Discerning Readiness for Ministry in the UCC

This week’s post is from Rev. Dr. Tony Clark, MESA Minister for Committee on Ministry Development and Leadership.

The UCC Committee on Ministry Research Report[i] states “Thirty of the conferences responded to the question, ‘What requirements do you have for Members in Discernment?’…Of the 30 respondents, 15 reported that Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) was required. An Additional 6 said CPE requirements were determined case by case. Of the 30 respondents, 23 reported that psychological assessments (usually through a Ministry Development Center) were required. Four stated that psychological assessments were determined case by case. Three said they do not require psychological evaluations” (p.9).

Committees on Ministry (COMs) are called upon to be discernment partners with Members-in-Discernment, as well as others seeking standing in the UCC; yet discernment, especially in a committee, is difficult work. How do we determine whether someone is fit and ready for ministry in the midst of committee members’ lives and ministry and the candidate’s own particular emotional situation? Discernment is ultimately deep and heavy work with the Spirit that does become lighter when done well in a group over time. However, because we are human and have not yet learned how to bend space or time, and the schedules of many COMs are tight and do not allow for much more than an hour to discern with each candidate every year, COMs ask candidates to provide them with tools to assist in the discernment process.

In 2014-15, more than half of our Conferences reported that their Associations’ COMs rely on CPE and Vocational Psychological Assessments (VPA) as tools in the discernment process. These are not diagnostic tools, meaning that neither CPE nor the VPA can give either pathology or disease reports of a candidate; they are pictures of individuals in a particular time and situation, much like lab tests your doctor prescribes. Like lab tests, they are not perfect and can yield both false positives and false negatives, depending on how a candidate presents in a specific time, or time range, and, like lab tests, there are certain biases built into these reports, of which COMs must be ware .

CPE and VPAs give clues to Committees on Ministry about several of the Marks for Faithful and Effective Ministers, the list that guides COMs on a candidate’s readiness and fitness for ministry. CPE particularly engages participants in praying actively, performing necessary and appropriate administrative tasks, working collaboratively with intercultural awareness, holding the Holy with integrity, nurturing care and compassion for God’s creation, understanding of mental health and wellness, practicing self-care and balance, providing  hope and healing to hurting world, attending to one’s own spiritual and pastoral care, practicing theological reflection and engagement, integrating theological reflection, experiencing and appreciating a variety of theological perspectives, practicing the radical hospitality of God, building relationships of mutual trust and interdependence, and developing and maintaining a healthy sense of self. While CPE gets at these topics in conjunction with a supervisor and peer group whose reports show an external sense of an individual, the VPA gets at many of these same issues through self-reporting tools and conversations with clinicians, which reveal an inner sense of the self. Comparing the results from CPE evaluations and the VPA can show whether a candidate is aware of how they come off to others and whether the candidate can be vulnerable. Finally, a COM can ask a candidate to reflect with them on the reports, which gives an idea of the candidate’s self-reflectiveness and perception of where and how they might improve themselves and their ministry, and how they accept criticism and feedback.

The results of CPE are not merely perceived; the changes in CPE students have been measured by CPE students themselves and their educators. In one study that included 144 students’ self-reflected measurements pre- and post-CPE, the researchers reported,

“As a whole, students in this study showed significant increases in their pastoral care skills and emotional intelligence over the course of their CPE training. However, some groups of students experienced more improvement than others. For pastoral skills, students with fewer years of professional ministry, no prior CPE experience, and lower scores on a social desirability scale experienced more positive change in their skills. The sole significant predictor of improved emotional intelligence and improved self-reflection was participating in an intensive course….Students’ pastoral skills improved the most in the first unit, with additional increases in subsequent units.” [ii]

Pastoral skills were self-reported by the students using a form that highlights boundaries issues, theology, praxis, and opening or participating in conversations about faith, theology, life and death; emotional intelligence was self-reported using standardized tools.

There are other ways to gain these skills, and COMs are trained in using the Marks of Faithful and Effective Ministers and the Assessment Rubrics to determine candidates’ fitness and readiness for ministry. Not every CPE or VPA provider is sensitive to the needs of people of color, LGBTA folk, or differently abled people, so COMs must be cautious in choosing and recommending providers, listening to participants’ reviews, and always looking toward the long-term health of the ministerial candidate. CPE and the VPA, if used, must not be used as a short cut for a Committee to discern the readiness for ministry. However, as tools in the discernment process for MIDs and other authorized ministers in times of discernment, both CPE and the VPA can fill out some pieces that an otherwise harried and hurried COM might miss.

If you are seeking more information about COMs and their ministry, or the new MOM, check out the Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization page, http://www.ucc.org/ministers .

[i] The United Church of Christ Committee on Ministry Research Report: A resource of the MESA Ministry team, 2014, revised 2015, was performed by Rev. Holly MillerShank in conjunction with the Center for Analytics, Research and Data, (CARD).

[ii] Quotes from Jankowski, K. R., Vanderwerker, L. C., Murphy, K. M., Montonye, M. and Meigs Ross, A. “Change in pastoral skills, emotional intelligence, self-reflection, and social desirability across a unit of CPE.” Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy 15, no. 2 (2008): 132-148. retrieved from June 2018 Articles of the Month by John Ehman, Editor, http://www.acperesearch.net/jun18.html, Mar 1 2019.


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