The last of the licensed ministers

There has been some buzz, both associated with the #sustainministry theme and the fear of shortages in the ministry, that there should be some intermediate ministerial status. To which I noted to those within earshot that the Universalists once licensed ministers, and that we could consider doing so again.

There were licensed ministers — holdovers from before consolidation — within my time as a Unitarian Universalist. They even had their own section in the UUA directory, but year by year their numbers declined by death.

In time they were all gone; I don’t know who was the last. The right the UUA reserved (or at least claimed) to recognize such licensed ministers seem equally a dead letter, so it was cleaned out of the bylaws at a General Assembly.

When? More recently than you might think. The year 2000.

I was present at that GA and was both sad at the moment passing and thought that without a prior claim, any church was free to so license ministers. And I still feel this way.

Here’s how the bylaws read, just before the provision was removed, for those who want the details.

effective June 28, 1999
[…]
Section 11.4b
[…]
The Ministerial Fellowship Committee may also with the approval of the Board of Trustees make rules pertaining to the status of, and recognition by the Association of, lay preachers and the granting of licenses to them.

A year later, that was gone. The bylaws effective July 1, 2000.

Author: Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

5 thoughts on “The last of the licensed ministers”

  1. Licensed Ministers are an interesting idea, and continue to exist in other liberal denominations (notably the United Church of Christ, the General Convention of Swedenborgian Churches, and even the Episcopal Church). They each allow for different formulations of homegrown leadership. In some cases it also allows for an accountability element when a minister of one denomination, agrees to serve in a limited capacity for a church in another denomination. A common trait of licensing (unlike ordained standing) is that it applies to a specific person, in a specific place, and sometimes for only a specific period of time. So for example, Jane X is licensed to serve as pastor at First Church Anytown. Her license expires after 4 years, and she must reply for renewal. Her standing does not allow her to serve anywhere outside of First Church Anytown, unless she is issued a new license for an additional/different setting.

    I would note that the Episcopal diocese serving the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, utilizes a huge number of lay ministers to serve its assortment of small membership, small town and rural parishes. They are teams consisting of Lay Readers (can lead the liturgy – most notably Morning Prayer), Lay Preachers, and Lay Visitors (pastoral care). Lay Teachers (Religious Education) are also an option. Celebration of Communion is still handled by a small collection of rotating Priest-Missioners who travel around the Upper Peninsula. By most reports I’ve heard that this has alleviated the problems of a priest shortage combined with the economic reality that only 1 or 2 parishes in Northern Michigan can afford to hire their own priest.

  2. This is interesting stuff. One thinks of Ballou having a Bible slapped against his chest. No doubt, there will be some buzz around this if we do have some sort of minister shortage, as we do this year at least in regard to interims. I would note one thing: The Universalists and other Christian denominations exist in a complete theological/organizational thought world that they all share and understand–biblical Christianity, in whatever flavor. How much easier it must be to feel confident that your “licensed minister” and congregations share mutual understandings of church, ministry and theology. No neo-pagans, humanists, Jews, Buddhist/theists, angry ex-Christians, etc. to serve. How does a bright, dedicated, but perhaps unprepared “licensed minister” deal with all of that, or is it absolutely congregation specific, not traveling at all?

  3. Actually I think (could be wrong) but I THINK I learned ordination was also originally church/congregation specific. I know churches in the congregational tradition had their own authority to ordain, and actually still do though, “candidates”, with or without fellowship status. With the growing sphere of UUA/Ministers Association influence, this is now little known, and even less, at least organizationally, accepted as “appropriate”, shifting a primary responsibility of congregational polity. Especially interesting in light of the “licensed” ministers now disappeared. Thanks.

  4. There were certainly hot disputes among the Universalists. It’s probably that what bothered them doesn’t bother us, or doesn’t apply any more. A more notable difference was jurisdiction. Most licentiates (and ministers and churches) received fellowship at the state convention level, so that might have mitigated against some of the conflict. It certainly helped remedy the bottlenecks. In a new licenture plan, there should be some subdivision. Regions/districts perhaps, or other affinities.

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