The ministers’ consipiracy

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.

She writes:

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.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. What would we look like today if the same principles of restraint from public criticism within the ministerial college had prevailed during the First and Second Unitarian Controversies?

  2. Fausto, I was just going to make a comment like yours. I decided not to criticize Ms. Kitty about her position on her own blog–after all, she’s asking for people not to be critical, so it seemed impolite somehow. But I did think her position was a bad one to take; it is also awfully ahistorical. One thing Unitarian and Universalist clergy in previous generations have never been afraid to do is criticize other clergy, publicly, comprehensively, and, at times, rather viciously. This is true of both their colleagues as well as clergy of other denominations, who certainly didn’t waste an iota of thought about whether they should restrain their impulses to criticize liberal ministers. Just read the 19th century sources for endless amounts of clergy-on-clergy criticism; a simple example is Emerson’s Divinity School address, essentially a very public ripping of Rev. Barzillai Frost in front of a room of clergy, seminarians, and prominent laypeople, which is now virtual UU holy writ.

    Criticism of other ministers empowers seminarians and junior clergy and helps to dispel the Old Boys Club phenomenon Scott raises. In fact, ability to speak one’s mind is one of the few tools for power that the less powerful have in a situation such as seminary, ministerial association, church, or national denomination. They don’t hold the reins and must use their voices instead to counter actual power, if the need arises. As a layperson, I deeply hope that clergy will be encouraged to (responsibly) criticize each other in public so that I may be aware of the forces at work in my church and denomination and so that I may have a chance at input, rather than being shut out of backroom affairs.

  3. I thought about the “merely spectral” Mr. Frost when I was writing this, but thought it a bit misplaced an example since Emerson didn’t mention him by name.

  4. Yeah, I thought about that too when mentioning it. But much of his audience was aware of the situation (thought I don’t think we have a record of Frost’s attendance at the address). There are innumerable more direct examples but I figured it was better to mention a well known one.

    By the way, have you completed your big book sell-off?

  5. Aha, glad to hear I haven’t missed it, then. I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you mean by “How does this theme look?” Maybe I’m missing something.

    My latest acquisition was an original edition 1840 “An Exposition and Defence of Universalism, in a Series of Sermons Delivered in the Universalist Church, Baltimore, MD” by Rev. I. D. Williamson. It is water-stained by 100% readable and the binding is still tight. $20 at a used bookshop in Chapel Hill, NC.

    I’ll admit to several motives in collecting these things. First, I love reading the old documents of our faith. Second, obviously, it is important for my academic research. But I also gather them out of fear that otherwise they may eventually be disposed of. These voices from the past nurtured souls, gave them hope and courage, and maybe I’m sentimental but I just feel like they deserve an honorable and pleasant retirement in their old age. At least with me I know they’ll be treated respectfully and will eventually be used to endow a university library so that future generations can learn about our past.

  6. As readers of my own (history) blog know, my own recent acquisition gives me a total of around 16-17 years of the 28 year run Manford’s Monthly Magazine, a mid-west Universalist (18 ). Manford is a bit of a hoot, and it’s interesting reading his snarky comments about J. W. Hanson.
    (this comment puts this back on topic, right?)
    I didnt mention that this week, I also got a copy of the Manford-Sweeney debate book; a Rand McNally edition . My copy had previously belonged to a member of the Sweeney family.

    Not sure what I am going to do with all this stuff (or rather what my heirs will do it). At this point my verbal instructions is to give it to the Universalist Heritage folks to keep or dispose of as they will (they prefer stuff to book).

    Jeff, as my “neighbor”, let me know what you need to read to help your studies, and I’ll see what I got.

  7. I don’t believe that the guidelines were meant to stifle debate on denominational, theological, political, or other issues. Thus Ms. Kitty is incorrect in trying to stop others from debating whether SKSM has become laughably PC when it changes “brown bag lunch”.

    Guidelines were meant to enjoin us to be cautious about slamming someone else’s professional competence in public — in part not to play into our churches’ already strong anti-clerical bias.

    Sometimes this distinction may be difficult to parse. The responses of some of the SKSM students to this whole tempest does tempt one to slam the professional competence of someone. But that only escalates things, doesn’t it, and the comments speak for themselves as to the level of reasoning employed by some of the students at the school.

