 2013

What If The DRE Ran The Church?

Of all the things I've done in my career perhaps the thing with the best title was when I was hired by the Canadian Unitarian Council to be a "provocateur" for one of their annual conferences.  Professional Provocateur -- arguably the role I was born to play.

So I'd like to be clear that what I'm doing in this post today is being provocative.  Intentionally.  Consciously.  I'm not saying that I don't believe what I'm writing, but only that my goal is not to convince you of its rightness or wrongness.  I'm hoping that a conversation might ensue.  I'm hoping that others might stop for a minute, cock their head to one side or the other, maybe squint one eye, and say to themselves (and anyone who happens to be around them), "Huh.  I never thought about it like that.  I wonder . . ."

That's what I think "What If . . ." questions are really all about.  To get us to see things from a new angle, to try on a different perspective, and to remind us to wonder.  Today's What If?  What if the Director of Religious Education ran the church?

Let's start with a few assumptions.  I am writing about the religious community I know best -- Unitarian Universalists.  Others may find something useful in all of this, but it's really to and for UUs that I'm writing right now.  And let us for the moment at least agree with one another that I consider Unitarian Universalism to be its own religious tradition.  You may not think so -- and there are certainly folks with divergent opinions on this issue -- but I'm the one writing and I am beginning with the premise that Unitarian Universalism is its own distinct and unique religion.  We grow out of Protestant Christianity, that's true.  But Christianity itself grew out of Judaism and nobody's running around saying that Christianity should feel compelled to adhere to Jewish traditions, norms, and forms.  So I'm writing primarily to Unitarian Universalist and with Unitarian Universalism in mind, and our tradition is its own thing.

All that said, I think it can also be agreed -- and if you wildly disagree remember who's writing this! -- that the forms of our tradition still look awfully like the Protestant traditions from which we were born.  Many of our churches are called, well, "churches."  And lots of them look like churches.  What with the pews and the pulpits and all.  And lots of them have an ordained clergy person (or two) who are seen to a greater or lesser extent as the CEO of the church.

This makes a certain amount of sense.  Our tradition grows out of the Protestant strains that advocated for a "learned clergy."  And today's ordained UU ministers spend a fair amount of time (and money!) preparing for the roles through which we serve our congregations.  We study preaching, and church history, and theology, and pastoral care, and comparative religions, and . . .  If we're not all really smart folk we at least have a whole lot of learning!

But here's where I want the head tilt to come in.  Does it make sense for a Unitarian Universalist congregation to have an ordained clergy person at its head?  Let me play this out a bit.

In some traditions the clergy person -- Rabbi, Imam, Minister -- has been, not to put too fine a point on it, the smartest person in the room.  At least, often, the most educated. And for certain the most well trained to do things like interpret sacred scripture.  It seems self-evident that traditions that value such things would look to someone who looks a whole lot like a modern ordained minister to lead them.

But Unitarian Universalists don't necessarily fit this mold.  In the vast majority of UU congregations today the ordained minister is decidedly not the most learned person in the room!  Per capita, UUs have more Ph.D.s than just about any other religious tradition.  And our clergy don't even necessarily know more about scripture and religious history than the people in the pews, not that that's a particularly powerful need in most UU congregations.  We don't have a sacred text that is in need of interpretation.  And is a seminary-trained, ordained clergy person the only one who is able to draw meaning out of life?

In some traditions the clergy -- priests, let's say -- are thought to be imbued with a special authority to perform certain acts.  Only an ordained priest, for instance, can officiate the sacraments.  But UUs don't have sacraments, per se, and even if we did it would be the rare congregation that would say only an ordained clergy person could perform them!

Where am I going with all of this?  I have heard it articulated, and have said it myself, that everything a UU church does is in one way or another part of the process of "faith formation."  Everything we do is part of that "free and responsible search for truth and meaning" that we affirm is one of our guiding principles.  It's long been noted that ordained clergy are woefully uneducated about issues of church governance and administration.  But I think it can just as certainly be asserted that another area in which our training is generally underwhelming is faith formation.  A cursory course in religious education, sure, but that is not the area of expertise most of us were encouraged -- or even assisted -- in developing.

It is, however, precisely the purview of the Religious Educator.  In recognition of this, in fact, more and more congregations are changing the title of their Director of Religious Education to Director of Lifespan Faith Development.  And, so, I'm just wondering -- why, if there has to be one person who is at the "top" of the UU org chart (if you will), why is it the clergy person and not the religious educator?

