Dear Unitarian Universalist Search Committees

‘Tis the season for search! And since I am not in search, haven’t been for five years and do not intend to be for the forseeable future, let me spill some tea for those of you dedicated laypeople who are serving on your congregation’s search committees.

I am going to be blunt because that’s my style and because we are in a religious tradition that practices WASP emotional culture, which means that we often communicate in vague or excessively “nice” terms unless we’re outright arguing about something.  It is a communication style that privileges the highly emotionally controlled  and poker faced, and creates subtle power jousting in place of open and forthright conversation. I have always hated it (see Waking Up White By Debby Irving for an engaging personal analysis of white New England emotional culture).

If you don’t know what your team or your congregation’s emotional culture is or how it is informed by your congregation’s ethnic, racial, economic, geographic and historical context, I highly recommend working with Essential Partners, whose Executive Director, the Rev. Parisa Parsa is a UU minister and fantastic facilitator.

When it comes to ministerial search, UUs are pretty thoroughly grounded in 19th century mentality and archetypal consciousness. I know this because I have been studying the evolution of American liberal religious clergy archetype for decades (with particular focus on New England Congregationalist traditions, of which we are part) and I can confidently say that while UUs are catching up to the 21st century in some ways, we are very far behind that in terms of ministerial search and call: both the process and the way we evaluate ministers. We know intellectually that ministers have a very different job now than they did at the end of the 19th century, but our hearts and imaginations are still attached to the expectations of yesteryear.

We want a scholar who can wax eloquent on literature, the Bible, theology, and the latest Bill McKibbon piece. We want a warm pastor who knows everyone and makes a lot of personal visits (even though people are not home these days and if they are, an unscheduled guest is an unwelcome intrusion). We want our minister to attend all leadership meetings, all programs, all social justice actions, community interfaith organizations, and local events we’d like to see them at. We want a fabulous preacher and a creative liturgist. We want a whizbang financial expert and fundraiser. We want someone who is strong but not so strong that they can’t be controlled or managed by disapproval, we want someone visionary but not so much that they move us beyond our comfort zone, someone challenging but not too demanding, and someone spiritual but not too religious.

We want someone who is available 24/7 to respond to “my” e-mails but who faithfully observes their day off to model healthy self-care. Winking face emoji here.

The question, “How many evenings a week do you feel it is wise and fair to expect a minister to be out doing church business, and what do you consider church business” should be at the top of your interview questions. It will generate a crucial conversation, I promise you. I also promise you that this question will not have been part of the congregation’s survey, which asks the congregation what they want, and says not a word about what they intend to do to manage their own expectations or to contribute to the next minister’s effectiveness. Here’s a fun fact: when I was ordained in 1997, we got in touch with people in person and on the phone. Very occasionally, paper note or letter. Today, I respond to messages by phone on three phone lines and voice mail accounts, by e-mail, text message and Facebook messenger. Sometimes by letter. The resulting stress around keeping communications organized is profound and unprecedented in history.

Search Committees and church leaders need to know that ministry has changed radically since Ferguson for most Unitarian Universalist ministers. Please make room to have that conversation. Many of us have been engaged in anti-racism and social justice work and learning for a long time, but community organizing and engagement has become exponentially more intense and demanding since the election of Trump.

If I may make a side rant (and I am going to) I would opine that the Congregational Survey that accompanies the great Ministerial Search is actually a fairly appalling document, as it encourage individualistic, consumeristic notions about what a ministerial search really is and what it should accomplish. It leads each individual person who fills out the survey into a spirit of entitlement: “What would YOU like? What do YOU want to see?” and should be jettisoned in favor of congregational discernment led by leaders or facilitators over a series of community meetings so as to determine the congregation’s vision of ministry, mission and priorities. The outcomes and consensus from these meetings should be shared with the candidates, who then have a far more accurate sense of the job they’d be signing on to do than is provided by a collection of personal, individual opinions.

All that said, my love and respect and gratitude go out to you, Search Committee members! I am of the opinion that you are working way too hard and for far too long on finding your next minister, and that upsets me for you. You are sacrificing endless nights and weekends to a ridiculously overwrought and prolonged process that was designed during an era when ministerial tenures were far longer than they are today, when the church enjoyed a place of prominence in society that it no longer has, and when reasonable expectations for volunteer engagement were completely different than they are now.

I am not sure what the average tenure is for Unitarian Universalist parish ministry but I believe it’s around six to eight years. This means that congregations are responsible around every five or so years for recruiting a Search Committee that will labor for one to two years to settle a minister who serves for only three or four times that long. Something’s gotta give, and I am looking forward to seeing what UUA Settlement Director, the Rev. Keith Kron, and others, figure out.

Dear Search Committees, the internet has changed everything about the way we do search. Much of it is positive development, allowing ministers and lay people to know more about each other, to explore the wider communities each one comes from, and to share materials extremely easily. I think this is a wonderful thing, and I remember with gratitude and fondness how often the Search Committee Chair of my current congregation and I checked in about small details relating to pre-candidating and also larger questions about each other. I was able to ask her questions for the entire committee that she was able to respond to within 24 hours. This rapidity was a help in our discernment process.

And yet the internet has also opened the door to many legitimate questions regarding public ministry, use of social media and published materials on websites. Please leave room in your interview process to explore these topics. Some questions you might consider are:

How do you use social media in your ministry, if at all?

Is there anything about you or by you floating around the internet that you think we should know about?

