The Making of a Minister

On Saturday, February 10th, First Unitarian and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Salem will jointly ordain Mary Gear to the Unitarian Universalist ministry. Mary is serving as our Acting Assistant Minister and was Intern Minister with us three years ago.

Even for those who pay close attention, it can be hard to keep track of what the various rites of passage on the path to ministry mean. Here is a short explanation.

Ministry, on the Unitarian side of our religious family tree, began in the Puritan congregations of New England. Its roots go back much further of course, to the priestly class in temple Judaism, but our current practices began with those Puritan religious ancestors.

In early colonial America, there were no seminaries. Ministers were lay persons who were “called” out of the congregation. They were individuals (all men) who were recognized to have the spiritual character and personal authority to preach and teach the Gospel. The act of ordination gave these individuals the right to perform the duties of ministers but it was a recognition of what the congregation already knew about them. In the Puritan tradition, only the congregation could ordain because only the congregation had the intimate personal knowledge and experience of these individuals.

The Universalists developed a different understanding and practice. Universalism developed later, after colonial society was firmly established and the Puritan churches, led by the movers and shakers of the community, had become what was called “The Standing Order.” The Universalists, more working class and less formally educated, developed the practice of ordaining ministers by their state conventions, not their congregations. Ministers were assigned to congregations, rather than called.

When the Unitarians and the Universalists consolidated in 1961 one of the most contentious issues that required resolution was which approach to ordination the new, merged denomination would adopt. The answer was “both.”

After graduation from an approved seminary, many interviews, clinical pastoral education, the completion of an extensive reading list and demonstrated involvement in a UU congregation, every candidate for UU ministry must be approved by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA. The MFC “fellowships” ministers. This is the Universalist system of denominational recognition of ministry at work.

The MFC fellowships, but only the congregation can ordain. This is the Unitarian system of congregational call at work.

Ordination is the official act of granting authority to perform the role of minister. It entitles the minister to use the title “Reverend” and, for the more tradition-observant, to wear a stole. Ordination is both a ceremonial and a celebratory occasion with deep roots in our polity (church organization) and our religious heritage.

I hope you hear how seriously and intentionally our religious community takes its responsibility to train, recognize and celebrate those who answer the call to become Unitarian Universalist ministers. Answering that call is a leap of faith for all ministers. The care and the support of our community helps ministers put on the mantle of ministry and live into our call.

I hope some of you will join me in Salem on February 10th. If you can attend, please go to the (website) to RSVP. And on Sunday, February 11th, there will be a reception for Mary after each morning service so that everyone can have the opportunity to congratulate her.

Ordination: the official act or process of making someone a priest, minister, etc.