In March 2013, our beloved minister, Reverend Barbara Smith, announced her intention to retire from Unity Spiritual Center, Westlake, Ohio. Although her announcement was not unexpected, it was most unsettling. Questions from the board of trustees and from the congregation roughly fit into two categories: How should we go about finding a new minister? How should we keep our church going until we find the new minister? Our Transition Consultant helped us answer both questions.
To complete the timeline, in April 2013, we contracted with Reverend Judy Grimes, Unity minister from the Great Lakes Region, to be our Transition Consultant. (Transition Consultants are trained by Unity Worldwide Ministries to assist spiritual communities that are in the process of changing their spiritual leadership.) Rev Barbara officially retired in December 2013. Reverend Joanne Rowden became our next minister in November 2014. What did we do during the eight months between Rev Barbara’s announcement and her retirement when we had both a minister and a Transition Consultant? What did we do during the eleven months before Rev Joanne arrived when we had no minister but had Rev Judy as our consultant?
We put our faith in the power of the process. If the process is right, the end result would be right. We decided to work with a Transition Consultant to guide us through the process. This decision was debated at great length. Arguments against a consultant related to cost, the belief that we had sufficient talent in-house to conduct a search, and the further belief that the process would not take very long. Arguments for a consultant centered on the high goal of finding the next perfect minister and the difficulty of doing that. With Rev Judy’s help, we came to understand there is no such thing as the perfect minister. Donna Metzger, Board President at the time, created the process with Rev Judy’s help to guide us through to the selection of our new minister.
We learned that the process of finding a new minister is not just about searching and hiring. It is also about defining the needs of the church and preparing the congregation for change. I don’t believe defining the needs of the church and preparing the congregation for change would have been possible without the help of our Transition Consultant.
Prior to Reverend Barbara’s Retirement
We set the intention to sustain and protect our Sunday service attendance and tithing numbers by holding very high caliber Sunday services with the best possible guest speakers. The result was that over the eleven months during which we had no minister, our attendance was down by only 2½ percent from the prior eleven months. Both Rev Barbara and Rev Judy suggested names of gifted speakers. Past Board President Terri Brewer provided and scheduled a steady stream of wonderful guest speakers. We even had a suggestion from the suggestion box along the lines of: “Why do we need a minister? The guest speakers are doing just fine.” That is a subject for another time.
We set the intention of keeping the congregation informed as the process moved forward. Toward that end, we presented a brief two-minute board update every other Sunday at the beginning of Sunday services. Announcements were presented by different members of the board so the congregation would receive a broad perspective of what was going on in the church.
We also held a town hall meeting after Sunday services every month so we could update the congregation on the financial status of the church and at the same time answer any questions from congregants. Rev Judy was with us approximately one week each month. We would schedule the town hall meetings for when she was with us so she could hear the process-related questions and help us respond appropriately.
We set the intention of keeping the congregation involved in the process. We wanted interested congregants to have ownership in the outcome. The congregation was invited to spend a Saturday helping to determine the core values of the church. This was an Appreciative Inquiry process and was facilitated by Rev Judy.
We also spent a Saturday with interested congregants reviewing the history of the church. Rev Judy led us through an examination of each ministerial era since Unity Spiritual Center was incorporated at its current location in 1968. To my surprise, there were congregants who have been members since the beginning. There have been six ministers since 1968. Rev Joanne is our seventh minister.
We looked at the good aspects and the not-so-good aspects of each era. The purpose was to come to a better understanding of the characteristics we would prefer in the new minister. We also found some lingering resentments in need of prayer support and resolution. This was a very important and very intense session that would not have been possible without Rev Judy’s help. We called it “Honoring Our Past and Creating Our Future.”
Coincidentally, our Fall Book Study Program was on The “I” of the Storm: Embracing Conflicts, Creating Peace by Rev Gary Simmons. We made sure participants understood that the Fall program that year was a part of the process of finding a new minister. The program was especially helpful to the many participants.
Rev Judy spent a day with the board of trustees on board training. The purpose was to make sure the board clearly understood its responsibilities in the absence of a minister. In anticipation of sending information about Unity Spiritual Center to Unity Worldwide Ministries (UWM), we had to update our bylaws. We called a special membership meeting for that purpose.
After Rev Barbara’s Retirement
Rev Judy advised the board on unfamiliar issues. She was an important part of our leadership team. She took the board through additional training to help us prepare for hiring a new minister.
Rev Judy led interested congregants through a process to update our vision and mission statements. And we set the intention of being proactive in managing the affairs of the church. By that I mean that we decided to address issues as they arose and not to wait for the new minister to solve them.
Before we could open a search for a new minister, we submitted paperwork for the UWM Openings webpage in which we described our church and what we were seeking in a minister. Donna Metzger did a wonderful job with that project.
A search team, independent of the board, was formed. Rev Judy worked with the search team to help them hone their interviewing techniques. The first round of interviews was via Skype. Rev Judy role-played being a candidate. In that role, she not only answered questions from the search team but also asked questions of the search team. The team was much stronger for the experience.
Shortly after Rev Barbara retired, I become president of the board of trustees. I consulted with Rev Judy frequently. I felt we were in good hands. I believed our process was a good one. I knew the outcome would be wonderful. As I said to the congregation when I announced the name of our new minister, it seemed that the result of our work and our long wait was inevitable Divine Order. Certainly the successful outcome of the process was divine. Rev Judy, our Transition Consultant, played a very large role in that success. We are grateful for her help.