Dear prospective UU seminarians,
We’re back! We had so much fun writing our last advice post that we now bring you another. And this one contains [dun dun DUN] our actual, legitimate advice to you as you walk the heady, sometimes scary path toward seminary.
In writing this, we realized that we also wish we’d had a First Year Survival Guide, so that’s in the works. In the meantime, though, here are the tips we wish we’d received–or in some cases, the best advice that we blessedly DID receive–in our own months of initial discernment.
1. Build and care for your support network
Make your friendships a priority, even when you’re busy. Not every friendship is built to last, but trust us that the relationships that sustain you now will continue to be important as you deal with the coming changes in your life. The demands of graduate school and the emotional upheaval of the formation process are significant, and you are going to need all the support you can get.
Maintain your ties with the friends and family who are not connected to your church community. As you enter the formation process, your relationship with your home congregation—and most or all of its members—will change irrevocably. It’s normal to become very deeply connected with congregational life as you explore a call to ministry, but do not let go of your connections with the larger world.
If you are a parent of small children, the admonition to “keep track of your friends” counts double. The family with whom you can drop your child off on an hour’s notice? The ones you can call if there’s a middle-of-the-night emergency? Those people are on your team in a major way, and they are worth their weight in gold. (And, pro tip? Be as available to your friends as they are to you–so you may want to start now, while you still have some free time. Real friends don’t keep score . . . but they also don’t continually take without expecting to give.)
Take care of your primary relationships. Your partner (and other family members) are in for a wild ride in the formation process—one they didn’t ask for and may not even fully understand or support. Further, seminary, and the changes you will experience as a result, will affect the dynamics of even the healthiest relationships.
When you’ve had all the New Testament you can take, or you have to pay your tuition bill, or miss another weekend at home, or find a shoulder to cry on, you’re going to want the support of those closest to you. Feed those relationships now, particularly if you have some work to do around healthy communication patterns. And remember, going forward, to include those people in your seminary world; discuss texts, ask their opinions, get their feedback. There is much internal work in this process that gets lost in translation or is hard to share; where possible, let those who support you be part of it.
2. Become familiar with how UU works on the ground—in your local congregation
Attend regularly. Our world, and our churches, are changing–but for most of us, shared public worship remains a centerpiece of what we do together. Get to know our rituals, our hymns, and our theology, and find encouragement to connect with what moves your own soul. There are more than 1600 Unitarian Universalist congregations, and if you don’t happen to live near one, our largest congregation of all is available to you at the click of a button.
Get to know your minister. In addition to being (we hope) a fount of information about UU and a starting place for your deeper theological investigations, your home congregation minister can facilitate your seminary journey in many ways. S/he can introduce you to potential teaching pastors, help you find leadership opportunities that will develop your ministerial capacities, and write the letters of reference that you need for seminary and beyond. Our movement’s ministers are also very motivated to help in the discernment process of potential seminarians, so when you’re ready, find a time to talk with yours.
Serve. To effectively prepare to lead our movement, it’s necessary to have a solid understanding of congregational life. From worship to religious education to food prep, there are lessons to be learned in all we do together. There is no substitute for practicing faith and fortitude through a season of conflict, helping to lead a change that you care about through a process that happens on “church time,” or committing, generally, to live within the bonds of covenant–even when you would like nothing more than to leave the table, and the building, and not look back.
Even if you ultimately opt for community ministry, you will be deeply involved in parish life through seminary and preliminary fellowship (and hopefully beyond); give yourself this opportunity to discover whether it is something, for all its flaws and frustrations, that you can love.
Lead. You will never be finished “serving” in congregational life, but sooner or later (and in your case, probably sooner!) you can expect to be asked to step up and lead. This may mean joining the worship team or a governance task force or stepping into elected leadership. You will be getting a crash course in congregational polity, honing your own leadership skills, and helping your congregation at the same time.
And prepare to let it go. Congregational leadership is important work, so give it the best you have. And then, when the time comes, prepare to step back. When your ministry begins, your lay leadership must end, and eventually your time with your home congregation will, too. Leaving is a tough, but necessary, reality of the formation process. [Yep, it’s really true. Need a tissue? We’ll wait.]
3. Connect with the broader UU movement
Attend General Assembly (“GA”)and your regional/district conferences. An interesting and fast way to take stock of the larger UU landscape is to attend one of the annual gatherings. They feature workshops for personal faith development, tools for congregational life, powerful worship experiences, and amazing networking opportunities.
