The UU Search And Call Process

Our ministerial search process is unwieldy and downright crazy. The UUA Director of Settlement, Rev. Keith Kron, and I have had conversations over the years about how much time and energy it takes our congregations to settle a parish minister. Anyone who is paying attention to this issue is well aware that the enormity of the undertaking is out of proportion to the size of our congregations, the level of experience and availability of their active members, and especially the typical length of tenure in our pulpits. I will check with Keith, who will hopefully comment here, but I believe the average tenure in UU congregations is about six years. If UCC folks can chime in about your statistics, I would love to know!

My comments and observations are those of a clergyperson who has served full time in the parish for twenty-five years and been in the search process twice. Along the way I also earned a Doctor of Ministry degree, focusing my dissertation on the origins of the church covenant as the organizing document of the original New England congregational Puritan churches, and the continued relevance of covenants today. I am what you might call a nerd of congregational polity, especially as is practiced by UCC and Unitarian Universalists, who share a common historical origin.

I am also a clergy consultant and have been a congregational consultant, although not very much in the past decade. I maintain an avid care and curiosity about the health of the liberal church and am deeply concerned that our search and call process is working against our congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association. The fact that there were more open pulpits than available interim ministers this past season alarmed me. I got back to thinking seriously about this issue.

An informal scan through the church openings for parish ministry on the UUA website reveals a heartening trend toward multiple categories of ministerial hiring options: contract ministers, interim ministers, developmental ministers. Although I haven’t studied the intricacies of all of these categories, they apparently allow for more flexibility in getting a clergyperson on board without assembling a large Search Committee who will be expected to earnestly labor over at least a full year to assemble a complicated congregational survey (that doesn’t reveal many of the most salient realities about the congregation), comb through interminable ministerial profiles (that don’t reveal many of the most salient realities about the applicant), and ultimately organize a series of (expensive!) weekends for the arcane ritual known as pre-candidating. After yet more hours sequestered in an undisclosed location and having sworn utter secrecy unto the death about those under consideration, the Search Committee chooses one Candidate, whom they are then bound by blood oath to present to the congregation with the enthusiasm of Yente the Matchmaker trying to earn her commission from Lazar Wolf the Butcher by arranging a betrothal between himself and Tevye’s eldest daughter Tzeitel.

This all culminates in an exhausting torture known as Candidating Week, where the congregation tap dances charmingly and the Candidate tap dances charmingly, the minister looks around to see if they can afford to live in the community, the board and miinster hammer out details of the Letter of Agreement, and everyone goes to way too many gatherings and meetings. At the second Sunday, the minister leads a second worship service after which they vamoose out of the building and the voting members of the congregation decide whether or not to elect them as their settled minister.

No one will ever remember or care about this unless I’m around, but if the vote goes well and the congregation extends a call that is accepted, the clergyperson becomes the MINISTER-ELECT of the church until such time as they are formally installed.

As I said, I am a nerd who spends a considerable amount of time thinking about the 17th century origins of congregationalism, and I hold as sacred the freedom of the local congregation to call (and to dismiss, if necessary) its own minister. I just don’t think that it needs to be such a sadistic exercise to get everyone to that vote.

PeaceBang’s Suggested Candidating Process

Saturday afternoon: The candidate arrives with family. Dinner with search committee.

Sunday morning: Candidate leads worship service. Coffee hour.

Lunch break.

Evening forum with the candidate. Congregation submits questions to the organizers who break them into categories and eliminates duplicates in advance. Suggested topics: theology, vision of church, adult faith formation, community engagement, social justice vision. Let the candidate demonstrate that they have done some homework perusing the congregation’s materials. This is not a time for the candidate to start getting to know the congregation, but a demonstration that they are reasonably acquainted with the major issues and initiatives.

Monday

Zoom (and perhaps a few phone calls) with groups of parishioners who were unable to attend in person. Getting-to-know-you.

Monday evening: Dinner with the Board or Parish Committee. Items for discussion: Letter of Agreement, special attention to compensation and benefits, clear understanding of vacation/time off/days off, staff structure, reporting and evaluation methods.

Tuesday: Day at church starting late morning. Meet with staff as group and one-on-one where recommended. Detailed building tour.

Done by 5PM. Candidate explore community.

Wednesday: Community meetings with partner organizations, local clergy, mutual aid societies, etc.

Evening: Children and youth drop-in or other activity. Meet with faith development lay leaders, teachers, OWL teachers, etc.

Thursday: Daytime, check in with board leaders, search committee, anyone who has unfinished business.

7PM Congregation convenes for vespers or meditation service, meeting and vote.

