The Future is Nigh!

a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely October 27,2019

Our theme for this month, borrowed from last weekend’s Western regional Fall Gathering, has been Towards a Thriving Future.  Now, for the last two decades I would have been planning that future with you.  We have done that several times when the congregation engaged in strategic planning processes, almost always involving our current President, Karen Mills. 

I never led those activities.  Future planning is the work of the congregation, not the minister.  My role was to only advise, encourage, voice my opinions as a private member and ultimately assist in implementation.  You say where you want to go, and I do what I can to help you get there.  Except, not this time.  

Now, I am a big noisy guy who has occasionally been told he speaks well.  From time to time, some have been under the impression that I have been the leader and the lead decision maker.  That’s not true.  Still, the perception is there.  When we moved into this space I was congratulated by one member,  “Well, you are finally getting your building.”  Oddly, that hurt a bit.  My former congregation, South Fraser in Surrey, BC, met in a rented community hall.  The ‘church office’ was a room in my home.  Board meetings rotated around various other people’s homes.  When I arrived at UCE’s old church, I was thrilled to have a place in a real  congregational building where I could hang my hat.  The idea of looking for a new one was never on my radar.  Unlike some colleagues, I never had an “edifice complex”.

We are in this building because in  strategic planning process past,  this community decided that moving was the right idea, and that this project suited them.  You carried it off magnificently.  Once that congregational decision had been made, I threw my entire self into supporting the project and I am proud of what we accomplished and what we have done with this property since.  It turns out that this building was a brilliant financial decision for us, much more so than we ever imagined.  If you were at the Fall Gathering service last week, you will have heard me boast a bit on our behalf and suggest that the decision you made has helped us stay financially stable.

This bit of history is a preamble to the idea of reaching for a thriving future.  You are starting another cycle.  It feels strange to me to not be part of the planning this time around. But that’s the way it has to be.

Starting in February, our roads will diverge.  I am choosing another path for myself and my family.  Again, as I noted last week, I am leaving the active ministry because I feel my time of leadership is done.   There are other personal factors too that I will be happy to share with anyone that asks. However, one is that I would like to be gainfully employed for another 5-7 years and I figured that looking for employment would be easier at 64 than after 65.  

Beyond that hope, I really don’t know too much about what my future will be…but I know a few things.

I will remain in Edmonton.  It has become my home.  It is the city where my heart is.  Go Esks!.  It is where my children were born and where they have their connections.  It is where I met my wife.  We are not leaving.

Over the summer I created my first resumé (or portfolio) in over two decades.  I have even created a personal website ( extolling my virtues for prospective employers.  Although I am open to almost anything (in case you have suggestions), I am primarily aiming my search at either not-for-profit sector or municipal government.  I would like a leadership role in some form, a place where I can exercise the skills I have acquired or honed in my time at UCE.  I am actively searching now.

As for my religious needs, I plan to attend Westwood and have already been told by Rev. Anne Barker that I will be welcome.

Most of you will have heard by now, but I still regularly bump into members and friends who are not aware of the protocols that restrict my future.

When I leave, my professional association guidelines require that I really, really leave.  It is a policy with which I agree.  I will not be here for special services or the occasional guest preaching spot.  When I am gone, I am gone.  At least for quite a long time.

The reasons for this policy are good ones and I support them.  I have seen the ghosts of ministers past haunt new ministries and even destroy them.  That causes pain, disruption and expense for the congregation.  Folks, I love this place too much to risk that.

Former ministers can be spectres, especially if they physically remain in the area.  Even if we meet elsewhere, it’s hard for members to not bring up church business.  Some of our older members have asked if I will be around for their memorials, after all I have been their minister for a long time.

The short answer is no, I will not as much as it pains me.  That privilege falls to my successor.  Why?

For your next ministry to have a chance of success, you need to accept that person as your minister.  If I suddenly inject myself into congregational life in any way, it undermines the that ministry.  Our national and continental associations have very good evidence that this detrimental effect is real.  I have personal knowledge of an esteemed colleague inadvertently becoming embroiled in controversy.  

It is not that this colleague meant to interfere.  It was rather a case that this person was larger than life.  The very presence of this person in the community affected the new ministry.  Longtime members compared the new minister with the old.  It did not turn out well.

Comparison is natural and will happen anyway for awhile.  But my presence anywhere in the ongoing life of the congregation will make it worse.

So when I leave, I will be gone.  My only participation will be to drop my children off for youth group.

