A Very Important Choice – By Rev. Ann Marie Alderman, CER Transitions Coach

Alice at the crossroads

“Alice came to a fork in the road.  “Which road do I take?” she asked.  “Where do you want to go?” responded the Cheshire Cat.  “I don’t know” Alice answered.  “Then…” said the Cat,  “..it does not matter!” 
Lewis Carrol

Good morning!  It is great to be here!

I am your Regional Transitions Coach.  What that means is that I have the pleasure of assisting you, your board, and soon your Search Committee as you get ready to find and to call the next minister for this congregation.

It is important to me that you not only call someone who will be the best match for you, but also that you be the best congregation for that minister!  The Search process is all about making an important choice, one that leads to the best match between minister and congregation.   Ultimately, I am here so that together with next called minister, you will do your very best to bring the message of UUism to your part of the world.

So why me?  Why would I want to do this sort of coaching, other than the fabulous pay!

I am what is often called a second-career-minister.  I had a life and a job before I began to serve this faith as an ordained and fellowshipped professional nearly 20 years ago.  During these past two decades, I have been called/settled in 3 different congregations.  A few years ago, I began serving as a Developmental Minister.  Developmental Ministry is a new way to be in relationship as congregation and minister.  It is like a time of interim ministry, only instead of working on the grief and identity issues that follow the loss of a minister, my role is to help a congregation as it works on longer-term “issues”.

Just like an interim, a developmental minister is hired by the congregation’s board.

There is no congregation wide search process for bringing in an Interim or a Developmental Minister.  It is a board decision, and it usually happens fast, much quicker than the search process.

Rev. Ann Marie Alderman

In the past when I was in search for a “called” ministry position, my search long and it was successful 3x.  Three good matches.  Yet, I was in search 5x.  So, twice I was not the final candidate for any congregation, even though I wanted to be.

I like to think that the search committees and I came to a mutual decision that I was not the right choice for them, or them for me.  But that really was not the case!

One of those congregations didn’t choose well.  And neither did the minister they chose.  I know that because after the person who they thought was their best choice arrived to be their minister, he left, just a week later.

They called wanting me, begging me to reconsider.

I didn’t!

But what I did consider was how I might help make sure congregations call ministers who know who they are and where they want to be long before that minister arrives with all their belongings to begin what should be a relatively long tenure with a new church.

It is my job now to make sure you present who you are as clearly and honestly as you can.  And for you to know who your pre-candidates are and to especially know who your final choice is as clearly as you can, so that you both are ready, eager, clear-eyed about the relationship that you are about to launch as congregation and new minister.

Choosing your next minister is a significant choice!  It is one of the most significant choices that a UU congregation gets to make, other than taking on a mortgage!

I am here to help you make this significant choice a good one, good for you and good for your next minister.

There are all sorts of best practices tested over time for making this significant choice that can be found in the UUA’s recommended Ministerial Search process as it described in The Settlement Handbook, which is available to anyone and everyone via the UUA’s website (uua.org).  The Handbook details a process that has been tested and progressively improved and refined over many, many years.

The “transitions” office knows what works best… I am here to help your search committee (when you have one) know what works best in your circumstance.

Perhaps you know already from your own experience that anything that qualifies as a significant choice will be one that has far-reaching effects and a deep impact, affecting not only your lives but the lives of others.  Who you choose and how you choose says something important about who you are and what message you wish to send.

Finding the next right minister for this congregation, as well as the next right minister choosing you, has everything to do with both of you taking many deliberate steps forward, each one building on the one before.

So, let’s talk about the necessary steps.  It is my hope these steps translate well as a strategy for making any significant choice.

The first step, the place to begin is to simply be CREATIVE!  Increase your options at the very beginning, by freely looking at all kinds of possibilities.  Consider everything, even possibilities that might seem “out there”.  Let yourself be open to every possible pathway that you might take.

Part of being creative is to avoid making a pre-determination!   It is easy, especially early on, to think that you already know exactly what (or who) you want.  Avoid making up your mind based on what you think you want because that relies on the past.  Avoid engaging in pre-judgments because it is too easy to will eliminate possibilities before you’ve fully researched all the options.

Too often we come at things with a prejudice that really does not reflect the important realities of the present.  So, try, really try, to let go of whatever you think you know from the past…’cause that won’t necessarily tell you what the right choice is this time.

