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Ministerial changes in process at 5 N.J. Unitarian Universalist congregations

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Five New Jersey Unitarian Universalist congregations are undergoing or are about to undergo ministerial changes. For a congregation, a change at the top can be anxiety-provoking, but Unitarian Universalism’s unique process of selecting a minister is designed to match congregations with the right minister and re-energize a church.

In Mercer County, Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington Crossing is nearing the end of the transition process. On May 4, its members voted 155–0 to affirm Rev. Kim Wildszewski as their 17th permanent (or, in UU parlance, a settled) minister. Wildszewski, who has been assistant minister of congregational life at the Unitarian Church at Summit since 2011, will join the Titusville congregation in August. She replaces Rev. Jennifer Brooks, UUCWC’s transitional, or interim, minister, who moves on to the same role at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, Va.

Wildszewski’s Summit congregation is going through a double dose of change. Summit’s parish minister, Rev. Vanessa Rush Southern, recently announced that she is leaving her position of 13 years to devote time to writing and study. Those same pursuits are also in the plans for Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon, who has announced his intention to leave the First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County, in Baptistown.

Both congregations will receive interim ministers while beginning the process of searching for a settled minister. Rev. Terry Sweetzer, a 40-year UU minister and vice president of stewardship and development at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), will become Summit’s interim minister. Rev. Larry Smith, most recently interim minister at the UU Fellowship of Newark, Del., will assume the same role at Hunterdon County.

The other two New Jersey Unitarian Universalist churches undergoing ministerial transitions are the UU Congregation of the South Jersey Shore, in Galloway, and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair. South Jersey Shore is a smaller congregation that employs a three-quarter time minister. That position opens in August. Montclair, a relatively large congregation, begins the search for an interim minster later this year, as longtime senior minister Rev. Charles Ortman, will retire in 2015.

A remarkable process

Buddhism reminds us that nothing is permanent except impermanence, yet a minister’s departure inevitably promotes grief, loss, and soul searching within a congregation. Regardless of whether the minister left on good terms, it is a loss — and losses not dealt with manifest themselves in unexpected ways. In congregational life, this can emerge as conflict or as a lack of spirit.

The UUA handles this by matching congregations with a transitional minister for one or two years while the congregation forms a search committee to hire a settled minister. The transition period allows a congregation time to grieve, work with a transitional minister on issues that might have been unspoken or unaddressed by a previous leader, and re-evaluate its course. In the end, the congregation is in a better place to welcome a settled minster — outside of the shadow of his or her predecessor.

The search committee has an arduous job. It asks the congregation what qualities it wants in a minister, works with the UUA to find appropriate candidates, conducts interviews with candidates, and travels incognito to listen to its finalists preach at the pulpit. The process requires 250 to 400 volunteer hours per person. In the end, the committee invites one finalist to preach at its church on two consecutive Sundays. Between Sundays, the ministerial candidate participates in a whirlwind of meetings with congregants, committees, and the board.

After the second Sunday sermon, the congregation votes whether to affirm the search committee’s choice. A vote of 95% or higher is generally recommended for affirmation.

It’s a remarkable process that differs from many organized religions, whose central governing bodies select the leader for the congregation. The process is in keeping with UU’s fifth principle, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”

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