Keep track of what’s being talked about. By following along online and in the UU World, you will get a sneak peek of (and can even take part in) some of the conversations likely to shape your ministry. On Facebook, there are many groups set up to discuss a variety of topics; you might consider the UU Growth Lab or the Congregations and Beyond group. To learn about other Facebook groups that may be of interest, see this list from UU Planet.
Once you’ve been accepted to seminary, you can also join the UU Seminarians’ Salon, as well as facebook groups to connect you with future classmates at your chosen seminary. Elsewhere on the net, the online talk show the VUU, run by the Church of the Larger Fellowship, provides UU content in a format we find engaging and relevant. UUpdates is an aggregator of blog content by and about UUs, and the Interdependent Web is a column, edited by Rev. Heather Christensen, highlighting some of the week’s offerings. Also, consider connecting with seminarians and ministries in the larger (read: beyond UU) religious context. Twitter is a particularly great resource for this purpose.
Bring your faith with you when you travel. It’s difficult to see the larger landscape from only one vantage point. The breadth and depth of UU theology and the particularities of congregational life are more easily understood if you’ve seen them in a variety of contexts—so do some exploring when you travel. And, bonus: in our experience, the congregations you visit will be excited to meet U(U)—and they are great sources of insider info on things to do and places to eat.o and places tj
4. Take stock–is your life in balance?
Make mental health a priority. If you know that you struggle with depression, anxiety, procrastination, low self worth, relationship problems, etc (–“Yes” to one or two of the above? Us, too–), begin addressing that before you step into seminary.
You will need to be in a relatively stable place simply to deal with the demands of a rigorous graduate program, and the personal, social, and psychological challenge involved in the formation process adds to the intensity of the experience. You will be asked to evaluate yourself many times, and you must be able to look yourself in the eye and appreciate what you see.
Consider beginning work now with a therapist and/or a spiritual director, especially if you have never been in therapy before. In our experience, this is simply an expected part of the formation process–and if the idea of delving into your own psyche makes you deeply uncomfortable, it’s probably helpful to ask yourself why.
If you are preparing for ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister and are in seminary full-time, you can expect to spend much of your first year answering questions like “describe your childhood” and “give a reasonably full account of your life.” You will also spend two days undergoing a psychological assessment. All of this self-reflection can feel exhausting and overwhelming; trust us when we say that beginning your work on the big stuff is an investment of time now that will pay dividends later.
Evaluate your financial situation – Graduate school can be a drain on resources–mental, emotional, physical, and, not least, financial. It’s a downer, but do not underestimate the impact this may have on you and on your family, both as you make your way through seminary and afterward.
The reality is that preparing for Unitarian Universalist ministry is very expensive, with costs including seminary tuition ($56,000 before financial aid for an M.Div. at one of our two denominational schools), credentialing hurdles such as the career assessment, and books, materials, webinar fees, CPE tuition, and the list goes on. The travel involved in the formation process presents further financial challenges, and is an expense often overlooked in initial planning.
The enormity of the cost of ministerial formation is something we’d like to see addressed at a denominational level. In the meantime, our best advice to you: find a budget you can live with during seminary and after, be frugal where you can, pay close attention to deadlines as you apply for seminary (particularly where financial aid is concerned), prepare to take out loans, and gratefully accept help where it is offered.
5. Attend to your own spiritual needs.
Cultivate a regular spiritual practice. Spiritual practice can take many forms; the important thing is to find something that both feeds your soul and fits into your life. If you could use some help getting started, we suggest Everyday Spiritual Practice, edited by Scott Alexander–it includes a variety of creative suggestions.
Connect with others on your spiritual journey
Consider joining your congregation’s small group ministry (or help to form one); some of us have found the Wellspring Spiritual Deepening course particularly helpful.
Consider what feeds you.
Is it time with your children? Reading mysteries? French cooking? Yoga? Know what replenishes your energy and renews your spirit, and make time for those things. Start today–we know you’re busy, but we can also assure you that finding time is NOT going to get easier as you move into formation. Treat your spiritual life like the priority that it needs to be from the beginning, and you’ll have a good start in the self-care and boundary-setting that accompany a healthy ministry.
Seek broadly, if necessary, for congregational community
Finally, if congregational life is a significant part of what nurtures your spirit, prepare to relate to it in a new way, and soon. As odd as it sounds, now might be a good time for a bit of church shopping. Keep your current congregational membership active, but know that as your role in your congregation changes, you may find it necessary to seek a new or additional spiritual home. Many UU ministers and ministers-in-formation nurture their spirits through a local Zen center, UCC church, or other community or small group ministry outside of the congregations they serve.