I generally offer a sermon in a worship service prior to my MSR I consultation with the congregations that I serve as a Ministerial Settlement Representative. The sermon I offer is usually close to what is written here.
Kathleen McTique, “We come together this morning to remind one another”, Singing the Living Tradition, #435
Good morning! How glad I am to be here with you today!
I am so blessed! As the Ministerial Settlement Representative (or MSR) of our district, I get to meet congregations I’ve never met before, and work with them during this most critical time of seeking their next settled Minister – helping them to be successful at it. There’s nothing like seeing a good match between congregation and minister!
In life we sometimes come to moments when we get to make significant choices. That’s true for people, and it’s true for religious communities, like yours. I want to talk with you about significant choices because I think selecting a Minister is one of the most significant choices a congregation can make, and I think the histories of countless congregations would bear me out. I also believe that making significant choices is central to being a Unitarian Universalist, and indeed, to being human.
I want to talk today about what makes choices significant, about some strategies for making good significant choices, and finally, about what success might look like.
I have extrapolated the strategies I’m going to suggest from the UUA’s recommended Ministerial Search process as it is described in The Settlement Handbook, which is available to everyone via the UUA’s Website. That is a process that has been tested out and progressively improved over many years. But I want to tell you that I also tested these strategies against a very significant choice that I made following a near-fatal heart attack in 2005, and for me these strategies really fit well. That significant choice literally has let me be here with you today!
So what do I mean by a significant choice? What about it makes it significant? Well, it could mean that the choice has a far-reaching impact, that it affects many things in our lives, and that it affects our lives deeply. But I want to suggest that the Latin root for significant, signum, which means sign, tells us something about what is significant. It’s also the root of words like signal and signify. A significant choice in this sense is more than the choice itself, and more than the effects it has on our lives; it signals something, it signifies something — perhaps something about what our values are, who we are, or even who we are becoming.
How does the significance of a choice affect the way we approach the choice? My experience is this: when I’ve known that a choice was significant, my choosing became more deliberate. Sometimes my choices were significant, and I was unaware, or unattentive to the fact that they were significant. In those cases, I would do the equivalent of a flip of the coin. But when I know that a choice is significant, the amount of time and energy I spend on the choice can be related to how significant that choice is. But more important, when I am aware that a choice is significant, the quality of my thinking about it changes, focusing more deeply on what the choice signifies — what I value. In some sense it becomes worship – discovering and holding up what is of most worth.
What strategies might we use to improve our chances of a “successful” significant choice? I’m going to offer thirteen. I’ve extrapolated them from the UUA’s recommended search process, but they fit my own experience as well. There are probably more, and not all of these apply in all cases. So I offer them as strategies that you might choose to use or not.
- Increase your options at the beginning. Look at all kinds of possibilities. Let your mind consider possibilities that may seem crazy. This is akin to the classic strategy of brainstorming.
- Avoid prejudging. This is related to the first, and helps us to truly increase our options. It is easy, especially early on, to think that you know exactly what you want, and eliminate possibilities before you’ve fully researched. We often come at things with a prejudice that really does not reflect the important realities with which we are dealing. Loyola University of New Orleans offers this suggestion in material that it distributes to its new students – “[The choosing process] ought to be disentangled from inordinate attachment, disordered affectivity. It must purge itself of bias, prejudice, and stereotypical thinking.” 
- Use all reasonably available resources, every source of information you can find that will help you understand yourself and your options. Loyola University puts it this way — “No pertinent light that comes to us from history, science, art or religious experience should be ignored.” 
- Imaginatively seek to fully understand yourself. If your choice is going to be significant in the sense of signaling something about you, self understanding is essential. If it is to really work in your life, you need to know something about what works for you and what does not, what you care about and what you don’t, what makes you feel good, and what does not, what matters to you, and what does not.
- Now that you have a good sense of the options, and a good sense of yourself, carefully winnow your options based on what you really need or want. There comes a time when having too many options becomes counter-productive. As the time for settling on a choice nears, we need to let go of some options. That may mean closing some doors, so it should be a considered process, but it needs to happen.
- Persistently seek to fully and deeply understand your chosen options. Keep working at understanding all of the implications of your options.
- Base your choice on values at least as much as facts.
- Progressively try out your choice to the extent that you can. Significant choices can have ramifications that can only be grasped by experiencing them, even if in very small ways.
Now some significant choices are about relationships. And, as a matter of fact, this is the case with selecting a minister. Some special strategies apply when a significant choice is about relationship:
9. If your choice is about relationship, make the choice relationally. Relationship is so much more than plusses and minuses on a checklist. And working through the implications of a relationship choice is best done with a deep commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
10. If your choice is about relationship, be clear about how you want to be in that relationship, so that you can be clear about what you need in your partner, and how specific qualities in your partner may make it possible to take the greatest advantage of being in the relationship.
11. I don’t often quote Ronald Reagan, but here it really fits: if your choice involves relationship, “trust, but verify”. Go at the relationship in a trusting way. Be willing to take some personal risks as you engage with the other, but be willing to ask and be asked the difficult questions that are important to the relationship. And consult with people who have engaged in a relationship with this person or group before.
12. If your choice involves relationship, fully disclose yourself, but don’t put yourself down. Be honest about what you bring to the relationship, both the good and the bad. Honor the fact that you bring a lot into the relationship – ideally, you bring your whole self. This may be difficult, but it’s important to realize that the truth will out eventually any way. Why not now, when it can help you and the person you are engaging with make a good choice?
Now to another question: What does “successful” mean when we’re talking about significant choices? I’ve talked about some strategies you might use to make a successful choice, but what exactly does “success” look like? I would suggest four things about a “successful” choice, again drawing from the UUA’s ministerial search process.
- A successful significant choice is imperfect. We are not perfect, relationships are not perfect, and our significant choices are not perfect. A relationship may be a very good match. A choice may line up well with our needs, our values, and the conditions of our lives, but perfection is too much to ask and does not respect the constancy of change. To insist on perfection is to force ourselves into failure.
- A successful significant choice is not “unquestionably right”. It may be well reasoned, well felt, and it may reflect our values well. But absolute confidence in a choice is very unlikely. So be willing to live with some doubt, even after you’ve trusted and verified.
- A successful significant choice should not boil down to “accepting whatever you can get” or “taking the first available path”. Instead it should be “clearly good and clearly good enough”.
- Choosing not to choose at this time can sometimes be a very good choice. Sometimes the good choice that you seek is simply not available yet. Waiting and continuing to sift may still be necessary.
Now, you may have noticed that I stopped at twelve strategies for making significant choices. I saved the 13th for last. Significant choices are truly on “the forming edge of our lives”, as Kathleen McTigue puts it. They are the way in which we sort out our life paths. They may represent those important life moments, when, uncertain as we may be, we begin to find a new way. So I want to call your attention to one more strategy that can help make a significant choice successful:
13. Allow yourself to be changed by the process. If your choice is truly significant, it may well be signaling and signifying who you are becoming. Let that happen!
If you would like more information about Unitarian Universalist Ministerial Search Process see my blog on the topic at www.UUMinisterSearch.com.
1. The Settlement Handbook (http://www.uua.org/leaders/leaderslibrary/transitions/).
2. Loyola Character and Commitment Statement (http://2010bulletin.loyno.edu/character.php).
3. Ronald Reagan in his Remarks on Signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty on December 8, 1987 and on several other occasions.
4. Kathleen McTique, “We come together this morning to remind one another”, Singing the Living Tradition, #435, Unitarian Universalist Association, 2000.