Sliding Doors: A Blog Following a Congregation in Search for Its Next Minister

October 9, 2020

Blog Post #6

Ministers Thinking About Search

Barrie stared at the screen and looked away with a sigh. Search was going to be a lot more work than they had thought. Barrie looked at all the questions to be answered in the Ministerial Record and grimaced. Having just been cleared for search by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee after months of prepping, writing, and reviewing materials, now Barrie was staring at more creating to do.

But Barrie gave themself a pep talk. “You don’t have to do this all at once. Take a question or two at a time. Talk with your mentor. Take the dog for a walk and bring a tennis ball. Have a fudgesicle. Or two. Breathe. Start with an easy question.”

As Barrie picked themself up out of their chair and headed to the kitchen, settling, for now, on a cup of herbal tea, Barrie realized they were struggling with how best to describe themself as a minister, especially using examples. What story could they tell that embodies them as a minister? What would make them more interesting to a congregation, and more than a single story?

Vivian stood before her mounted cell phone and took a breath after pressing “record.” She could edit this out later. She made sure her perfectly ironed robe and stole looked professional and sharp. Did she appear both energetic and mature? She knew the importance of first impressions, especially when people would have reservations about a younger minister (if they saw her as a minister at all). Vivian was tired of being told how cute she was—especially when she knew she’d been a UU longer than the 70 year old telling her that.

Vivian did wish this sermon she was about to give had been recorded when she delivered it during her internship. Still, it was worth redoing on film so people could see her preaching as a strength. It had all the “right” elements—humor, a bit about growing up Unitarian Universalist, an intellectual quote from Emerson, and a message that made you think and feel. Speak clearly, she told herself, and slow down…

Andrew knew he was waffling. He’d been convinced it was time to go into search but was also wondering if this year was the right year. He knew he was very comfortable where he was, and he was bored. But mostly, if he was honest with himself, he was tired. Tired of the same conversations with the same people who wanted the world to be different while they remained exactly the same. He feared he could fall into the same trap far too easily. He didn’t want to be “that” minister. He’d watched colleagues do that, and do it well to everyone’s general satisfaction, but he also knew that wasn’t what the world needed now; Andrew still believed the world needed more Unitarian Universalism, that there were too many people out there who needed a multi-theological, multi-layered, diverse faith committed to making things better.

And yet, this is also what gave him pause. Did a searching congregation need another old, straight, cis white guy? Didn’t they need something different? He reflected for a moment as his mind stuck on the words “old” and “younger.” He suppressed a smirk, thinking he was still one of the young people in his current congregation—most of whom he loved, and most of whom expected him to do their memorial services and funerals. That would be hard to leave. Really hard. But he also felt the tug of age, wondering how many congregations would still look at someone his age and whether he would even be considered at all. Still, the thoughts of challenges with new people, especially now that he had a deeper sense of himself as minister, would help him approach the same conversations with new energy and commitment. Andrew still held on to the advice of a Black colleague who had suggested to him that not all of our congregations were ready yet for her or for a trans minister, and they often really needed someone like him to get them ready so they wouldn’t do real harm to a colleague by thinking they are ready but not really being so. The idea of working with a congregation willing to really be engaged with its wider community excited him, but he also knew he had to get his wife on board—and finding her a new job might not be easy. They needed two incomes, though she was very supportive of his searching if it was in the right area.

Steve lit the chalice and prayed. He opened his eyes and then the web page. He scrolled through the list of likely congregations in search. It made him wish he’d paid more attention in geography class. What were these congregations like and how were they a part of a larger community? Would there be a community that would support him and his partner? Would it have a queer bowling league like he was in now? He sighed at the number of conversations he would have to have about being in a relationship with a woman as a bisexual man. He pondered being not only the only Black person in the league, but also the only bi man in a committed relationship with a woman. Sometimes, it was like being a UU all over again. Steve had developed friends and a life outside of work and church, and that mattered to him.