How do you use the various social media platforms differently (e-mail, blogging, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.), and how do you anticipate using them in your role as the minister of our congregation? How will that be different from your personal use or independent on-line ministry?

Search Committee, you should ask your prospects about their administrative skills and expectations. Will they be expected to keep posted office hours in the church building? Why? Will they be chief of staff or a “kind of” supervisor without the authority to hire and fire employees? Who is currently on the staff, how long have they been there, and are they regularly evaluated? By whom and using what tools?

Staff administration is one of the areas that Search Committees tend not to think about much at all, as it is one of the least known and understood aspects of professional ministry. Congregational surveys generally do not address it, but it is one of the areas of church life that can blow up the fastest and lead to protracted conflict, congregational fracturing and resignation. Ministerial candidates should ask about the staff: who are they, are they members of the church, do they have fan clubs or fiefdoms, are there conflicts with the minister in the past that the candidate should know about.

Dear Search Committee, please do not obsess or experience undue anxiety about the theological orientation of your candidate. If they are grounded in Unitarian Universalist religious life and have served successfully as parish ministers, they know how to minister to a theologically pluralistic congregation. Focus not so much on theology but on talent, excellence of communication skills, strength in writing and delivery, and relationality. Look for depth. Look for someone who is able to speak in passionate, coherent, theologically grounded terms about our movement, the purpose of the church in society at this moment in history and in your local context. Ministers are living beings just as we serve a living tradition. If you parse their old sermons for evidence that they’re “too Christian” or “too humanist” or “too mystical” for your congregation (which probably means for you, personally, be honest), you are doing your search process a disservice. Preachers preach to a specific congregation, not for the general public.  The minister’s former congregation is not yours; the people and the pastoral relationships will be different in every UU setting. It is a general feature of good Unitarian Universalist ministers to find language that ministers to a variety of communities without sacrificing their own integrity.

Dear Search Committee, a minister cannot “grow your congregation.” Only the congregation can do that. If you pose that question to your candidate, I hope the candidate asks you the same question: what is the congregation doing to share its ministry outside its walls, what is the congregation doing within the church to promote fellowship, meeting new people, integrating them into the life of the congregation, creating meaningful relationships, sharing spiritual growth? Some of this happens through programming and through the work of professionals: if I was in search I would want to hear about how, but mostly I would want to hear an honest assessment of the lay people’s ethos of hospitality and evangelism. If it’s lacking, that’s okay. It’s important to know. It’s not unusual and it’s not a crime. But it’s essential that all who love the Church to know that its health and vibrancy and growth is the work of ALL who minister — and that’s everyone, not just the ordained. A new minister should be someone you feel can articulate this in a life-giving and inspirational way, not do it for the church.

Now, I can say this because I serve a blessedly well-endowed congregation and am very well compensated: Unitarian Universalists are notoriously cheap. Despite the Rev. Ralph Mero’s and other concerned advocates for clergy financial stability hard work for many years to address the issue of fair compensation for religious professionals in our Assocation (and that includes religious educators, church staff and musicians), Unitarian Universalists are still too often trying to save a buck to keep their churches open.

This is misguided and unethical. Let me speak some truth to you about the work of ministry: there is no such thing as “2/3” or “3/4 time” ministry. It is a mythical beast, somewhat akin to the Sasquatch or the Loch Ness Monster. Ministry means being available when people need you, and it is therefore impossible to carve out a week with clearly delineated time off and time on.

For example, Fridays are my day off. Is this to mean that I am to ignore all of the responses to phone calls or emails that I sent out on Wednesday that arrive in my inbox on Friday? Of course it can’t mean that, unless I am to expect our church staff and everyone else to cool their heels while I ignore everything for a day. What about the person who is in pain and reaches out? I respond. What about the ministry team that meets on Fridays and needs the minister to attend and support them? Because I am employed full time, with full benefits, vacation time, and an extremely supportive and talented staff, I can swap days off to meet the needs of the congregation and my own schedule. A part time minister has a much harder time accomplishing this, and winds up giving many extra hours of unpaid labor.

I came out of seminary with $70,000 of debt (and that was just for my M.Div.). This is not unusual. The Unitarian Universalist ministerial formation process is extremely expensive and the subsequent paychecks generally not stupendous. Please work faithfully with your candidates to find a fair wage and clear expectations for their work week and year.

If your congregation cannot afford full-time ministry, that is nothing to be ashamed of. It merely means that the laity must be engaged and clear about the scope of their own and the minister’s roles and responsibilites. It means that you must set aside a little bit of extra time on a regular basis to check in with your part time minister about whether or not the “part time” status is real and true, or if they are finding that the work of the church is seeping into their every day in ways that seem to demand response and involvement.

I think that is enough for now, dear Search Committee member and ministers in search. There is much more to say but this will do for a part one of what may become a longer series.

Good luck! Blessings on your work and your discernment!

5 Replies to “Dear Unitarian Universalist Search Committees”

  1. Oh so right on. Hard to be a congregation president in the 21st Century t00 – as we still tend to have agenda that look like what Ward and June Cleaver might have seen had either one of them been on their church Board back in the 1960s.
    [Lynda! I grew up in the UU Westport Church! Hi! – PB]

  2. It sounds like you don’t like us rank-and-file UUs all that much. Lots of UU leaders these days speak as though they have a low opinion of us everyday UUs. [All UUs are “rank and file everyday” UUs. I hope you got something of value out of this column, but it sounds as though you read defensively. – PB]

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