Further Thoughts on Sean Neil-Barron’s request for Ordination from the Committee on Shared Ministry

We were happy to hold a well-attended informational forum between services Sunday, Jan. 8, to answer questions about the upcoming congregational vote on whether to perform our congregational role of ordination of a new minister into the Unitarian Universalist faith. This vote is the sole item on the agenda of the January 29th Congregational Meeting, scheduled for 10:15 am.

The questions at our informational forum highlighted what a complex process becoming a UU minister is, and we thought it might be helpful to outline the differences between the UUA-run fellowship process, the right of ordination that congregations hold sole responsibility for, and the separate act of calling a permanent minister.

Assistant Minister Sean Neil-Barron is currently serving our congregation on a one-year contract, which will end in August. Before that time, the Board of Trustees will convene to consider extending his contract to a second year.

Our vote on Sean’s request for ordination in no way affects that process or reflects any commitment to hire Sean on a permanent basis. The process of hiring a minister for a permanent position (associate minister or senior minister) is known as calling, and is a separate and much more involved congregation-level decision making process.

Ordination is a ceremony that also reflects our unique UU history of congregation-based decision-making — in particular, the right and responsibility of UU congregations to identify and name the ministers they see fit to serve our faith communities.

UUs have a long tradition of reserving certain rights for individual congregations that other denominations give to their governing body or diocese.

These congregational rights include self-governance, the right of congregations to own their own church properties, and the right to say if an aspirant is suitable to serve in our faith tradition. The latter right and responsibility is called ordination – when a congregation affirms that a ministerial candidate possesses the qualities needed to serve the Unitarian Universalist faith community.

Ordination happens once in a minister’s lifetime and cannot be revoked. It is considered a sacred duty and honor for a congregation to perform. It is generally requested after a ministerial candidate has entered preliminary fellowship with the UUA.

Which brings us to the process of fellowship, distinct from ordination.

To support individual congregations, the Unitarian Universalist Association created a Ministerial Fellowship Committee to be the credentialing body of the UUA and to ensure the quality of ministers who seek to serve UU congregations.

Ministerial candidates still in theological schools as well as ministers who are transferring from another denomination or are seeking to be accredited to serve in more than one religious tradition all become accredited through the UUA’s very rigorous Ministerial Fellowship program.

To become a candidate for ministerial fellowship, Sean and all other aspirants must have a masters in divinity or its equivalent from and approved theological school, have completed a clinical pastoral education program, an internship, and a long list of other qualifications, including demonstrating a strong motivation for our ministry, a balanced and healthy personality, a capacity for self-understanding, a concern for others, and ministerial leadership skills.

Obtaining preliminary and final fellowship through the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee is a lengthy and intensive commitment, a commitment that seeks to ensure the quality of the ministers who serve our religious tradition. Sean is 8 months into his preliminary fellowship, and is on track to complete it by 2019, at which point he will have his final fellowship.

He could have requested to be ordained by any of the UU churches he has previously been affiliated with, such as his home church or the church where he served his internship, but he waited to ask the first congregation that he served as an assistant minister.

This is a great honor for us and we, the Committee on Shared Ministry (which has, among its responsibilities, the job of evaluating Sean periodically during his preliminary fellowship process) believe that Foothills Unitarian has amply experienced the talents, abilities and passion that Sean brings to his professional calling — talents and abilities that have been verified and vetted by the UUA’s Preliminary Fellowship process — and that we are well equipped to make the decision to ordain him as a Universalist Unitarian minister,  thus allowing him to claim the title of Reverend Sean Neil-Barron.

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