Search – by Michelle Huneven – independent book review – Fiction

SEARCH is a novel that takes a deep dive into the 1-2 year process most Unitarian-Universalist (UU) churches follow when choosing a new minister. It’s written from the point of view of a fictional food critic (Dana Potowski, who I imagine acts as the author’s alter ego) who serves on that church’s search committee. Dana is one of eight people, chosen to represent the wider congregation, who work together to select a ministerial candidate they then present to the full congregation, for them to meet and vote on. Awarded three stars on Goodreads.

I too have participated in a ministerial search committee at my own UU church. I also subsequently acted as a volunteer coach helping about a dozen other UU churches navigate their ministerial searches. So, heads up. It is impossible for me to review this book without drawing on my own experience. And I find myself eager to defend a prescribed process I came to deeply respect.

All the steps described in the novel (creating online profiles, reviewing more detailed packets, conducting Skype interviews, arranging pre-candidating weekends, making reference checks, planning candidating week, etc.) were the same ones my group followed. But Dana’s experience of the search process could not be more different than my own! And most of those differences come because both the lay leadership of Dana’s congregation and the search committee members themselves ignored recommended practices.

Just a few examples:

• In the book, lay leaders were not even careful selecting search committee members. They chose one person who was not a member of the church and another who knew nothing about the church. A third member was an outright bully. Serving on a search committee is an honor. Searchers are supposed to be picked because they know the congregation, represent different interests in the congregation, bring specific skills needed to tackle the work (like writing, web skills, survey analysis experience, etc.), and have the abilities to be both open-minded and collaborative.

• Both the sitting minister at Dana’s church and a second “outside” minister tried to solicit information and/or influence the outcome, even though confidentiality among search members if supposed to sacrosanct.

• Regardless of whatever individual preferences members of the committee have at the start of the search process, once work begins they are supposed to set their personal wishes aside and be guided by the extensive input they collect from the wider congregation. This was my experience. But members of Dana’s fictional committee rigidly held onto their personal preferences and disrespected one another throughout — to the detriment of the outcome.

It is my sincere hope that Huneven intentionally strayed from the truth of her own experience in order to craft a more dramatic narrative. Conflict, after all, works in a novel. But her characters are not all that likeable, never gel as a cooperative working group, and make the actual search process look like a cross between fraternity rush week and a Thanksgiving dinner with a small dysfunctional family. So I found it was not much fun to read.

Michelle Huneven

And speaking of food, while I recognize that Huneven’s decided to make her protagonist a food critic, did there need to be so SO much information (including a bunch of recipes) about the food this search committee ate? You would have thought that the food prepared for each meeting was more important than their decision making process.

Bottom line – even putting aside that my own experience with ministerial search prevents me from being an impartial reviewer — I still can’t say I found the novel particularly compelling. I felt obligated to finish it. I hoped the novel would eventually capture the deep thoughtfulness, care, and responsibility that actually goes into the work. But instead, my lasting impression is that I had just spent WAY too much time with a group of mean-spirited, weak, and unqualified people who made a sham of the diligent process I experienced.

If you happen to be on a UU search committee, you might want to read this. You’ll learn what NOT to do. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother. Either way, don’t walk away thinking this book portrays what a typical search process is like.

More about the author, Michelle Huneven.

You may be interested in my review of another novel by Huneven, OFF COURSE.

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