After talking with a good colleague across the country who had served a couple of congregations, Steve was becoming more aware that Unitarian Universalism happened in context. Today, he was going to research the communities he was interested in to see if he and his partner could be happy there—and if they could afford it. Now that he was through with school, she wanted to go back and maybe work part time, if possible. He’d been directed to a website to compare cost of living in various places.

Steve was going to spend the morning looking at websites to learn about what communities were dealing with, what their demographics are, best places to live for interracial couples, and, as he promised his partner, knitting stores. She said her only requirements were a good university, a knitting store, and room for her loom. Steve was also checking congregational websites of searching congregations to see what he could learn.

Terry brushed the hair out of her eyes. It reminded her she still needed to touch up her roots. She didn’t mind being old, but she did mind being considered old. She was still wondering if settled ministry was a better choice than interim ministry, but she also knew she really wanted to settle in one place for a while, not too far from her children, and get to know people. She was concerned that all she would be seen as was old. Terry had written in her profile she envisioned no less than a decade with a congregation she hoped to serve, but she didn’t trust people would believe that. If they just got to know her, they would see how much energy she had. She liked board meetings, for heaven’s sake! Board members needed ministry (though, privately, she wasn’t always sure the finance committee did).

Terry hoped searching for a smaller congregation might improve her chances—a congregation that had fewer interests and just needed a minister who really wanted to be there. She didn’t need much, though a place to garden would be nice. She did love the West Coast, and a couple hours of driving or a short flight away from her children would be ideal for her. This would narrow her search, however, and Terry worried if she didn’t find something this year that her options would just shrink even more. She’d been counseled about not appearing too anxious, about “trying too hard”, as search committees want to know you want to be there without appearing desperate, and, ultimately, not ministerial. But this was a job search, and Terry needed a job—ideally, one she’d love and where she could love others. Should she worry about finding that balance, or just focus on working really hard on appearing “not too old” while still coming across as wise and ministerial?

Search is not just about congregations. Search is not just about ministers. Surprisingly, some people in both camps forget that and can become fairly self-involved in their searches. All too often, a search committee gets the idea that ministers are only looking at them. And ministers have the view that they’d be perfect for a congregation based more on their needs than what the search committee presents as the congregation’s needs.

The factors that go into a ministerial search are more wide-ranging than people imagine. Ministers are looking at not only, “Is this a good place to be a minister?” but also, “Is this a good place for me and/or my family to live?” Ministers are also likely to have varying amounts of information about particular areas.

Search committees now realize their task is not only to present the congregation as a desirable place to be, but to also present their area is a desirable place to live—and not just for the minister. The ability to look at their congregation and community as an outsider can be a real plus. Knowing the particular challenges and opportunities an area provides can be a real plus for both search committees and ministers.

Also, understanding the mindset of potential ministers and all of the factors they may be considering makes for a better search. Of course, the same is true for understanding the mindset of search committees and congregations.

Getting information and resources:

  • Go to the city/town/county website to learn more.
  • Wikipedia is a good source of information about a place, and often has demographic information.
  • Sperling is another website to compare cost of living besides Bestplaces.net. Nerdwallet and Numbeo (which has Canadian cities) are others.
  • Ministers can always talk to current and past colleagues who have served the congregation they are interested in, and some of that conversation could be about what it’s like to live in the area.
  • Go beyond internet searches for a city. Add queries like “Being ________ in Seattle”, “New Musicians in Atlanta” and “Independent Bookstores near Poughkeepsie.” Even a city’s restaurant reviews will tell you about the options a place has.
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September 24, 2020

Blog Post #5

Theology

Abby had wanted the search committee to have some good discussions. Her intentions were good. She knew this was a group that did not always share the same opinion, and even though some were louder than others (she tried to not think of Kurt when she thought that, but she did), she hoped some conversations on theology and its role in the search would be timely in several ways.

