Excellence and Oppression

Clearly, Rev. Christine and the event she attended about “Excellence in Ministry” got me thinking. Today’s thoughts revolve around the ideal of excellence and how oppression works.  If, by virtue of being part of an “historically marginalized group,” I am seen as very different from the image  of the “ideal minister,” how will that affect perceptions of excellence?

For example, as a transgender man, my very identity causes anxiety in many congregations and search committees.  I have often been perceived as a “risky” candidate—not because of the quality of my ministry, but because of worries about my identity.  Those worries are not something I create, but are created to serve the status quo by stigmatizing, punishing, and planting fear of any who differ from the norm.

But wherever they come from, fears about identity get in the way of perceiving excellence.  A “marginalized” identity looms so large that the quality of a person’s ministry is overshadowed and hidden.  This is the reason it is openly admitted that ministers from “historically marginalized groups”  have to be twice or thrice or ten times as good as ministers whose identity fits the ideal.

Even as women have slowly become the majority in our ministry, this is still known to be true of their ministry.  Imagine how it is for ministers even further from our Unitarian Universalist “norm!”  There is little room for them to be ordinary. Or have a bad year. Or—and this is especially sad—have time to acquire the skills and wisdom they need to become truly excellent. So many people from historically marginalized communities leave ministry within just a few years.

There’s another part to this.  Every time I’m rejected because of my identity, I begin to question my own excellence, even competence.  My confidence suffers and with it, I’m sure my ministry does too.  This is internalized oppression at work and it wears at the soul of any minister who is marginalized for differing from the norm.  I’ve seen it time and time again: a slow-growing soul weariness at having to explain, educate, and sometimes defend one’s right to minister and even one’s right to exist.  And even when that battle is won, there is the soul-deadening work of “covering:”

“It is a fact that persons who are ready to admit possession of a stigma (in many cases because it is known about or immediately apparent) may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large. . . . this process will be referred to as covering.” Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963).

The need to manage identity, stigma, and difference magnifies the vulnerability of these ministers exponentially.  The hard work of covering makes the need for self-care and other soul-satisfying activities and relationships vitally important.

And yet, most of these vulnerable ministers end up in small, struggling congregations. These are the congregations for whom the hunger for ministry outweighs the “risk” of having a “non-ideal” minister.  The ministry of these churches is often conflicted, poorly paid, and full of the stresses of trying to grow and change in order to survive.  Thus, our “historically marginalized” ministers are most often serving congregations where they are managing many things at once, far from colleagues and chances for ongoing support.  And in some cases, colleagues themselves may struggle to understand and accept a minister whose identity is outside their comfort zone.

I have just one more point.  Those of us from historically marginalized social locations are not really free to talk about these challenges. (It’s one of the bigger aspects of “covering” to maintain the fiction that we are fine, everything is fine…)  If we do admit that we are exhausted, disillusioned or angry, we are often labeled as “whiners” or “trouble-makers.” It’s only been said to me once, but it has been said to me:

“You should be grateful to be a minister at all.”

To be perceived as “excellent” most ministers of color, ministers with disabilities, genderqueer or transgender ministers, gay, lesbian and bisexual ministers, (and many more who challenge the norms of our culture of ministry) are expected to hide our struggles and offer unending hope and encouragement to our movement—sometimes to the very people whose words stung so badly or whose rejection hurt us to the core. And with that, I’ve probably said too much…

*cross-posted at truust.org


14 thoughts on “Excellence and Oppression

  1. Rev. Sean, this is so honest and delivers a world of information. Thank you for being willing to teach all of us.

    And … “You should be grateful to be a minister at all.” ????

    Absolutely. No. Words.

    Wish you were our minister!

  2. Rev. Sean – You do excellent ministry through this blog. I’m grateful you are a minister, that you are a UU minister, and that you are willing to share so much of yourself and your experience. Echoing LE, thank you. Blessings to you in this season of expectant darkness and light.

  3. Lizard Eater and Earthbound Spirit have already said everything, more eloquently than I could; but in the hopes that numbers matter, I repeat, “thank you.”

  4. Thanks for this comment on the costs of being a pioneer. It can be utterly exhausting. As a woman in ministry when that was a very new thing, I can certainly affirm all those dynamics you mention. There’s another painful one, too…that persons of different temperaments deal with these challenges in different ways, and others in one’s “historically marginalized” group can be quite rigid about what makes one a “good” (feminist,Black, etc.)person. Ironically, in these stressed groups, excellence and success are sometimes cause for envy and criticism rather than celebration.

    One quibble, but perhaps an important one. I believe that human beings are hard wired to view “otherness” with suspicion, at least initially. That can be educated out of us or it can be exploited. But contrary to the old song, we don’t “have to be taught to be afraid/of people whose eyes are differently made” We have to be taught to NOT be afraid. Being a teacher is a great burden and a great privilege of a pioneer.

  5. Well said, Sean. So much of what we term “excellence” is really about persona & charisma. Those of us outside the “norm” in any way have to be that much stronger to overcome our setbacks. And excellent point about people who are already marginalized taking small, struggling churches where the expectations and hopes are high, the road hard, and often the ministers have to take on a second or third job that competes for their attention.

  6. I had the privilege of getting to tell someone today how very excellent you are as a minister, and I want to add one more voice here to the chorus that is just saying “Sean, we love you.” I do. Thank you for being my minister. ((((((((((((((((((Sean))))))))))))))))

  7. Well said Sean,

    As you might guess, much of your post resonates with me, albeit due to somewhat different specifics. I expect that I will be commenting on this blog post on my “soul-satisfying” The Emerson Avenger blog soon enough. 😉


    Robin Edgar aka The Emerson Avenger

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