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Settlement Process to Have More Flexibility
Settlement Process to Have More Flexibility

It was thirteen years ago that the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA's) ministerial settlement process went largely online. That was a dramatic change from how settlement was done before—through a method that relied to a great extent on the settlement director to match up congregations with ministers.

Since that time, congregations and ministers in search have taken on much of the responsibility for connecting with each other through the online system provided and facilitated by the UUA’s Transitions office. And as well as that system works, Transitions Director the Rev. Keith Kron is introducing some significant changes to make it better.

One emerging change involves the timing of the search process. Historically, congregations have taken one full year to conduct a search for a new called minister, with most of this work taking place during a period of interim ministry. Most congregations now take two years for the interim period with a year (or more) for the search process as part of that. “Of the forty-four congregations that are likely to settle a minister this fall, all but two will have done two years of interim ministry,” said Kron.

Some congregations have felt that a year was too little time to conduct a measured search process, said Kron. For that reason some are now beginning, with Kron’s encouragement, to take eighteen months. “They felt that trying to do everything in a year’s time was too rushed. This gives them more time.”

He added, “Every interim minister tells me that one year is not enough time to get a congregation ready for the next called minister. A congregation typically doesn’t elect its search committee until after the interim minister has begun. Which is the way it should be. That way they don’t have an immediate rush to select a committee and everyone makes better decisions.”

Here’s one example of how a ministerial search outside the traditional time frame could look: At one Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation, the minister retired in October 2011. An interim minister began in January. The congregation formed a search committee shortly thereafter and is expecting to call its next minister in the fall of 2013.

Kron noted there is anxiety among some ministers about accepting positions that are outside the “normal” year-long model. For example, will an interim who serves a congregation for 18 months then have to be without work for six months until another spring-to-spring cycle begins?

That’s a legitimate concern, he said, noting that non-traditional time frames will appeal to some people and not to others. Most congregations are likely to continue to stick with the spring-to-spring model, he noted, but now they have the flexibility to consider other time frames.

Kron said the UUA is one of only two denominations that lock clergy into a once-a-year transition cycle. He also said the UUA is the only denomination he’s found that puts specific limits around lengths of interim ministry. “In many other denominations interims stay as long as they need to stay,” he said.

Kron is encouraging congregations and ministers “to move forward out of a mid-twentieth-century view of congregational life. Every Protestant denomination does some settlement at various times through the year. This is one of the places where we are more rigid and conservative than our Christian colleagues.” He also feels it is healthier for ministries to end “when they need to,” as opposed to adhering to an academic calendar year. “Agility and flexibility are becoming desired ways of being in contemporary congregational life.”

Fewer congregations now create separate search committees for interim ministers, Kron said. More are appointed by the Transitions director. “Many congregations are finding that when they’re under stress with the departure of a minister it’s too much for them to think about a search for an interim too,” Kron said.

A congregation can still say no to an interim that Kron would recommend. “I use the information they give me plus what I know about the congregation from the outgoing minister and the district staff and any visits I may have made," he said. "But the congregation still has choice in the selection.”

An increasing number of congregations are interested in doing “developmental ministry,” he said. In these cases an appointed minister would serve the congregation for three to five years, allowing it more time to transition from a long-term or a troubled ministry or to work out a long-term issue.

Kron explained: “This is most useful for congregations that have a long-term issue they’ve not been able to successfully address. Members know the congregation probably can’t resolve this issue in a normal twelve- or even eighteen-month interim period. So we help them find a minister who would be particularly good at helping them address their problem. Then, after three to five years they’d have the option of calling this minister if things went really well.”

He said two congregations chose that long approach last year and there will be at least five this year. “One congregation has a building in a flood plain. It’s been wrestling for years with whether to move, so it’s using this time to figure that out. Another congregation might use this longer period to examine its rocky history with ministers or its overdependence on its endowment, or simply to decide how it wants to revitalize itself.”

He added: “These longer periods of developmental ministry are useful in cases where a congregation has had an overriding issue that has dominated the congregation, and it is now ready to work on it. With this much time a congregation can really take ownership for what it needs to work on, with a minister who has particular skill around that issue.”

Kron said this longer time period is a hybrid—a type of ministry that is neither interim ministry nor the UUA’s former extension ministry program. “Extension ministry was about helping congregations move toward full-time ministry. This is about helping them work on chronic issues and come to some resolution about them.”

There’s been one more change to settlement practices that many congregations may cheer. “We are now in an age when congregations and ministers in search must present their information electronically," said Kron. "Gone are the days of notebooks being shipped back and forth. We literally had one congregation last year that didn’t do an electronic version. We live in an age when people want the information immediately.”

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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