I think Ms. Kitty (Ms. Kitty’s Saloon and Road Show) is wrong about criticizing ministerial colleagues, as I demonstrate here. Public, civil criticism is usually the prelude to meaningful debate, redress of harm and change. As a ministerial college, we’ve gone too long without decent public dispute and that’s allowed some vicious habits to take its place.
I needed to learn that it is unprofessional to criticize a colleague publicly; I saw other ministers doing it, sometimes not very kindly, and though it wasn’t my style, I learned that it was okay to do it, especially if one minister had perceived power or prestige over another one. I saw one well-known and previously-respected-by-me minister lacerate a student in a cluster meeting with a few words.
Public collegial criticism thus:
- is unprofessional.
- is a way the powerful controls the less powerful.
That seems backwards.
The Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Guidelines only enjoin — in the projected first person — that “I will not speak scornfully or in derogation of any colleague in public. In any private conversation critical of a colleague, I will speak responsibly and temperately.” Surely, clear, firm criticism — even if it causes discomfort — isn’t out of bounds because one of the hallmarks of professional cultivation is making a case clearly without resorting to scorn or belittlement. The [above-mentioned, “previously-respected” — I got an email asking for clarification — Scott] minister Ms. Kitty (I sorely regret the pseudonyms here) notes did himself or herself violate received ministerial practice and civil decency. In a word, the elder was a bully yet ironically is protected by the same rules so beastly violated. (If I weren’t sure I’d get sued into the Stone Age, I’d go after a colleague who has a notorious but licit taste for seminarians. Some of you know who I mean. My thanks go to those who have tried.)
So where does this advise originate? Ms. Kitty and I are of the same ministerial generation — we first met as seminarians more than a decade ago; 1994 Fort Worth GA, I think — and I know the influences and standards she references. Yet not all was hale or hearty. Some of the old lions who propagated this were — what was the quaint term? — notorious womanizers. (Many are now dead and I know of none in active ministry.) Oh, the stories I’ve heard! I pray I live long enough to forget them and never repeat the hubris.
What crops up in its place is remarkably vicious backbiting. Worse, though, is the implied contempt for the laity this clubbiness reinforces. Now, I don’t know any ministers in the Unitarian Universalist Association who have contempt for laypersons. Wise position that: like nudity, it’s a situation we’re all born into. Yet somehow, our professional practices get amplified into a version of “not in front of the children” face-saving. With experience in other professional fields and kinds of life experience I’ll never have, the vast majority of lay persons cannot only handle news of intracollegial conflict, but many have wisdom to share. Indeed, if the fight concerns Associational business, lay members have a stake. There’s no news here, just an attitude change.
And change is not an option. Not since the middle of the nineteenth century have so many ministers — I’m thinking of Universalists here, since that’s who I know — have had direct action to the means of news production. The blogs, but also church websites and media carried over the UUA and district sites. We can be plain, civil and critical because there’s no clubroom to return to.
I’ll leave you with this quotation (with a line accented) from George Bernard Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma: Preface on Doctors” which puts the point well:
Anyone who has ever known doctors well enough to hear medical shop talked without reserve knows that they are full of stories about each other’s blunders and errors, and that the theory of their omniscience and omnipotence no more holds good among themselves than it did with Moliere and Napoleon. But for this very reason no doctor dare accuse another of malpractice. He is not sure enough of his own opinion to ruin another man by it. He knows that if such conduct were tolerated in his profession no doctor’s livelihood or reputation would be worth a year’s purchase. I do not blame him: I would do the same myself. But the effect of this state of things is to make the medical profession a conspiracy to hide its own shortcomings. No doubt the same may be said of all professions. They are all conspiracies against the laity; and I do not suggest that the medical conspiracy is either better or worse than the military conspiracy, the legal conspiracy, the sacerdotal conspiracy, the pedagogic conspiracy, the royal and aristocratic conspiracy, the literary and artistic conspiracy, and the innumerable industrial, commercial, and financial conspiracies, from the trade unions to the great exchanges, which make up the huge conflict which we call society.
With this post, I add the category Ministerial practice.