Fitness Reviews and Ministry Experience

This week’s post is written by Rev. Elizabeth Dilley of the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Team within the UCC’s national setting. 

Every year, I do a deeper dive into data related to fitness reviews, the disciplinary reviews in the United Church of Christ. Last year, I explored outcomes of fitness reviews. This year, in response to requests from conference and association partners, I explored the question of experience in ministry in relation to these disciplinary reviews, examining all of the completed fitness review records on file in the national offices and the years of experience of those clergy at the time of the review.

The blunt conclusion is: there is no season in a minister’s vocational life when they are not at risk for engaging in behaviors unbefitting an authorized minister in the United Church of Christ. Authorized ministers may face a disciplinary review at any point in their vocational career and even in retirement. Indeed, I found that fitness reviews ran the full range of experience, from ministers with less than one year of experience to ministers with 58 years of experience. Looking at that range, I observed that ministers in their first five years of ministry have a comparatively small number of fitness concerns raised (37 such reviews); likewise, ministers with more than 51+ years of experience only faced 10 reviews. (In the latter case, we may attribute the small number due to the starkly diminished numbers of clergy with that much experience.)

There appears to be a slight spike between 21-30 years of experience; ministers in this category faced 91 reviews. After this point, there is a steady decline in the numbers of fitness reviews per decade of experience (71 reviews for ministers with 31-40 years of experience, and 24 reviews for ministers with 41-50 years of experience). Since many clergy do not enter ministry in their 20s or even their 30s, we may attribute some of this to the relatively small number of clergy still living who have 40+ years of experience.

I could not find a strong correlation between years of experience in ministry and final outcomes of a fitness review, of which there are three possibilities: reaffirmation of fitness, termination of standing, and resignation of standing[i]. In all three potential final outcomes, the average number of years of experience was in the low- to mid-20s. Ministers of all experience levels are invested enough in their standing to see the fitness review process all the way through to reaffirmation of fitness, even if it involves a program of growth, but there does seem to be a slight tipping point in one’s third decade in ministry where ministers who face misconduct concerns are invested enough in ministry to see the process through to reaffirmation. The experience levels for ministers whose standing was ultimately reaffirmed was, on average, higher (24.4 years) than those whose standing was terminated (20.3 years) or who resigned their standing (20.6 years).

A caveat seems prudent to address here: I did not cross-reference the age of clergy in relation to their years of experience when the fitness concern was raised. That means it’s possible that some of the clergy with the fewest years of experience in ministry may be in their 40s or 50s. That said, I feel comfortable inferring that clergy in the mid-point of their ministerial career (15-30 years) are at the highest risk for fitness concerns to arise. Intuitively, this makes sense: ministers have enough experience to know what they are doing, but they have also been doing it long enough to where they are at risk for burnout, cutting ethical corners, or life changes that put them at other kinds of risk for misconduct. The church needs to pay attention to the spiritual, emotional, and boundary needs of clergy, especially as they prepare for a healthy, robust, and well-self-differentiated retirement.

Boundary trainings that focus on mid-career clergy wellness (with attention to boundaries at the time of a ministry departure, drug and alcohol abuse, and marriage/family wellness) can help strengthen clergy at all phases of their vocational career, but especially during the third decade of active ministry. Regular opportunities for ministers to reflect on the craft and practice of ministry in supportive and learning-oriented environments, such as in clergy communities of practice, can also help ministers address challenges in their life and ministry before they become fitness matters. Finally, the Pension Boards has added a member benefit called CREDO, a mid-career clergy wellness program. This has been extraordinarily successful in the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA), and focuses on financial, spiritual, physical/mental, and vocational health in an intensive, supportive environment. At this point, CREDO currently has room for 100 participants each year.

All clergy are at risk for engaging in misconduct, but where attention has been strongest on the beginning and end of one’s ministry career, we recommend giving some attention to the needs of our clergy in the middle.

[i] Referral to a Situational Support Consultation is considered a “reaffirmation of fitness” for this article’s purpose.

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