This won’t necessarily last forever.  Once a new permanent minister is settled, she or he and I will have discussions.  We may or may not work out an arrangement where I can return.  Even so, that won’t be until sometime late in 2023 or 2024 at the earliest.  There will be a lot of new people who won’t know me by then.

My friends, this is the best practice for the congregation going forward.

Leaving is my path.  What about yours?

In a newsletter earlier this year, the Board offered a timeline for the transition, entitled “Ministerial Search: What, When and Who?”  Next month they will start a series of after service conversations with the Board for anyone wanting to know more.  There are copies of the Board timeline on the credenza.

To offer a short version, my last service will be January 26th.

From February through the end of the summer, the newly forming Sunday Services committee will arrange the services.  As part of saying goodbye well, I helped gather that team.  They already have a great set of ideas and plans for your Sundays through the end of June.  For July and August, they will follow the practice of summer services John Pater has managed so well for so many years.

For next year, starting in September, you will probably have an Interim Minister.  This is a specially trained person.

First, they will not stay.  They will be here for a contracted period only.  In their lingo, they are ‘pre-fired’. Their focused mission is to help you through the transition, help you plan your future search, help point out and possibly correct any bad habits we may have developed over my tenure… And Then Leave.  That gives the freedom to speak the truth as they see it if they perceive problems.

For congregations where ministries have lasted five years or more, the Unitarian Universalist Association recommends a two year interim period.  It may be one person, it may be two people, each on one year contracts.  You won’t know that for some time.

Interim ministers are chosen differently from settled ministers.  It will be a decision the Board makes alone.  There is a clearly specified process and a kind of denominational matching service.  The Board will be submitting information to the UUA in March.  There is a month long first round window from mid-April to mid-May when negotiations take place.  Hopefully by the end of May, the Board will be able to name the Interim.  If needed, there is a second round that ends in June.  That person will start in September.

Then the real fun begins.  Roughly in December or January of next year, the congregation will choose a Search Committee, usually seven or eight people representative of various aspects of church life: leadership, RE, pastoral care, social justice, Sunday services, administration and so on.  

This committee will have the significant task of surveying all of you about your needs and desires for your next permanent minister.  There will be lots of decisions to make along the way.  They will also prepare a packet of material that will describe this congregation’s life in detail.  Early in 2023, the committee will examine the packets of several possible candidates and narrow their interest down to two or three.  They will meet personally with those potential candidates only.  This is done with a high degree of confidentiality for two reasons:

The first is that the minister may not have announced their departure from the congregation they serve.  That person needs to be protected.

Secondly, presenting an entire congregation with several choices tends to breed divisiveness and controversy within the community.  I will come back to that in a minute.

So the Search Committee reflects on their interviews and hopefully settles on a candidate.  Usually that is the outcome, but not always.  If they do agree, and the candidate wants to come, there will be a Candidating Week most likely in April of 2023.  The minister will preach two successive Sundays and in the mean time meet with the Board, every committee and many small groups of people.  After the second Sunday, the minister leaves and the congregation takes a secret vote.  If that goes well, the new minister should be in place by September 2023.

I mentioned that the Search Committee decides on only one candidate to present.  Here’s why:  There is a proven risk if several candidates are considered by all.  One group likes the qualities in candidate A, another group prefers candidate B.  It can create a split that dooms a ministry before it ever begins.  In fact few ministers will accept a call that is less than 90% in favour.  Why?  When they begin work and inevitably don’t live up to the fantasy expectations, it often occurs that the group that never wanted that minister organizes and successfully derails the whole deal.  If two ministers were considered, there is a far higher likelihood that such a division will exist.  It’s sad, but that happens.

So that’s the road map.  My fervent wish for this community is that it all goes smoothly and according to plan, that you have a rich interim period, that you find your common strengths through the search that ends in a joyous celebration of what you have accomplished.  The work that you will do in the next two years is the work of creating your own thriving future.  Participate as you are able and trust your leaders and their decisions if you can’t be active.  

UCE has a strong history of getting it right, a tradition of long and successful ministries.  You are part of that system, and systems theory suggests you will probably do it all just fine.  Trust the process, keep talking and take care of each other.

So, February 1st, we go our separate ways, each to an uncertain future.  But I am an optimist, as I have said many times from this pulpit.  I believe I will find success.  And I wish and believe that you will find success and a new strength and faith in yourselves as the vibrant community you have been for so long.