Last summer, East Shore UU Church in Kirtland, Ohio had just been through a very difficult year. Along with the continued challenges with the pandemic, they had to say goodbye to their developmental minister after 5 years. The search for a new minister ended in disappointment, with no viable candidates available.
East Shore is part of a cluster of congregations in the greater Cleveland area. The ministers in the area meet regularly. After they learned about East Shore’s situation from the departing minister, the Rev. Denis LeTourneau Paul, a few colleagues offered to help.
I met with the church leadership and asked if they would be willing to try an experiment where we would have a team of very part time ministers work with them for the upcoming year. The leaders were appropriately skeptical, but they were willing to give it a try.
I then met with the four local ministers who had offered help: one retired minister (Rev. George Buchanan), two ministers who were full time chaplains at the local Veterans Administration hospital (Rev. Rina Shere and Rev. Joe Donatone), and one parish minister who was serving another local congregation full time (Rev. Meg Mathieson). We spent some time talking about each minister’s gifts and how much time and energy they might be able to share with East Shore. I also helped draft a sample memo of understanding (google doc) (MoU) that we modified for each minister’s availability. These MoUs were key to clearly communicating expectations around responsibilities and available hours, as well as specifying the financial compensation for this complicated arrangement.
I brought the four MoUs of understanding back to the congregation’s board, and the leadership took it from there. The finance folks figured out how much ministry they could afford, and the committee on ministry assessed the congregation’s needs, and worked out the details of the memos of understanding with the individual ministers. The board decided to commit to four months, after which they would revisit the arrangement with each minister. They also increased the hours of the Religious Educator, Halcyon Domanski, who helped with Sunday services and provided pastoral care with families.
The two chaplain ministers held a Saturday grief workshop for the congregation, which helped to set a tone of trust and vulnerability for the year. Two of the ministers were available up to two hours weekly (each, for a total of four hours) for pastoral care. Rev. Joe preached regularly (once a month) with sermon preparation time being part of his MoU. The other ministers preached occasionally. Rev. Joe met with the Committee on Ministry, Rev. George met with the board and Religious Educator. I (in my role as primary contact) met twice a month with the board chair, Mary Mason.
At the four month mark, the congregation made a few adjustments for the renewed MoUs for the remainder of the church year. They decided to ask Rev. Meg to work with the worship arts team, and they included extra paid time for the four ministers to meet monthly with one another.
What Went Well
- Scheduling a monthly 60 minute meeting among the ministers greatly improved communication.
- The ministers were able to play to their strengths and complemented each other, but no one of them acted as a strong leader. This was a great model of leadership and has rubbed off on the congregation.
- Members liked having different ministers with different personalities. It felt like everyone could find a minister that they resonated with.
- The congregation felt like they had an abundance of support.
- The committee on ministry had a significant role in coordination – complimented the work of the board.
- The congregation developed a stronger sense of ownership of the ministry and improved their self-confidence and resilience.
What We Learned
- The ministers were very busy people who were taking on a lot of extra responsibility, so they needed to have strong boundaries around their time, so they were only able to offer a light touch. The congregation stepped up, with strong leadership on both the board and committee on ministry helping to make the arrangement work.
- Giving 6 hours a month was the limit for a full-time parish minister from another congregation.
- Giving 15 hours (with 6 hours as sermon preparation) was the limit for a full-time chaplain.
- It would have been better to have an MoU for the full year, with a clause to renegotiate it as needed. The original 4 month term created some anxiety.
- This worked for a year, but it would be difficult to make this arrangement work long-term.
- The newsletter didn’t get the attention it used to. There wasn’t time for any of the ministers to write articles, and the sermon topics didn’t make it in.
- The congregation needs to pay attention to keep leaders from burning out.
- The key to making something like this work is patience and perseverance.