Thoughts on local ordination

Peter Bowden ( is musing about local ordination, following some buzz on a UUA mailing list. (Which, I wonder?)

I responded at length; see below. Since I know some of my readers have an interest in polity I’m repeating my answer here, and invite you to participate in the conversation on his site. (Unless you have a date for the UUA bylaws change I mention below; please comment here.)

Of course there was ordination before the Association, but as for polity it’s important to distinguish between the mainline Unitarian and Universalist practices of congregationalism. Universalists usually ordained and fellowshipped ministers at the state convention level. Unitarians ordained locally and were fellowshipped through special (vicinage) councils called from local churches for the purpose of examination. Our current practice is a hybrid.

The old Unitarian form of practice is still held by the “continuing Congregationalists” so see here to see how it was:

In short, what you describe is independent ordination, not congregational(ist) ordination. Yes, the ordinand is minister for that church — and any other that chooses to recognize it. And I bet others might. Our faltering systems fail many good candidates, some of whom proceed with independent ordination. The UUA note above — damning as it is with its hollow voice — makes me wonder if it’s not more common that commonly thought. [Note: he quoted from and linked here.]

I wrote about this here: and perhaps other places. It’s a bit of a bugbear for me.

There used to be UUA licensed lay ministers — an inheritance from the Universalists — but the practice died out (I suspect killed off) and finally written out of the bylaws. In the 1990s I think. But I don’t see much value in institutionalizing the practice, seeing as the ministerial college would almost surely rally against it. Hurts the guild or some nonsense like that.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. Scott, thanks for sharing your understanding of this. I was hoping someone with more of the history would respond. Always appreciate your bringing forward the facts and citations often forgotten or dismissed.

  2. I will come “out of the closet” as one of those folks locally ordained, but not fellowshipped. In part, this was a result of not being able to get an internship in a UUA teaching church (I applied to 13 internships across 2 years and other candidates were chosen over me every time), and thus not being able to go before the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. My home UU church, which sponsored me for seminary, felt very strongly that they had correctly discerned gifts and a calling for ministry, and wanted to ordain me.

    To date I have served 1 UU campus ministry, 1 UU church, and 3 liberal churches outside the UUA. In my own UU District I know of 6 other UU ministers with credentials like mine (ordained but not fellowshipped). Of those six, 2 in recent years were able to go back and earn ministerial fellowship.

    The Unitarian-Universalist hybrid for persons like me, does have consequences. Professionally there is alot of uncertainty about how to deal with a minister who is ordained but not fellowshipped. Should I be allowed to attend a UUMA meeting? Can I interview with a local congregation? If extended a call, can they ignore fair compensation standards on the argument that I am ordained but not fellowshipped? How should I be classified if I serve a UU church as a DRE? Am I staff minister, or a lay employee? Additionally, without fellowship I am not eligible for certification as a professional chaplain in hospital/prison/geriatric facilities. My credentials are honored by whoever wants to honor it, and ignored by whoever wants to ignore it.

    I have been very fortunate to have had good ministries with good congregations, who most of the time treated me with fairness and dignity. But this is not a path I recommend to others, unless circumstances leave you no other options. The ambiguity of my ecclesiastic standing can be confusing and frustrating. And quite reasonably, my standing limits my vocational options, because I have not been as rigorously vetted as other ministers who are both ordained and fellowshipped.

    I would note that I have been told that in the UCC, I would likely have been licensed for ministry. This is an annual process that approves you for service, in a single location, one job at a time. It includes continuing education expectations, and an annual review for accountability. It is a far more intentional stewardship of spiritual gifts, for people like me, who didn’t fit the one-size fits all, ordination and fellowship track.

    If anybody has additional questions about my experience in this situation, I would be happy to answer their questions via this blog-comments thread.

  3. From what I hear of the Fellowship process of late, and the emphasis on UU as a brand, and the principles as elaboration on the brand which one better be able to recite, we’re going to need a larger closet for the likes of Derek.

  4. (1) Scott writes: “Unitarians ordained locally and were fellowshipped through special (vicinage) councils called from local churches for the purpose of examination.” — Sometimes these local councils included non-Unitarians from nearby churches; I have documentation about one such council that included Unitarians and members of the Christian Connexion, and that council examined and ordained someone into the Unitarian ministry.

    (2) Also, 19th C. Unitarians ordained people to the ministry who were *not* going to serve in a local church, i.e., they ordained evangelists. Rev. Moses G. Thomas was ordained as an evangelist, I believe, though I’m not near my library so I can check.

    (3) Licensed lay preachers were voted out of existence at the Nashville G.A., I believe. That would have been 2000. I was one of the few delegates who voted to keep them; I still think it was a stupid move to eliminate them.

    (4) @ Derek — There are quite a few ministers like you, more than most people are probably willing to admit. I can think of half a dozen. Reasons vary widely — I know of one person who was ordained by the local congregation in recognition of years of service; another who was ordained into a specialized ministry that would not have been acknowledged by the fellowshipping process but was a genuine ministry nonetheless; another who was turned down by the MFC for what I considered to be good reasons but got ordained anyway; another who got turned down by the MFC for what I consider to be bad reasons and got ordained anyway; another older person who got ordained after fulfilling most but not all MFC requirements because this person knew they were only going to serve in one ministry, had everything they needed, and didn’t want to bother with the MFC.

    (5) There are duly ordained and fellowshipped ministers whom I know to be morally bankrupt, incompetent, and/or ignorant, and I do not like being linked to them through my own ordination and fellowshipping. There are other people who are ordained but not fellowshipped whom I respect and trust, and whom I am proud to call ministerial colleagues. As with any human system, ordination and fellowshipping are fallible and potentially corrupt processes. We try to make these processes better, but with only marginal success, and I think it is wise to remember how fallible all human institutions are.

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