To be sure, in many of our congregations the religious educator is a part-time, and even a volunteer, position.  The person filling the role does not have anywhere near the training and preparation of the clergy person.  These folks may mean well, but they are in no position to "run the church."  I acknowledge that this is so.  I don't, however, assume therefore that this means it should be so.  It may be that we've been putting our preparatory energies in the wrong place.  Perhaps, rather than putting so much time and energy into clergy preparation we should be developing better prepared, and better supported, DREs!

I also want to head off any argument directed at the idea that I'm saying clergy are unimportant.  I am not.  We bring skills, and training, and sensitivity to the game that's important.  Even essential.  Clergy have a capacity for seeing connections, and weaving things together that is, indeed, a part of our training.  And while I do believe that nearly everyone is qualified to "pass life through the fire of thought" (as Emerson described the art of preaching), I also know that the clergy's training in homiletics and worship theory make us indispensable in training and guiding the laity.  There is no question -- in my mind, at least -- that ordained clergy bring great value to congregational life.  I do not, however, believe that that ipso facto translates into the elevated role most of us have inherited and are assumed to deserve.

It seems to me that it would be ideal for the religious professional, and the "ministry professional" (for want of a better term), and perhaps even an administrative professional to work together as a team -- each one bringing their own particular skills and perspectives to the task.  But I want to question the virtually unquestioned assumption that it is the ordained minister who is -- and should be -- "in charge."  And, to be honest, if I had to pick only one role to be "on top" I think I would choose the DRE.

So . . . thoughts?

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FRED RODE said...

Spiritual education requires students ready and willing to learn. The qualified DRE usually trains the youth, but is there for all age groups. Ongoing classes can enhance the Ministers work. Your proposal would, should, attract participants that are spiritually hungry. The Minister should set the general direction of the Parish. DRE should be in sync with the Minister.

Dave Dawson said...

I love this provocative question Erik! Having been an active member at TJMC for 20+ years...ordained clergy have come and gone...but one DRE has been leading right along. I can only share my personal testimony about Leia but she has been an incredible minister and guide for me personally. Your suggestion is happily provocative! So glad you are there and "pushing the envelope."

arthurrashap said...

This year's focus (overall) at TJMCUU is planning. The "kickoff" was just held and . . . apparently (and clearly?) there has been some or a lot of thinking and consideration going on. This musing is a BIG one - and relates to a number of the considerations and areas proposed for study (and decision-making - please may it be so!).
A clear and workable organization chart with defined responsibilities and viable support that is understood by all members and those filling the boxes on the chart - perhaps one of the targets to put up on the "what results do we want from this process" list.

You are doing the job you have discussed in the musing, Erik. You do need to take the "what if" role as something that is needed, that you are good at, and (apparently) that you like to do.

May it be so.
Arthur Rashap

Mary Ellen Morgan said...

Perhaps the DRE and the Administrator? In some congregations with policy governance, the minister and the Director of Administration form the operations team. And "team" is the word I am proposing. The minister who sees the rest of the staff as part of the ministry team can help the congregation to widen their scope of what ministry is. I am not trained in scripture or pastoral care, although the administrator is the first contact in a crisis and ends up with hurting people in their office many times. We are all doing our form of ministry and expanding our roles to embrace that would be helpful for all of us who serve our churches.

Mary Ellen Morgan
Business Administrator
UU Church of Berkeley

Anonymous said...

UU faith development has been my life's work for over a decade (with different titles, all DRE and DLFD related). Though I started that career wet behind the ears, fresh out of college, and destined to make plenty of mistakes (I did that plenty), I also came in with a depth of understanding of our faith tradition related to having spent my entire life in it. Over the years, I've devoted a great many hours to training in faith development but also many other things -- from religious studies, to mandatory reporting, to spiritual practices, to managing organizations, and more -- which for now I've not taken the time to validate through credentialing. I have also received both a broad and deep education through on-the-job-training. Of course, there is always room for more learning, but this is true for ministers too.

As my understanding of my work grew over these years, so too did my understanding of the many ways that faith development is as you describe it: the very fabric with which we weave together Unitarian Universalism.

People like me are told, sooner or later, that we need to go to seminary. Many don't, and if a DRE trusts you well enough, they just may tell you that they don't do it partly because it degrades the ministry they are already doing to make it look like it is only a stepping stone in professional development.