Here is some of the rationale for this abbreviated candidating process:

  1. When we treat candidating as an opportunity for various “constituencies” within the church to interview a minister, we are setting up the church and the minister for a fragmented experience and therefore, failure. There should not be silos of church groups meeting separately with the minister to assess their fitness for the position. The church is not a collection of special interest groups. Everyone meets and discerns the rightness of the fit together as the holistic entity they should be (or should aspire to be).
  2. Ministers in search very likely already have demanding jobs. Expecting anyone to take an entire week off of work, inclusive of two consecutive weekends, is incredibly presumptuous and creates a huge financial and logistical imposition on anyone who isn’t already serving in a parish setting.
  3. By eliminating a second worship service, you eliminate the need for the candidate to schedule almost an entire day for worship prep.
  4. You are not choosing a life partner, messiah or lifetime appointee. You are choosing a human being who is hopefully very qualified, sincere and dedicated to the possibility of working with your congregation in good faith for the next 5-7 years to help it live into its mission.
  5. An abbreviated candidating process helps alleviate some of the incredible and outsized stress assumed by the Search Committee and other church leaders, an especially important consideration in these times.

10 Replies to “The UU Search And Call Process”

  1. This is excellent and spot on! I’ve believed for years that congregations spend WAAAY too much time, money, and energy in the search process for a settled minister. I’ve been through two searches and am a UU minister finishing my 11th year. And your description of the search process is too accurate (the touches of humor are delightful!) The whole process is torture actually, exhausting, frustrating, and doesn’t always reveal what a congregation and minister should know about each other. Like some of the other ways we do church (as you pointed out in another very well written reflection) we are operating in a 19th century or even as late as 1950’s model. Our search process seems to still be based on the idea that a minister will serve a congregation for 20 or 25 years, which is not the reality these days. From what I’ve read, the average shelf life of a minister is now 5-7 years, regardless of denomination. I also believe that the search process for an interim minister is too limited and needs to be revisited. I’ve witnessed firsthand how a poor interim minister can do an incredible amount of damage to a congregation in a year or even less.

  2. The UUA was preparing seminarians for a predicted lack of ministers when I was in theological school 15 years ago. While the pandemic hastened the retirement of a generation of ministers that had been delayed by the housing market crisis in 2008, the situation our congregations find themselves in now should not have come as a surprise, at least to the UUA Transitions Office. This is what happens when a faith fails to adequately invest in or support ministry. And it’s not something that individual congregations can really address.

    To get to my main point, if it’s clear the current process isn’t working well or cost effective for congregations, is a burden on candidating ministers, and we’ve known for at least 15 years that this sort of situation was coming, then why hasn’t work to update it begun already? Also, if Keith recognizes the problems in the current search process, then what structural barriers exist that are holding this back? In other words, is there some other authority whose blessing everyone is waiting for to cut bait here?

  3. This scheme is abbreviated well, but leaves insufficient time for the candidate and family to explore the area and determine if they can live there, or afford to live there.

  4. Abbreviating the candidating process would actually *free up time* for exploring the area.

    This raises the interesting new phenomenon of clergy realizing they can’t afford to live anywhere near the congregation and choosing to find a home quite far away. We’re seeing this in Eastern MA and I’ll be curious to see what happens elsewhere with settled ministries in an era of declining membership and budgets. More to your point though, the internet makes it possible to do a tremendous amount of research in advance of the visit.

  5. Having gone through the canidating week five times, I confess that I liked preaching two Sundays because there was always the danger that I would mess one of the sermons. In general, however, I often wondered if the process would work just as well by the search committee putting the names of the ministers on slips of paper in a hat and picking one at random.

  6. Great proposal.
    Note that more congregations are going the route of contract ministry and conducting a hiring process that looks more like the hiring process outside of ministry. Less costly, lower stakes, all can part ways after a year if things aren’t working ideally.

  7. Sometimes it seems like that. There’s a LOT of fantasy dating psychology happening on both sides of the considerations! Good to hear from you!

  8. I’m so glad to read a thoughtful piece about this. My own path to a very fulfilling, called ministry was through a part-time contract ministry. For the first four years, I had an annual contract. Beginning our fifth year, we really knew one another. We’d been through many celebrations and a few disappointments and disagreements. And we knew we had a high level of trust and were a good complement to each other. The fifth year was our “contract to call” year, which ended with the call and my Installation. This summer/fall we are celebrating our 10th ministry anniversary, and we still share lots of dreams and plans of loving the world from the heart of Pasadena. I’m glad the UUA is welcoming more models of how congregations choose, hire, or call ministry professionals.

  9. I can get worked up over the way we use the term “Settled.” While I haven’t studied any of this in ages, I believe that it used to be the case that a New England congregation would land a Minister for Life with a mutually agreed “settlement” that was typically a one-time gift of land or wood lot or house or lump sum of cash, maybe some livestock. Plus whatever annual compensation was going to happen, usually minimal. In other words, set them up to sustain themselves and family. I prefer “Called Ministry” over Settled. I do like the abbreviated candidate schedule, and the rationale for not catering to all the interest groups.

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