Sometimes, we aim for the opposite of what didn’t work out before.  If you think about it, much of what we might have had before worked out just fine!


Be open to all the options at first.

The next step is to use all reasonably available resources, every ounce of information you can find, that will help you understand yourself and your options.  Use everything: history, data, collective experience, and intuition; use it all.

Wikipedia everything!  Ask a lot of questions!  Check in with your feelings.

Make a part of this exploration seeking 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, or in this case in the life of this congregation, you need to know something about what works for you (the collective 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.

Then when you when you have a good sense of the options, and a good sense of yourself, it is time to carefully reduce your alternatives based on what you really need or want.  There comes a time when having too many choices becomes counter-productive.  Know that there will be a time for settling on a few choices and that means letting go of some of the options you first considered.  That may mean closing some doors.  And doing just that should be a considered part of the process.  It needs to happen.

Next, it is time to be persistent.  Your goal now is to fully and deeply understand your chosen options.  Work to understand all of the implications of your narrowed field of a possible few choices.

Then base your final choice on values at least as much as facts.  (Maybe you are trying to choose a contractor, maybe it is time to give a minority-owned business a chance?)

Then to the extent that you can, progressively try out your choice you made.  Significant choices can have ramifications that can only be grasped by experiencing them, even if in very small ways.

Many of our significant choices are about relationships, and that is definitely the case when choosing a minister.  So, some special strategies apply when a significant choice is about a relationship.

The point is that you will need to 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.

Be clear about how you want to be in relationship, so that you can be clear about what you need in your partner, and how specific qualities in your partner may make is possible to take the greatest advantage of being in the relationship.

I don’t often quote Ronald Reagan, but here something he said that really fits:  if your choice involves relationship, “trust, but verify.”  Go into the relationship in a trusting way.

Yet, be willing to take some personal risks as you engage with the other.  Be just as willing to ask and be asked the difficult questions that are important to the relationship.  And don’t forget to consult people who have engaged in a relationship with this person before.

If your choice involves relationship, don’t put yourself down, but DO fully disclose yourself.  In other words, 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 is important to realize that the truth will come out eventually anyway.  Why not now, when it can help you and the person you are engaging with make a good relationship choice?

So, there is another concern I would like to voice — it has to do with the question about what does “successful” mean when we are talking about significant choices?


A successful significant choice is not “perfect”.  We are not perfect, relationships are not perfect, and our significant choices are not perfect.  A relationship may be a very good match, a good fit…it 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.

Think about it this way; 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 have 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”.

Keep in mind, that choosing not to choose can sometimes be a very good choice.  Sometimes the good choice that you seek is simply not available yet.  Waiting and continuing to sift through your options may be still necessary.

The most important final thought I can leave you with is this; significant choices are truly made on “the forming edges of our lives”, as Kathleen McTigue puts it.  They are the way in which we sort out our life paths.  They can represent those important life moments, when, uncertain as we may be, we begin to find a new way forward.  So, I want to share one more strategy that can help make a significant choice successful:

Allow yourself to be changed by the process. If your choice is truly significant, it may well be signaling and signifying who you are coming.  Let it happen!  Don’t rush…

Some of your leaders here may have been a part of a search for a new minister before.  We UU’s used to rush to find a new minister in one year’s time.  THAT HAS CHANGED!  Now, most congregations, take 2.  Two years for the interim minister to do their job.  Two years, for the search committee to be formed, to learn to trust and rely on each other, and move through the intense and time consuming, but oh so worth it process of presenting a final candidate to you to say yes to.

Who you are now, is not who you will be next fall, winter or spring….if your interim is doing their work well.

The search committee will be working their process in the midst of your change and their own change…  It can be an exciting time. It certainly can be an intense time.  But going through the process, letting the 2nd step build on the 1st and the 3rd build on the 2nd, and on and on can be so worth it, in the end.

Ask a lot of questions.  And listen to what you are hearing.  Let go of a pre-conceived notion of what the answer might be.  Let the process unfold… don’t rush.  Use charts with plusses and minuses, AND use your intuition…your heart, how your gut feels.

This whole process of making a significant choice determines what sort of people we will become.  It is a choice that sends a message far beyond us.  An important message.

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