Saturday, June 13, 2009

Consulting ministry and its issues

I have just completed my sixth year as the consulting minister at UUCWI. I started out as a quarter-time minister, spending one weekend a month on the island, commuting from Seattle and staying with a church family for several nights, cramming everything I did for the congregation into a few weekend days.

This was the best arrangement at the time, for I was also serving the Vashon Island congregation in the same way, though Vashon was close enough to Seattle that I could go back and forth more frequently and not have to cram everything into one weekend. It was a more expensive ferry ride, but the congregation was willing to stand me for ferry tickets. I spent so much time in ferry lines, however, that I began to call myself a "ferry godminister".

In the spring of 2006, I decided to move to Whidbey so that I could do less commuting; I changed my schedule to make one long weekend trip to Vashon, once again cramming a lot of meetings, adult RE, and pastoral care into a few days. This arrangement lasted a little over a year till I decided to end my service to Vashon and concentrate on UUCWI.

Living on Whidbey meant that my schedule opened up completely and I could attend more meetings, schedule things across a full month, and do more emergency pastoral care. It also meant that I began to put in far more hours than I had signed up for. The congregation was embarking on a building project and it was clear that they needed more of my time. So the board bumped me up to one-third time, about 60 hours a month, and adjusted my salary accordingly.

Now the building is finished, we are moved in and much busier than we ever dreamed we would be, and it's become very clear that 60 hours a month is way too few. During this past year I worked at least 80 or 90 hours a month because the situation demanded it. My compensation, of course, stayed at the 60 hour level because there was no extra money during the construction year to fund the extra hours. But I was pretty sure the time would come when they could fund ministry at the appropriate level, so I was okay with that.

This spring, as we looked back over the year, the board decided to raise all staff salaries by at least 5%; the money came in during the pledge drive and the congregation voted to approve such a budget item. That was a good feeling.

But the realization that I have been working at least half-time for the past year or more hit me in another way when I got my absentee delegate's ballot for the UUA elections. In order to vote, I had to be serving one congregation at least half-time. So I decided to ask the board to declare me a half-time minister, so that my absentee vote could be validated. And yesterday they acknowledged my status and agreed to write it into my contract for the coming year, stating clearly that they would work to upgrade my pay to Fair Compensation levels for our area over the next two years.

One of my fondest dreams when I entered the ministry was that I would distinguish myself as a minister in a congregation which appreciated and loved me, that I would be "settled" in that congregation as their minister rather than serve them with a "consulting" contract which was renewable every year. Now I see that "settled" is just a word and does not necessarily convey the sense of joy and delight I experience right now in serving this congregation.

I'm not sure I will ever ask them to go through the lengthy process of settlement, so that I can change my status from "consulting" to "settled". It requires a good deal of process: lots of education about the difference in status labels, lots of discussion about whether I am the best fit for this congregation, and then a vote to call me, if they decide that I am "the one" for them. It's pretty likely that I'd be called, considering the evaluations I've received over the past years and the outpourings of appreciation they offer me.

But I am probably 3-5 years away from retirement and I don't know if I want to spend any of that time in the process that leads up to settlement. There is so much to be done to get infrastructure in place, policies worked out to cover the unfolding needs that owning a building creates, a ministerial candidate in the congregation who needs mentoring this next year, perhaps another building project to house our growing RE program.

And I'm happy as I am. We have made so much growth together as a team and it may be that we are wise to leave "settlement" to a time on down the road when I retire and they go into a search process for a new, fulltime minister. They'll need one by then, if our current growth rate continues, and I want the new minister to come to a congregation that knows how to treat a minister, that is able to pay him/her well, and is healthy and vibrant. That's my job right now, teaching them what ministry offers and what it's worth to them.

When I retire, whenever that is, I want them to look for another minister with full confidence that they are a congregation which is worthy of excellent service, a congregation which supports and loves its minister, a congregation which is capable of paying fair compensation. I know that I will have led them to believe that ministers work far more than they are paid for and I will have to make sure they understand that not all ministers can do that, given family responsibilities and other commitments, and that it is too much to expect from their next minister.

It is likely that by the time I retire, in 3-5 years, I will have buried a fair number of my dearest congregants and that the membership of the church will be much younger than the founding members were. I hope I will have performed several weddings for some of those new folks, that I will have helped UUCWI become known in the community as an active force for social justice, and that we are seen as a center for art and beauty as well.

To those seminarians out there who may become consulting ministers in the early days of their careers, don't think of yourselves as second-class because you are working parttime and on yearly contracts. Think of yourselves as doing some of the most important work in the UUA: teaching congregations to work with a minister and helping them develop attitudes toward leadership that will enable them to grow in healthy and life-giving ways. Consulting ministry is one of our most important and least recognized ministries and you will learn more than seminary can teach you from this kind of relationship.

Blessed be all consulting ministers!


LinguistFriend said...

As regards the consulting ministry, this seems to be clear-minded thinking in one of your strong subject areas, the ministry as seen from the boundary between inside and outside. I had not understood the nature of the UU consulting ministry nearly as well before reading this post. Thank you.
As regards you own future, I hope that your health will remain good enough that you will not feel the necessity to retire as soon as you indicate. We are entering the high-upkeep years, however.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks for your kind words, LF. And I too would like to keep on keeping on in ministry, but, as you point out, these can be high-upkeep years. I'll play it by ear.