Bev loaned me the book Search: A Novel (Penguin, 2022), by Michelle Huneven. Search is the story of a ministerial search committee in a Unitarian Universalist congregation in southern California during their year-long process to find someone to replace their retiring minister. Michelle Huneven actually served on a ministerial search committee, and the book is a fictionalized account of her experiences. Bev, who loaned me the book, is a long-time lay leader who has lived through six different ministerial searches in the past quarter century. She told me that I really need to read this book. So I did.
(Spoiler alert: I’m going to reveal key elements of the book’s plot. Continue at your own risk.)
The most important thing to say right up front is that Michelle Huneven is a really good writer. She keeps the story moving and she has a journalist’s ability to report convincing dialogue. But her real strength lies in her characterizations. The ministerial candidates interviewed by the search committee are fictionalized and heavily disguised, but I recognized them all. I don’t mean I know who the originals are on whom she based these characters; but I know people just like them.
Like the drunken, philandering older man she calls Bert Share, the guy who tries to meddle in the search process to get his favored candidate in — I know a couple of ministers just like him, people I avoid at all costs. The dignified older non-white minister of great spiritual depth and wide experience — I know of a couple of ministers similar to her, people who occupy a denominational stratum far above mine, and whom I think of as helping hold the denomination together against the centripetal forces which constantly threaten to tear it apart. The thirty-something, super-bright, charismatic and somewhat narcissistic graduate of Harvard Divinity School who has powerful friends in the denominational hierarchy but not a lot of practical ministry skills — I know several of them as well. All these ministerial characters are so skillfully drawn that this book could be used as a case study in a class in practical ministry in some theological school.
The characters of the lay people on the committee are also skillfully drawn. At the center of the book is a twenty-something woman who grew up in Unitarian Universalist youth programs, and who demands a radical rethinking of Unitarian Universalist practice; her “radical rethinking” seems to involve shaping the congregation to her own personal desires, and she manipulates the consensus process to get what she wants — I have met several real people just like this fictional person, in different ages, genders, and races. The hapless committee member whose only qualification appears to be that he’s a relative of the congregation’s First Family — I’ve met him more than once. The self-absorbed committee member whose only concern seems to be his pet project in the church, and who never completes the committee tasks assigned to him — I’ve met him, too.
I appreciate, too, that Michelle Huneven doesn’t shy away from the grim realities of human life: pain, dementia, drug addiction, selfishness, manipulation, narcissism, willful ignorance. I especially appreciate her deft sketches of ministerial misconduct. I already mentioned the drunken philandering minister. There’s also the minister who finds creative ways to steal money. There’s the incumbent minister who ever-so-gently (but unethically, in my view) tries to influence the search process. There’s the ambitious young minister who lets an older mentor write the sermons she uses during her job search. And there are several examples of ministers who blur professional and personal relationships in ways that are never exactly unethical, but which often made me uncomfortable. The only minister about whom I had no ethical doubts was that dignified older non-white minister of great spiritual depth and wide experience; and sadly I felt almost no personal connection to, or personal liking of, her.
Personally, I was fascinated by the book because while I’ve seen the search process as a minister, I’ve never seen the other side of the process. I couldn’t help seeing how a ministerial search committee can be a terrible waste of excellent volunteers: at the end of the search process, several of the committee members wind up leaving, or drastically reducing participation in, the congregation. Early on in the book, one of the consultants who works with the search committee describes how ministers are placed among the Methodists, and says that searches conducted by professionals are generally more successful than searches conducted by amateurs.
Which brings me to the blatant ageism exhibited by members of the search committee in the book. I wasn’t surprised by this, as ageism is very much a feature of all job searches throughout nonprofit and for-profit worlds. But I couldn’t help seeing the contradiction between the blatant ageism on the one hand, and the principles of the “Beyond Categorical Thinking” workshop that the committee members completed. And I was seriously disturbed by the way all older women (of any race) were categorically dismissed by the twenty-something woman on the search committee, so that in addition to the stench of ageism there was more than a whiff of internalized sexism.
So many things went wrong with this search. At the congregational level, the congregation refused to have an interim minister, even though they obviously needed one. The congregation violated its own bylaws by putting people on the committee who did not meet the criteria of the bylaws. At least two members of the search committee were on it because of family money. The search committee had too many members. The members of the search committee abused the consensus process. But the congregation shouldn’t bear all the blame. The recommended process for Unitarian Universalist ministerial searches is long, cumbersome, expensive, and uses too many volunteer hours. That would be acceptable if it always resulted in good matches between minister and congregation, but — as we see in this book — too often ministerial searches result in poor matches. Then too, the search process outlined in this book ended with members of the search committee voting against the candidate. It also ended in members of the search committee leaving the congregation, and even leaving Unitarian Universalism.
Yet the fact that so many things went wrong in the search makes this a good novel. In the face of everything going wrong, what happens to the relationships between the characters? Some of the characters manage to grow and change for the better, but for some of them, the disaster of the search simply reinforces some of their bad characteristics. Relationships are strained and even broken. And if it’s this bad in an organization that’s supposed to nurture higher values and our common humanity, what hope is there in modern society? What hope is there that we can form trusting human connections when the very structure of society seems to conspire against genuine connection?
Maybe that’s why Michelle Huneven includes recipes at the end of the book — perhaps our only hope of real connection is through physical things like food.