Personally, I went to seminary. I've been in seminary for going-on three years. It's been educational, and even transformative, and I wouldn't trade it for the world. But so was working at each of the three congregations I've served. I couldn't rate one as more important than the other in who I am becoming as a religious professional, and not everyone will have the same experiences I have had before they "run" a church, nor will I have their experiences. We seek what we feel we need when we feel we need it, but formal education is not necessarily superior.

I've heard that DREs who later go to seminary and then enter ordained ministry often have difficulty making the transition into their own authority once ordained. I heard for this reason DREs are usually ill-advised to do an internship someplace other than in a parish -- even if they have spent their lives leading in parishes -- because they will be expected by the MFC to have challenged themselves to take on authority in the congregation. I don't think the problem is that DREs inherently don't know how to take on authority. I think the difficulty is that our history trains parishioners (and too often other staff, and ministers as supervisors) not to see DREs as having authority, at least over more than tightly defined pockets of the congregational ministries. How that shapes the leadership development of DREs, apparently, is that they learn to take on less authority than might benefit their congregations, not to mention less authority than that which they are capable or worthy.

I've seen some DREs doing some of the most ground-breaking, soulful, inspired, inspiring, and thoughtful things in our congregations and in our tradition as a whole. It'd be great to have that kind of stuff in the lead for a while.

Dave Dawson said...

An image I find helpful is the circle versus a triangle. I was immersed in management for years as a Director in several organizations and always our organizational charts were in the form of a triangle with ultimate responsibility on the top point. Now that I'm retired and no longer on "the point", a spherical chart makes much more sense, especially for a church. This is a sacred organization. I remember hearing a minister several years ago talk about how communication flows from the center outward in a well functioning church. And for people who need to have one person responsible, perhaps the responsibility could be shared? As you can tell, I was a great CEO (wink, wink)!

Andrea Lerner said...

Well said, Mary Ellen Morgan - i was part of such a team in a congregation once and felt very empowered to work for change in the system. Thanks, Erik, for posting this question.

Tracy Breneman said...

What I like most about your reflection and question, Rev. Walker, is the inherent appreciation for RE as one of the interwoven ministries of a Fellowship. Thank you for that. In many congregations, RE is seen as a program and the DRE as an administrator. When RE is seen as a ministry, then the DRE can be seen as one who shares in the ministry of a Fellowship. This remains a big leap for some congregations and clergy.

As a DRE who has experienced many points along the spectra of clergy acceptance and congregational culture, my work has been more fulfilling and richer for a congregation when I am included as part of a ministry team. In my two most recent experiences, I credit the clergy for being open to and actively paving the way toward shared ministry.

To step into that role confidently, a DRE needs to have professional development funds, just like the clergy, to attend Renaissance Modules, LREDA workshops, pastoral care and other training so they are prepared to participate in ministry. To help nurture a congregational culture of ministry, DREs need to be invited to participate in elements of worship other than reading the children's story. They need to have direct access and voice with the Board. And clergy need support for conceptualizing and building shared ministry.

I think the path to answering your question, "Who should be in Charge?" is found in your reflection when you write about a ministry team. UUs are uniquely positioned for collaborative leadership. Since, as you pointed out, we tend to adhere to familiar "church" traditions and structures, I believe that reshaping the culture of a congregation to accept a DRE as part of the ministry team starts with clergy and Boards actively supporting it.

RevWik said...

Oh I do so love the conversation that's been going on here! (And I understand that it's going to continue at the upcoming LREDA Fall Conference!) Of all the things said here two sentences that really resonate with me are these: "I think the difficulty is that our history trains parishioners (and too often other staff, and ministers as supervisors) not to see DREs as having authority, at least over more than tightly defined pockets of the congregational ministries. How that shapes the leadership development of DREs, apparently, is that they learn to take on less authority than might benefit their congregations, not to mention less authority than that which they are capable or worthy." This is, I think, so true. So is its mirror -- ordained clergy may well take on more authority than might benefit their congregations, as well as the other religious professionals with whom they work

I can say with great delight that here at TJMC-UU we are developing just the kind of team approach that's been lifted up. The Director of Religious Education, the Director of Administration and Finance, and I work as a triad . . . and it is wonderful!

Joy Berry said...

Thanks for spurring a great conversation with this article. It was put up as a graffiti wall at the LREDA Fall Conference, and I just wrote about it for the UUA Growth Blog.