View from the Pew
Searching for a leader
Central Union Church has spent more than two years without a pastor
It's BEEN more than two years since the senior pastor retired, and the position is still open at Central Union Church, the largest mainline Protestant church in Hawaii and one of the 10 largest congregations within its denomination nationally.
A shepherd. A nurturing spiritual adviser who is also an experienced administrator to manage a staff and facilities comparable to a small business. An accomplished preacher with fiscal knowledge required to lead an organization with a multimillion-dollar annual budget and a multimillion-dollar debt.
Just two weeks ago, the search committee was ready to announce its pick of a new pastor. But within days of accepting the call to Hawaii, the seminary professor got an offer he couldn't refuse for a higher academic post at the New York school where he teaches.
The search continues, and church members say that's not a bad thing. Members have spent the time in self-assessment, reflecting on the past glories of the 173-year-old church and looking ahead to a future in which greater outreach to the wider community is likely.
"Having spent that time, we are comfortable with ourselves and what we want," said moderator John Steelquist, lay leader of the 2,700-member church. "We are in a steady, orderly transition."
The congregation was in a state similar to mourning two years ago after the pastor of 19 years, the Rev. Ted Robinson, retired.
That's not unusual, said the Rev. Charles Buck, who heads the Hawaii conference of the United Church of Christ. "Replacing a pastor is not like finding a new corporate president. There is a relationship built up with the pastor. When he leaves it's kind of like a death. There is emotion, especially grieving.
"Transition is more important than people realize," said Buck. Six other Hawaii churches in the denomination are also seeking new pastors. They are all taking steps in a search process that the national United Church of Christ has down to a science.
"It was painful for them and they got through it," said the Rev. Donald Hammond, who has been interim minister at Central Union for nearly 18 months. "The time has helped. They are looking at the future now rather than the past. ... People say the congregation today is different."
Hammond said one major defining moment was the church's instantaneous response when the city evicted homeless people from Ala Moana Park in April. The congregation opened its new $10 million Parish Hall as a shelter for homeless families and mustered hundreds of volunteers to help feed, clothe and support them.
"This church has never been a shrinking violet in the community ... and they recaptured that," Hammond said. "The purpose of the church is to go beyond ourselves. The normal tendency for members is to take care of themselves. When they go beyond that, as they did, it makes them realize, 'Yes, this is what we are.' Folks are saying, 'We have an important role in this community.' They are prepared to go where they want to go.
"The beauty of our Congregational roots is that the church is run by the people; the ultimate responsibility rests with the people," said Hammond, who has been interim pastor of several mainland churches. He is one of a corps of ministers who make a career of being interim pastors.
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Members of Central Union Church on South Beretania Street have spent the past two years assessing their needs and preparing for a pastor.
At the beginning of his term, he described it as similar to triage, when a medical officer quickly assesses what needs immediate attention and what can wait. An interim minister is free to speak out about flaws and guide people through changes because he is not seeking the permanent job.
The Makiki church will say goodbye to Hammond tomorrow as his temporary term ends. He will be succeeded by another interim pastor, the Rev. David Hirano, who will hold the seat for as long as the search takes.
"We're not back to square one," said Greg Boxold, chairman of the 15-member search committee. They are still talking about the short list of candidates who have been interviewed, sorted out from a total of 43 prospects. The word is going out through the national United Church of Christ network that applications are still being sought.
"I'm in the business world, and this is a totally different kind of search process, not like a vice president or a general manager," Boxold said. "A pastor needs to have a philosophy, teaching skills, ministerial skills that fit with our organization."
Representatives from the various groups within the church sit on the search committee, providing insight from diverse viewpoints, Boxold said. "It helps that the Holy Spirit is involved in the process, too."
The Rev. Ron Ching, one of four ordained associate ministers on the staff, said, "The church as a whole, not just Central Union Church, is going through transition. People want to know, 'If I'm in the church, how do I have an impact on the world?'"
Ching, who has been there since 2000, has the longest tenure among the clergy. He said the church has gained about 100 new members each year despite the transition under way.
Although there is no new pastor to introduce yet, the product of the two-year process of polls, questionnaires and congregational meetings can be found at the Web site www.centralunionchurch.org. It includes a profile of the ideal minister they seek and a church profile that contains more detail, such as budget information, than most churches are willing to share publicly.
Any minister seeking a job change provides a resume and references to the Cleveland headquarters of United Church of Christ, which guides congregations through their searches.
When applications come to Hawaii churches, Dorothy Lester, an associate minister of the Hawaii conference, checks them for accuracy such as confirming the dates of past assignments. A minister may apply for a specific assignment, or a church might initiate the process by seeking a particular person's resume. "In addition, I review the list of people, and I send prospects to churches if a match makes sense to me," she said.
The national application procedure will change in September. A background search by a professional agency will be required for all clergy "similar to what teachers have done for a long time," Lester said. "Now, it is all self-disclosure. Churches have not traditionally done background checks. It has to do with the things you read in the newspaper ... the litigious society and our desire to provide safe sanctuary for everyone in our churches."
"It is still definitely a call process," said Lester. "I believe we need to use reason in addition to the Spirit. The Holy Spirit has to be at work; there has to be a sense that God's hand is there somewhere."