One, they needed to figure out how they were going to address this in the survey. Should they ask the question of themselves? Should they ask this of ministers? She had heard in the retreat ministers were not asked to share their own theology but instead were asked to describe how they would minister to a multi-theological congregation. How did the search committee perceive the theology (actually, theologies, she corrected herself) of the congregation?

Two, this would be a good chance for the search committee to talk while living into their newly agreed upon search committee covenant.

She began the meeting as newly elected co-chair (along with Mark, the retired professor) by asking the group to reflect on three questions:

  1. Should we ask for each member’s theology?
  2. Should we ask the minister’s theology?
  3. How does theology matter to the congregation?

To no one’s surprise, Kurt answered first. “Yes, yes, and a lot,” he said. Shay, Audrey, and Leslie adjusted themselves in their seats. Denise laughed.

Mark responded, “I’d like to suggest we all take a moment to think about the questions and write down our responses with 1-3 reasons or thoughts about our answer. Then I’d like everyone to share on each question, though you can pass if you want to. Still, Abby and I discussed we’d like to model a space where everyone gets heard and has a chance to speak.”

Abby smiled, “We could think of this as the first practice for a cottage meeting.” Mark passed out paper, which Shay refused by holding up their phone and then employing some serious thumb and finger magic as they typed furiously. Impressed, Audrey stared for a moment, before turning her attention to the paper.

It took a couple of minutes for everyone to actually start, though everyone but Kurt was finished in a few minutes. Finally, Mark asked Kurt, “Can you be done in a minute or two?” Kurt sighed and nodded, as he flipped his paper over and returned to writing, picking up his pace. Reluctantly, he put his pen down 90 seconds later and looked up, nodding at Mark. But then he quickly grabbed his pen and wrote another sentence, put it down, and held up his hands as if to surrender.

Abby gave a little nod and asked the group, “I’m proposing we go through the questions one at a time. I will call on one person by asking them the question and then that person will respond with no more than one sentence their answer. We’ll go through three times. You are free to pass for whatever reason to answer, but you will still be asked to pose the question to another person. We’ll do this for all three questions, and then discuss afterwards things that stood out for us from other people’s responses. Let me remind you of our covenant of letting people finish their thoughts and listening with respect.” She paused for a second as Kurt flipped his paper, clearly deciding which sentences he could use. He frowned, but Abby moved on.

“Question 1,” Abby began, “Should we ask for each member’s theology? I’ll model.”

Abby: “I would rather ask in the survey how important theological conversations are than ask people to define. Denise?”

Denise: “I think potential ministers would like to know who we are. Mark?”

Mark: “I think if we ask the question, ‘Why do you come to this church?’ we provide an opportunity for people to answer that if it’s important to them. Shay?”

Shay: “I don’t like the idea of asking people their theology, because it too easily assumes all our people have only one theology. Audrey?”

Audrey: “Given where we live, I would like to ask the question of what people say outside of our congregation when they are asked, ‘What do Unitarian Universalists believe?’ Lesley?”

Lesley: “I would rather ask in a cottage meeting, ‘what would you hope for from a minister to speak to us about theology?’ Kurt?”

It wasn’t lost on anyone that the group had asked Kurt last. He looked down at his paper for a moment, then turned it over and back.

Kurt: “I think a minister with a different theology than our congregation would be a poor fit, so I think we should be clear about what we believe.”

In her head, Abby noted that this was a compound sentence, but she just smiled.

Abby: “Let’s go on to question two: Should we ask the minister’s theology? So that I don’t always go first and because we did such a good job of keeping it to one sentence, I’d like to ask Audrey to go first.”

Audrey: “I think seeing and listening to sermons will tell us that. Mark?”

Mark: “This is a lower priority on my list given what I think we need from a minister. Shay?”

Shay: “I didn’t know our last minister’s theology, whom I really loved. Kurt?”

