It’s been an exciting few weeks at church.
It started April 15, when our minister informed us that he was leaving to take the position at the UU church in West Chester. This makes perfect sense. He’s been with our church for 14 years, which as a preacher’s kid I can tell you is a LONG time. I don’t think we ever stayed anywhere longer than 7. And his home and family are there, with a lot of ties and connections there. This is a good move for him, and I can only wish him well.
But I was devastated.
I’ve only had 3 ministers in my entire life, and Dan was the only one I wasn’t related to in some way. Dad, obviously, and Burton, who was my brother Ben’s godfather and a kind of surrogate uncle/grandfather when we were little. I started going to BuxMont because of their pagan circle, but I was hooked when, in the first sermon I heard while I was there, Dan quoted Terry Pratchett. My minister was a geek. I had found a home. Now suddenly he was leaving, and I had to look at how much of me staying was him and how much was the community.
I was already struggling with my decision to wait to become an official member. After 2 months, I already knew this was a comfortable, supportive, encouraging environment, and I was going to stay. But I wanted to see how the annual meeting went. You can tell a lot about a church by how tense the annual meeting is. Talking about money often brings out the worst in people. After Dan’s announcement, though, I changed my mind. A transition of this kind is a big deal, and if I was feeling this invested, then I needed to be in a position to be involved in the process of change. Plus, I kind of wanted to be a tick in Dan’s box. I know it’s not about the numbers, but it was a way of showing him I valued his ministry and it had affected me enough to make me want to join.
I signed the book with 4 days to spare in order to be able to vote at the annual meeting.
That Sunday, my first as a member, Hero was babysitting for both services. So I brought my knitting, planning to attend the first service and knit in the library through the second service. In the announcements for first service, the president of the board of trustees got up and asked for volunteers to serve on the Interim Minister Task Force, to handle all the candidate evaluations and interviews involved in selecting a transitional minister to help clean house before we search for a permanent minister. It’s a UU practice that I think is a great thing. It helps avoid the “rebound boyfriend” syndrome I’ve seen several times in churches. I had talked to Dan during my pre-membership meeting about the possibility of serving on the ministerial search committee, not knowing about the interim thing, and he had kind of put me off the idea, that since I was such a new member, the board would probably want people with more experience. So when Howard made the request, I sighed a little but moved on.
Second service came around, and I was sitting at the table working on my @#$% shawl (that’s another post) when Howard came in and sat at the table across from me. I smiled a little at him, he smiled a little at me, as one does with people you don’t really know. He pulled out a laptop and started working on something. I thought about his call, I thought about what Dan said, I thought about what I wanted. Finally, I cleared my throat and said, “I know I’m a really new member, but I would be happy to serve on the task force if you thought I could be of help.”
He looked startled, but we started talking. I told him about my experience at BuxMont, my background as a PK, my spiritual and professional base. A couple of other people came in, older members who I had actually talked with while contributing to the upcoming auction, and they vouched for me. By the end of the service, he had sent me the schedule for the interim task force and said he’d put my name in to the board when they met on Monday.
By Tuesday, I was on the task force.
Now, when I said the schedule, that makes it sound like there was a lot of time for deliberation, review, strategizing. That is NOT how this went. There was literally 2 weeks from the time that the candidates names were released to the churches they were interested in serving until the time we could offer the position to our first choice. Knock off two days from that for when we had to get our top three choices back to the denomination for evaluation. Take another day or two more to allow the board to review our choices. So we had about 8 days from release day to review, interview and vet our candidates. The Task Force was named on Tuesday, and we met for the first time that Thursday to get to know each other, review the process, and come up with a strategy for how to proceed. And to say various kinds of prayers that good ministers would want to come serve us. I got elected tech expert, as we needed to make a bunch of information about BuxMont available electronically to the candidates, and none of the others were familiar with using Google Docs nor had used Skype very much, which was how we were doing out interviews. I had an all in one computer and a Snowball microphone, so I was the techie. Which, as the baby on the committee (everyone else had been there at least 10 years, one of them for 40!), I was glad to have something concrete to contribute.
