Monday, April 04, 2016

Fraternity Hazing and Multiple Paths to Ministry

When I was in college, I pledged a fraternity. I didn't think I would when I started, but I ended up palling around with a lot of the members and decided to go ahead and take the plunge. It was one of the campus activities in which I took greater pride and in which I had many positive experiences.

Anyway. The actual pledging process was two weeks long. It was intensive and involved a lot of memorization and learning about traditions and getting to know the interests of those who'd eventually become my brothers.

Since I pledged, times have changed at my alma mater regarding Greek life. From what I know from those close to the campus, the administration has placed much more strict policies on what constitutes hazing, and has become quite thorough about monitoring them. Changes to the overall program have moved it to something less intensive, spread out over more time.

The culture of the campus in general has also changed. Today's students, so I've been told, socialize and form or join peer groups in different ways now, such that joining a Greek group is seen as less and less essential to that experience. For the most part, numbers in these groups are down across the board.

One result of all of these changes has been a subset of fraternity alumni bemoaning how much easier the process seems to have become:

  • They don't have to go through what we went through.
  • In my day, we had to do so much more.
  • The current group is so much softer on people who want to join.

In 2005, the United Church of Christ passed a resolution on Multiple Paths to Authorized Ministry. Recognizing the changes happening in the wider culture, what many churches need, and the life experience that many candidates bring to ministry that a seminary classroom can't teach, my denomination began discerning a way to approach authorization in a more flexible manner than the traditional "4 years college, 3 years seminary" option.

Pretty much every discussion that I've been a part of since has featured the same arguments about where the bar should be set, with some taking a hard line on What We Used To Do still being the most effective way, even though it can be severely limiting or overburdening. And some of it ends up sounding a lot like my fellow fraternity alumni:

  • They should have to give up their jobs and move their families across the country to attend school like I did.
  • I had to endure Clinical Pastoral Education; so should they.
  • Studying all the Dead White German Theologians is essential to ministry. That's what I was told, so it should still be true.

The message is it was hard for us, it should be just as hard for them.

The problem is in assuming it has to be hard in the same way.

True enough, ministerial authorization should be a time of self-evaluation, theological formation, and spiritual discernment. That work is not meant to be easy. It asks something of us, before and after we become authorized as a servant and representative of the church.

But the recognition that this process should take into account the particularities of what candidates need while also seeking a standard to keep has not been an easy one to accept in many corners of the church. Some seem to want to fall back on old models that are impractical and unnecessary for many, the common refrain being, "I had to do it this way, so should you."

It is as if some in the church, once new themselves, now want to haze the ones coming after them.

I don't know what the answer to this process is. I don't yet know how we in the UCC should help people pursue the proper standard that authorized ministers should meet, let alone what the standard is. I do know that there are educational opportunities available to people today that weren't even a decade ago, both online and in person. I do know that a candidate's family needs require appropriate attention. I do know that someone who already has extensive experience in a business or clinical setting has translatable skills for ministry that shouldn't require the same training checklist as a fresh college graduate.

As the current chair of my Association's Committee on Ministry, I've been a part of many fruitful conversations about this and the way forward becomes clearer with every one.

The Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers have been incredibly beneficial to this process. They are, by and large, the standard. It remains how to help candidates reach it.

Should they still have to earn a particular degree, like I did? Should they still have to spend 10 intensive unpaid weeks in a hospital setting hoping a spouse or partner can make up the financial difference on their own, like I did? Should they still have to study the same theology and church theory I did, even though that thought is less relevant to today's church needs than it was when I studied it?

These questions don't make as much sense as they used to.

We have a way to go in figuring this out. And we need to be more creative and open to the Spirit's leading than insisting today's candidates do it the way we did it. Because the church we were prepared for has different needs now.

It does nobody any good to insist on hazing rituals that are no longer helpful.