Kurt: “It is our responsibility, given our history and setting, to ask so that we can tell the congregation we’ve done our work. Denise?”

Denise:” I’d like to know how the minister’s theology fits in with their view of ministry. Abby?”

Abby: “I’d like to ask how we as a congregation and as individuals have more depth around theology. Lesley?”

Lesley: “It only matters if they talk too much about their theology and want us to have that theology.”

“I’m learning a lot,” Abby said after a letting a silence hold the room for a moment. “Let’s move on to the last question: How does theology matter to the congregation? Lesley, since you were last, why don’t you start?”

Lesley: “Our people want to be grounded in Unitarian Universalism theology without being bored by it. [general laughter] Kurt?”

Kurt: “We’re a humanist congregation that needs to talk more about humanism. Mark?”

Mark: “It matters a lot to a smaller group of members and less to most. Denise?”

Denise: “I think most people’s eyes glaze over when asked. Shay?”

Shay: “They want to know someone isn’t going to try and convert them to conservative Christianity. Audrey?”

Audrey: “I think it’s a personal matter to most of our members. Abby?”

Abby: “It matters in the way that our congregation’s theology is perceived in the wider community. Let’s take a moment to discuss what we learned and what this means for us.”

Congregations are more likely to talk about theology during the interim time, often because a basic question is raised—will the new minister be like us? But we are far more diverse and nuanced in our theology than we think, and we rarely discuss that. We may find quotes from theologians, argue what theology is, but the primary source of education for most UUs on theology comes from the Adult RE curriculum, “Building Your Own Theology.”

We rarely study theology and beliefs and what they mean, and perhaps more importantly, what they meant in a particular context. Much what we have learned has been singularly homogenous and predominantly white and male. Often, the minister becomes the primary source for theology in a congregation. The Commission on Institutional Change has asked us to explore this, diversify our understanding, and not center theology from this one place. Our sources hint at this as well.

In the model congregational survey and ministerial and congregational records, questions have moved away from a single person’s response to their theology and more toward an understanding that we have multiple theologies within our congregations and that the minister’s challenge is to minister to the congregation.

One challenge for our congregations is to examine theologies without judgment. In many congregations, members who have been hurt by a particular Christian theology often hurt and try to silence those who wish to know more about Christian theology—especially those who did not grow up in Christianity, and see this is part of a course of learning and not the only answer. In that way, some of our congregations have been as fundamentalist about theology as fundamental Christianity, and people have been judged, disdained, and excluded for even asking questions and being curious.

Most of our congregations and even individuals are more theologically diverse than even they know. We must honor that people have been hurt by theology and religion and strive not to do that others who may not come with our history.

Congregations and ministers who can honor the humanism, atheism, Christianity, Buddhism, Paganism, Islam, and others in all their nuanced flavors—not to mention Unitarian Universalism—in all of its members are more likely to keep new members and be connected to the wider world. Ministers know a congregation could have a Pagan group, a UU Christian group, an atheist gathering, and many others, and should be prepared to welcome that.

And we must remember that as we speak the languages of more diverse theology, there will be members who are reminded of the harm they felt from their previous traditions as well as those who love the variety and want to learn from many sources.

The more respect a search committee and ministers can show for this and for each other, the more likely a successful ministry is to occur.

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August 6, 2020

Blog Post #4

Scope of Search Committee Work & Getting Started on the Survey

Audrey shook her head. She hadn’t realized how much work was involved in the search process. She had been looking forward to meeting ministers and making a recommendation. It was exciting. She sort of knew there would be a survey, but she hadn’t quite realized what that meant—let alone cottage meetings, a congregational record, a documents packet, all the reading required, the arrangements to be done—ultimately, she hadn’t quite realized how many variables there were.

Audrey had agreed to work on the survey not realizing how much work it entailed. She had thought it was about looking for a minister and hadn’t realized it was really about understanding the congregation and all the differences within the congregation. While Audrey knew things just from talking with the rest of the search committee that the congregation did not have one opinion about many different things, somehow she thought the congregation would have one general set of beliefs and feelings about the next minister and the congregation.

