Sliding Doors: A blog following a congregation in search for its next minister
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/Person of Color (BIPOC). 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?
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:
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
Living values (not just stating them)
Celebrate and honor
“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
June 8, 2020
“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 (https://brenebrown.com/videos/anatomy-trust-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