Amy Pagliarella reviews Michelle Huneven's new book.

Michelle Huneven
Penguin Press, 400 pages | April 26, 2022

In Search, Michelle Huneven pulls back the curtain to reveal the humorous realities of a pastoral search committee in a mid-size Unitarian Universalist (UU) church. Religious folks of all denominations should find something to make them nod knowingly, laugh out loud and cringe in this telling novel.

The narrator, Dana, a food critic, memoir-writer and seminary graduate herself, participates in the committee while secretly mining the process as material for an upcoming book. She is surprised to learn just how deeply invested she is in choosing the new minister, and she quickly realizes everyone else is too. Factions form along generational lines and qualified candidates are quickly slotted as “the next big thing” or “also rans” in the UU world, based as much on members’ preconceived notions as on the pastors’ Skype performances.

Search is accessible and well-written — summer reading at its finest. At times, it moves along like a “whodunnit,” as Huneven imagines who the new pastor will be and drops hints of candidates’ questionable backstories. At other times, it’s painfully cynical, as when the outgoing pastor describes ministerial calls as “a march toward mutual disappointment.” Ouch! And yet there are tender moments that remind us why a pastoral search matters, such as a member of the committee saying to Dana, “There you go again. Caring.” In these moments, it’s clear that the inevitable friction is in proportion to what’s at stake collectively, as well as individually; and it is these moments that remind us that churches – and their leaders – matter.

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