She was also gaining a better sense of the scope of what a minister did. She knew it was more than Sunday mornings and writing a sermon and preparing a service. She’d seen the previous minister at committee meetings and heard them talk about their social justice efforts. Audrey had even talked with the previous minister about her divorce. But the sample survey clearly pointed to so much more. And then to add the layer of how the minister did ministry, especially with people of different opinions, was not easy.

Not only that, there was the entire meeting coming up about what questions to ask from the sample survey, what questions to change, and what questions to add to the survey. Kurt and Mark had a lot of questions they wanted to be asked, and in particular ways. Kurt thought some of the demographic questions were too much. Shay wondered if the questions were already biased toward doing things they way they always had been—a question that Audrey shared. Denise really wanted a question to make sure the minister was good at administration, since that was the shortcoming, in her mind, of the last minister. Lesley was nervous that a survey could be misinterpreted by ministers. Abby just listened and said it was an opportunity to learn.

So, during the retreat, Audrey surprised herself by agreeing to work with Mark on taking the lead on the survey. She was relieved when Shay offered technical help. But what seemed like fun also seemed daunting and complicated. Like Abby, though, she did see it as an opportunity to learn. But what would they learn?

The congregational survey done by the search committee is an opportunity to really begin engagement with the congregation. It’s also an opportunity for the congregation to see its complexity with fresh eyes. Often, we reduce the view to match our own view of a congregation, and for decades the search survey has been a revelation to the congregation. More often than not, the survey shows that a congregation has more diversity than many individuals think—not only about what they want from the next minister, but about who the congregation is.

These are good things. And they are opportunities.

They are opportunities with challenges. The questions of how to create a survey from the sample are trickier than people think. Ministers often look at survey results from multiple congregations simultaneously. Sometimes new questions are a plus, but often they point to anxiety in a congregation or represent a particular point of view of one committee member. The best questions are ones that provide opportunities for expansive answers as opposed to an either/or answer. Demographic questions help not only ministers, but the congregation see the complex identities within their own community as well as how this compares to their ideas about a particular geographic area. A lack of demographic questions has actually scared some ministers from looking more closely at a congregation—these ministers wonder why they aren’t being asked.

The goal of the survey is to get people to think about who they are and what they want. The search committee then takes the survey, augmented by the cottage meetings and focus groups, and presents an authentic and fuller depiction of the congregation and its hopes and needs; this way, prospective ministers get a better sense if their ministry would be work well with the congregation’s strengths and needs. Ideally, the survey leads to even richer conversations in the cottage meetings and focus groups to bring out even more nuance and detail and allow for people’s ideas to build off each other—creating greater insight and depth. And whatever comes forward, ministers ultimately want to know what is real, and not just the congregation putting its best foot forward.

Audrey’s note about the complexity of ministry is even truer in the pandemic. Congregations are asking our ministers to do more, often without asking them to let something go. Given all that a minister holds that goes unnoticed anyway, the pandemic makes ministry even harder to be noticed. Some people are simply asking for more from their minister. Ministers themselves are finding the extra work complicated to manage in healthy ways, and leaders across denominations are reporting seeing that their ministers are traumatized, often while trying to minister to traumatized congregants.

Religion itself is in a liminal time that could last a while. What is the purpose of religion and of a congregation in these moments when the entire world is changing? Congregations that respond with openness and possibility of newness are more likely to survive than those that contract into a smaller closed group of members wanting things to be the way they’ve always been. Ideally, a survey is a start of a conversation about what is possible now.

The basic sample survey in PDF form is below. The shareable, editable document is available to the search committee upon request. Please email transitions@uua.org for more information.