Release day came, and with it our first big meeting. Hallelujah (or OMG) but we had EIGHT candidates interested in us! Talk about an embarrassment of riches. So we started combing through the applications, trying to find ways to prioritize which ones we were interested in. They were all really good, and each would bring something a little different to the congregation. There were a lot of debates on what was more important, this thing or that, these benefits over that challenge. We ended up deciding to interview all of them. *crumple* For good or ill, two of the task force members weren’t available over the weekend, so we crammed all but one interview in over the following three days. It was really interesting to see how our thoughts shifted after each interview, how hearing someone speak in person gave such a different impression from what we’d seen in their application packet. All of them brought great ideas to the various challenges we wanted them to address about BuxMont. I made a list. I think we all made lists. Slowly we began to winnow them down. One candidate took themselves out. A couple more weren’t a good fit financially. But slowly we focused in on our three.
That Sunday I got to speak during the first service about how it was going and what the interim ministry was about. I forgot how much I like public speaking. It scares the hell out of me, but I still love it. It’s my roller coaster. And to get to speak about something I was getting so excited about was the best. Of course I was shaking so much when I finished that I almost couldn’t walk in my heels! But I got good feedback from people, and I think I got across some of my enthusiasm. At coffee hour, the task force members ended up gathering in little clumps here and there to whisper considerations and opinions to each other, giving all the candidates code names so we didn’t violate confidentiality. Which was hysterical.
I had to miss the last interview on Monday. I had taken Friday off, both because of these interviews and because I’d had to be up at 3 a.m. to get Hero off for her Disney trip (yet another post!), but I just couldn’t take Monday off as well. When we met that night, I felt really bad because they’d had major technical issues. They ended up having to do the interview by FaceTime on one of the team’s cell phone. We jokingly agreed that it was a test of the candidate’s flexibility and adaptability! So we spent two hours going over all the candidates references, their answers to our interview questions, evaluating them on 5 different criteria, and in the end we all agreed unanimously on our first choice. There was some debate over who should be second and who should be third, but we crossed our fingers that that wouldn’t matter because our first choice would want us, too.
And she did.
Starting at the end of August or beginning of September, the Rev. Dr. Susan Rak will be our interim minister. Susan is currently the interim at First Unitarian in Philadelphia, where she has helped them do some really amazing things and prepared them to call an outstanding, energetic and dedicated settled minister. The task force is so excited about what Susan can bring to BuxMont over the next two years, and I hope we’re passing that excitement on to the rest of the congregation. I am still sorry for the loss of Dan, but I’m practically bouncing with anticipation for the future.
The last hurdle we had to overcome was the passage of the church budget at our annual meeting this past Sunday. Remember what I said earlier about wanting to see how the congregation treats each other at an annual meeting? Yeah, well, ramp that up quite a lot. See, the church had a shortfall on their pledge drive this year, meaning we would be calling an interim while working from a deficit budget. We had heard murmurings that people were going to argue against approving a deficit budget, and the task force was worried how this would affect calling Susan. Howard presented the budget, and there was some stomach knotting debate. Then Tom, one of the trustees, got up and spoke about a plan for how to make up the deficit and build a cushion by the work of a short term task force. Now, Karen, the chair of the interim task force, had asked me before church if I knew anyone new who would be interested in serving in a stewardship capacity. I knew I didn’t have it in me to serve on the stewardship committee, and everyone I knew from the Explorations class I’d been in was still too new or still finding their way to serve. But when Tom said “task force” and “done by September”, I thought of all the ideas we’d heard from all the candidates, ideas I’d gotten from other places, and my hand went up. As did the hands of two other people from the interim task force. And no one else. So I stood up and said that the reason all the volunteers were from the ITF was because we had heard some great new ideas and we wanted to see them implemented and hoped others would be excited enough to want to help with that as well. Afterwards I heard 3 more people volunteered.
So there we are. Less than a month, and I’ve become a rabble-rouser at church. I hope my parents are proud! During one of our early sessions on the ITF, Karen suggested a book called Serving with Grace, which I have since gotten a digital copy of. It’s a great book on leadership development, and on serving your church being a spiritual act. Coming down from the success of the ITF, I really do feel that way. Doing that job was not only an act of service to the church, but was an act of my own personal faith, that service to others is as important, if not more so, than rituals and prayers. It’s a concrete manifestation of our inner life. I’m looking forward to seeing where this path of service takes me.