    As to Guidelines Protecting sexual misconduct, they are meant to do the opposite. Scott, if you know of a professor at one of our seminaries who is sexually involved with students, that person should be reported to the MFC.

  8. The misconducting minister — sleazy, inappropriate and perhaps predatory — stands within the Guidelines. Barely, if at all, in my opinion.

    He is not a seminary professor or staffer. The behavior I know about was a few years ago; I do not know if it continues.

    A minister with more clout than I tried to have action taken against him, with no success.

    My only recourse is to glare at him when — rarely these days — I see him.

  9. Excuse me, but, KJR, could you point out where I am trying to stop others from debating whether SKSM is laughably PC? And Jeff W., I’m puzzled about your comment that I’m asking people not to be critical. My point has always been to ask for civil discourse, not to stifle debate nor to quench criticism. Critique is always appropriate but it needs to be done respectfully and kindly. No matter what our spiritual ancestors might have done.

  10. I am particularly interested in studying the shift that in the 19th century wherein clergy became professionalized and concomitantly took upon themselves a “holy” temperament –which involved pious and demure countenances meant to communicate to their community how holy they really were.

    That expectation (ie, that clergy should be well-behaved lap dogs rather than hounds of heaven, if you will) has lasted until our present day. I certainly see it in the eyes of folks who meet me at parties and say, in delighted tones, “But you’re so REAL! How can you be a minister?” I see it also in the prim disapproval of ministers who, when their colleagues refuse to conform to that persona, claim some violation of collegial appropriateness. I’ve watched this dynamic unfold between colleagues dozens of times. Not just in our association, either.

    I have found that such self-appointed gatekeepers of Ministerial Propriety will freely insult others but the difference is, they do it *so nicely.* It isn’t the content anyone truly cares about; you must say things *nicely.*

    Of course, this approach to right relations has damaged countless of our congregations, because colleagues were more invested in being nice to each other than in calling out their colleagues for damaging and pernicious practices in the parish.

    Not only did our spiritual forebears kick each other’s asses theologically, they also participated in mutual admonition, as did congregations for each other. We have lost this practice in our free association and I believe it is MUCH to our detriment. Commitment to “nice” has led bullies and narcissists to monopolize our worship services and congregational meetings, all in the name of “inclusivity” or “acceptance.” We think we know how to converse respectfully but in many cases, we do not converse at all but enforce a conformity that we silently hope will protect us from wildly dysfunctional people. That doesn’t work, of course.

    I believe (and am living out this belief!) that the 19th century model of ministry is WASPy, male and ultimately faithless. It values polite society over truth-telling. It is deadly earnest and humorless, and repels people who hunger for authenticity from leaders.

    So this loud-mouth New York Jew by heritage, Unitarian Universalist by birth, and Christian by baptism will continue to live faithfully, if not always “nicely.”

  11. Steven, I appreciate the offer very much. Unfortunately, we won’t be neighbors much longer. I’ve accepted an assistant professorship in Religious Studies and East Asian Studies at Renison College, University of Waterloo, which is in southern Ontario, about an hour or so west of Toronto. I’ll have to save research on southern Universalism for the future; perhaps I’ll end up switching universities down the line and come back to the South once more.

  12. In the part of the world where I live, a minister arrived a few years ago in part to pursue a romantic involvement with a member of the congregation that called them. That liaison crashed and burned, and the minister then became romantically involved with another church member.

    This colleague never came to UUMA cluster meetings, cut themself off from the other ministers here (by not returning calls or e-mails and indeed saying things like, “You need collegial relationships more than I do.” Click. Dial tone…).

    This minister has just resigned. The congregation is battered and bruised. But no other minister raised their voice to object to what was happening, or to call out this colleague on their bad behaviour. This congregation is now more suspicious of professional ministry than ever. Old Boys Club hush-hush and WASP niceness can only reinforce this mistrust.

    Speak the truth! Nice is a four letter word!

    With that said, the minister Scott speaks of goes after seminarians and others not yet in full fellowship. Hard to file a complaint against a seasoned colleague to the very body that will credential you.

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