Congregational Survey

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July 23, 2020

Blog Post #3

Ministers in Search

Andrew knew it was time. He’d served his congregation for 10 years and needed a new challenge. In his mind, the congregation he served seemed happy to have no challenges. It was an aging, smaller congregation with a lot of older white retirees that seemed happy to have plateau-ed in place. They had become a Welcoming Congregation, had hung a Black Lives Matter banner, and collected food which they gave to a local shelter. They liked their community a lot, and many in the congregation were quite happy to live most of their life in the bubble of the congregation.

Andrew is 56, white, heterosexual, mostly able-bodied with a touch of arthritis in one hand, and male. A convert to UUism in his 30’s, he grew up in a conservative Methodist church which had nice people but never made much sense to him, both theologically and politically. A Midwesterner, he is seen and likes to be seen as the consummate nice guy. He has an eye toward retirement, and would like to move to a larger, better paying congregation. Married with 3 children, the last of whom heads to college next year, now is a good time to be in search, he feels.

Barrie was hopeful their Ministerial Fellowship Committee appointment would go well. Their appointment was in September. If all went well, Barrie would enter into the search process to search for a congregation. Barrie had high hopes and mixed expectations. Barrie had been encouraged to consider UU ministry by others who had said “the Unitarians are ready for you.” And many were, but not all. There were still people who saw Barrie as trans first (all too many struggled with the term “gender non-binary”), as a person second, and as a minister third. While Barrie realized people were on a learning curve about gender identity, the frequent experience of people’s unconscious bias, let alone the outright prejudice that reared its head, and often from unexpected people, Barrie still loved congregational life. Their internship was proving very rewarding. People loved their sermons, had turned to them for pastoral care, and engaged collaboratively on social justice initiatives. Their supervisor had been very good at discussing the role of the minister and her thinking on leading from behind.

Barrie is 45, mixed-race, single, queer and gender non-binary, in general good health, but might be pre-diabetic. Barrie is hoping for a congregation in a city large enough to feel a bit less risky, and a congregation that will see them as their minister, even if that takes some folks a while. Barrie is very interested in getting UUs to think more deeply in terms of theology and spirituality.

Steve has been working with a small fellowship close to home since he was a student (and after an early two-year part time internship where he’d been recruited by the senior minister)—mainly preaching and an occasional adult education class. It had worked well and had been very good and convenient for him and the congregation, but after three years he was ready to find a larger congregation. He’d been encouraged to think about ministry from the moment he spoke at his home congregation some seven years ago. Two years later, he enrolled, working full-time while doing seminary, juggling school, work, and preaching. Growing up in non-church household, he’d been intrigued by religious questions all of his life. If pushed, he’d say he was a theist, but he also knew if he said this, many UUs would assume he was Christian.

Steve is 38, identifies using the word “Black”, bisexual (and partially out about it, though because he’s in a relationship with a woman, people make assumptions), and lives in a large Eastern city. He’s hoping for a diverse congregation, similar to his internship, where he’s not the only Black person. A lifelong seeker, he hopes to minister to those searching for meaning in life, to take the time to be grounded in their values. He likes most of congregational life, but sometimes wishes the pace of change could move more quickly. He’d vacillated between doing community ministry and parish ministry, but he’d had a good experience in his internship mostly and it had given him hope that a congregation could be a place for change.

Terry is often called effervescent. At 62, she has a lot of energy and feels like she has much to give. She loves people and seeks connection and meaning in her interactions. She wants to make a difference in people’s lives and sees congregational life as a place to do that. She had worked in a variety of careers, mostly social work, acquiring several degrees, doing lots of things, and accumulating significant debt. She has never been that worried as she always figured something out. Very much of a generalist, Terry will jump into anything and has had to learn not do everything in congregational life.

Terry is white, divorced twice with two grown children, grew up Catholic in the Northeast but has lived mostly on the West Coast. In good health despite being diabetic, she wonders if she ever needs or wants to retire, though being near a hoped for grandchild or two would be nice. She sees herself doing ministry until she’s 80 if she can. She would like a warm smaller congregation where she can get to know the people and is open to considering most places. A champion of what she calls shared ministry, Terry would like to empower people to do more with their lives, their congregation, and in the wider community.

Vivian knows she’s young. At 27, Vivian is excited about ministry. She grew up Unitarian Universalist in the Midwest, having been a youth leader in her congregation. Born in China and adopted, Vivian grew up in a home with two moms and three cats. Vivian was the youth whom every kid in her high school class came to with sex education questions and describes herself as queer. She really enjoys interacting with people her age as she has experienced significantly less sexism, ageism, heterosexism, and racism from her peers. Some of the church elders in her home congregation were always saying something inappropriate. It happened less in her internship congregation, but there was no escaping every microaggression and patronizing remark.

Vivian hopes to find a congregation in an urban younger area where she can be around folks who are like people she lives near now. Billed as an excellent preacher (though she hated hearing the additional tag line of “for her age”), Vivian loves social justice work and sees the future of church more outside the church walls than within them. She hopes to bring more young people into our faith and help the next generation make way for new ideas, leaders, and customs. She might also be open to a second ministry position if the congregation and geography were good, but she sees herself as senior minister, one day of a large church.

In the last decade, we’ve had as many as 130 to as few as 75 ministers in search each year, though the general trend has been lower. Ministers from their mid-20s to their 70s search for settled positions every year. Each year, about 60% of the candidates have identified as women, most of the rest men, though there is an increase in people identifying as transgender and gender non-binary (the highest year was at about 5%). Every year, about 10% of the pool has identified as Black, Indigenous, and people of color. The first few years, about 10-15% of ministers identified as BGLT, though when the “Q” and “+” were added as identifiers, that jumped to about one of every three ministers. About 5-10% of ministers are open about some sort of disability and/or health condition (physical and mental health), though an equal if not larger number do not reveal a disability or health concern for fear of discrimination.

The trend is that fewer and fewer ministers with significant experience enter into settled search. Most ministers in settled search have two years or less of experience in ministry. For many ministers, they are in families where they are the sole provider in the family, and increasingly, the second income in a family. Often, ministers can look at only one move geographically. Also, many ministers choose to be in places closer to other family as part of their search criteria.They may also look at congregational size, reputation, and type of ministry as important criteria. Almost every minister looks at the compensation figures for salary and benefits of every congregation.

Ministers are likely to have a variety of interests, but most are interested in congregations wanting to make a difference in the world. Most congregations, if they want change at all, want it to happen within their perceived parameters. Increasingly, ministers are more inclined to look at community ministry as a place for making a difference, as they perceive our congregations as places that are more likely to stay in place and want to stay the same (it will be interesting to see how the pandemic and recent protests affect this).

Ministers are and ministry is changing. How will our congregations adjust?

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July 8, 2020

Blog Post #2

Getting Started with Trust: What Makes for a Good Search Committee

First Universalist Unitarian Congregation of East Andersonville, Tennessee, was in the middle of its interim period, gearing up for settled search. The congregation was founded in 1880 by a group of people unhappy with the congregation’s views of the role of women in the church and thus started First Universalist Church of East Andersonville. After meeting in a converted home, the congregation bought land from a member in 1950 and erected a building which has been the basic home (with two additions) to the church.

The newly elected search committee was looking forward to its retreat. Abby, Audrey, Denise, Kurt, Lesley, Mark, and Shay had been posed a question: What makes for an effective search committee? How could they be a team?

Abby, the church elder at 77, has been a member for 50 years. She raised her children in the church. Mark, 69, is a retired architect professor. Kurt, 67, is also retired and is former engineer and a well known atheist. Audrey, 59, is the lone Black person on the committee and has been a member for a decade. She works for country government. Lesley, 55, retired early from HR work for a phone company seeking a quieter life. Denise, 48, is a lesbian mom who grew up in the area and attends to her aging parents as well as being a guidance counselor at a high school in Knoxville. Shay, at 31, is a young adult whose mom is the former RE Director of the church. Shay recently started using gender neutral pronouns.

They all were getting close to their search committee retreat. Kurt had prepared by reading the Settlement Handbook three times. Audrey and Abby had read it once. Mark and Shay had promised to read it. Lesley had looked at the Table of Contents. Mark couldn’t be bothered. He was sure it was poorly designed, and he could get someone to tell him the important stuff anyway.

The thought of finding the next minister for their congregation was exciting to all of them. The details were, of course, less exciting, but still it would be good work to survey the congregation, talk to the members, and interview ministers. The idea of working as a group had a vague appeal to several members, though everyone knew it was important, even if Kurt and Lesley hadn’t always seen eye to eye on things. And they all liked Shay’s mom.

Now, it was getting a little more real. How would they work together?

How a search committee works together is often the strongest impression a minister has of a congregation they have not yet met. Ministers notice little things, like who talks the most. Does one person dominate? Is there someone(s) on the search committee that the rest of the committee ignores, placates, or treats differently? Who does what work and is it shared and shared well? Does the committee listen to each other with the same level of respect? Does one person have to be right? Can the group disagree and still support one another? How does identity come into play in the group’s interactions?

All of this comes about from the beginning of a search committee’s formation. The congregation is generally asked about who they trust to represent the congregation in its ministerial search. An equally important question is how much trust the search committee has in itself, both as a group and in the individual people serving on it (balancing that with the flow of each individual’s whole life beyond the search committee becomes another variable in the process; every year, people’s lives change).

Some things that help:

  • Intentionality/Covenant
  • Listening skills
  • More curiosity/Less judgment
  • Self-awareness (both as individuals and as a group)
  • Common agreements on decisions
  • Understanding the difference between clarity and rigidity
  • Seeing each member as more than a single story
  • Causes and effects over cause and effect
  • Generosity
  • Reliability
  • Courage
  • Creativity
  • Living values (not just stating them)
  • Celebrate and honor

Resources

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”—Maya Angelou

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June 8, 2020

Introduction

“Sliding Doors” is a blog envisioned by UUA staff Patrice Curtis and Keith Kron and is written by Keith and guests. The blog was named by Christine Purcell, and Emily Cherry publishes the posts.

The blog covers many topics related to ministerial and congregational transitions.

The title refers to a moment from the Brené Brown video on “The Anatomy of Trust.” In the Oprah Winfrey Super Soul video, Dr. Brown talks about how the large concept of trust is built in little “Sliding Door” moments, where the small moments and the small decisions are what build or break the larger concept of trust.

“Sliding Doors” comes originally from a 1998 movie in which a woman drops an earring and then rushes to catch a train. The movie shows two lives unfold and how they were radically different depending on whether she caught the train or not.

We think of transition as a big thing, but transitions are made of many little sliding door moments. The basic building blocks to good ministry, good congregational life, and good transitions are a resolve to do no harm; to commit to building trust; and to cultivate for all inclusive and life-affirming Unitarian Universalist communities.

Through the lens of a fictionalized congregational life and ministerial search, we’ll explore sliding door moments. We hope the stories will provide reflections on the reality of the transitions process as we all try to juggle what it means to be a part of our faith, while coping with being a group of well-intentioned people in a quickly changing world.

Christine Purcell, Transitions Program Manager, Congregational Life

Emily Cherry, Transitions Administrator

Rev. Keith Kron, Transitions Director

Rev. Patrice Curtis, Associate Director of Interim Ministries

About the Authors

Keith Kron

Rev. Keith Kron is the Director of the Transitions Office for the Unitarian Universalist Association, helping congregations and ministers as they navigate the ministerial search process. He is the former Director of the Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns for the UUA....

For more information contact .