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In ‘Search,’ a church committee plots over Fiesta Chicken and cookies

A new book from a food writer and former seminarian turned novelist takes a look at the human side of religion through the adventures of a pastoral search committee.

Author Michelle Huneven, left, and her book

(RNS) — Finding a new minister is a bit like online dating.

You look at their online profile, chat on Zoom and hope for a bit of magic.

Often things do not turn out the way you hoped.

That mix of discovery and disappointment is at the heart of “Search,” a new comic novel about the search for a minister at a Unitarian church near Los Angeles. The story reveals the dynamic of human foibles, kindness, ambition and friendship that keeps the machinery of organized religion going — and features surprise twists, political machinations and, of course, lots of food.

Among the characters are Dana, a food writer and author, who hopes to write a book about the experience; Belinda, the 80-something former church president, and her co-conspirator, Charlotte, who is three decades sober and a master of church bureaucracy; Jen, a young mom and rabble-rouser; Curtis, the new member, who was rejected by his past church because he’s gay; and Riley, the polyamorist, 20-something aspiring bartender who runs the church handbell choir.

This diverse group finds itself trying to sort through an eclectic mix of ministerial candidates: a Unitarian-Buddhist teacher who hates pets and has a sketchy past; a Wiccan, newly divorced, Southern songwriter; an urban pastor who bakes bread and makes beer; an older, renowned Black woman preacher looking for one last challenge; and an up-and-coming young minister who seems vapid but has steel in her spine.

“Search” was inspired by an experience that author Michelle Huneven, a novelist, former seminarian and award-winning food writer, had on a search committee at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church, her home congregation in Pasadena, California. She was intrigued by the work involved in getting past the shiny, public profiles of potential pastors to the real person. Though that search went well, she also saw how a search committee could go awry and reveal something about the human side of faith.

The book also features a set of recipes for the food the committee shares, from the Pledge Drive’s Fiesta Chicken — Huneven’s favorite — and one grandmother’s Lamb Nihari to Jennie’s Midmorning Glory Muffins and whole wheat chocolate chip cookies, described by one character as “wonderfully gritty, buttery, and salty-sweet.” 

Released in late April, “Search” has earned rave reviews and has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR. Huneven spoke to Religion News Service recently about the ways going to church shaped her life, how food creates community, and what a search committee can reveal about the challenges facing congregations.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I saw a profile recently that described you as a prodigal daughter turned church lady. Is that fair?

I don’t know how prodigal I really was, but it was sort of funny that I began going to church. I’m a sober alcoholic and like other sober people, I got very spiritual. That’s what led me to try and find a community I could be a part of and that’s where I found Neighborhood Church.

I think that like Dana in the book, finding a church kind of finished me as a person. There were just so many women there who took me under their wing and came to my cooking classes and welcomed me onto their committees and really approved of me in a way my sort of critical, disapproving mother never did. I mean, my mother loved me and I loved her like crazy, but I could always be improved in her eyes.

These women, they adored me.

Your main character, Dana, loves sermons — and I understand you do as well. Why is that?

I was indoctrinated into sermons by this wonderful preacher at a Unitarian church. He didn’t preach from a manuscript. He would just submerge himself all week in what he was preaching about, and then he’d get up there and he’d throw out one idea after another. You would wonder, how was he ever going to pull them all together? There was always a sort of seat-of-the-pants feeling. But he had a really brilliant organizational mind and he would pull it together.

There’s also the idea that the sermon is addressed to the soul. Yeah, I mean, it’s addressed to the intellect as well when you’re a Unitarian, but it’s about spiritual values. A good sermon is about spiritual values, which is, you know, one of the reasons why I ever went to church — there’s an hour a week that privileges the soul and that sort of guides you about the wise way to approach living in this world.

The book includes a number of recipes, and food plays a role in the life of the committee. Could you talk about the connection of food and spirituality?

My husband, who’s Jewish, says, “Where two or more are gathered, food is served.” His synagogue has food after every service, which I think is great because people congregate at the common table and food creates community. It’s something to talk about, it’s something people can bring and feel generous about.

I teach food writing at UCLA and I also teach fiction writing. This is really odd, but community forms so much more quickly in my food writing classes. Because we’re talking about food, we’re swapping ideas about food and recipes and we go on field trips together, we go on a taco crawl. My food writing students are lobbying now for a picnic. You know, my fiction writing students don’t say, “Let’s have a picnic.” 

RELATED: As COVID continues, church-run food pantries, ministries adapt and expand

What does this novel reveal about the bigger religious landscape and where we are as people?

Everybody is terrified of change. They think they want it and then when they’re confronted with it, it’s like, oh, no, not that.

Did writing about the novel make you more hopeful or less hopeful about organized religion?

It made me more hopeful in a funny way. My main character starts out kind of cynical, she wants to get a book out of the experience. And then she ends up realizing how deeply committed she is. How much she cares. Churches are funny. You can go to church and think: Well, I don’t know that many people there, or the church is getting old and it’s getting kind of boring.

Then you try to pull away and you realize you miss the people. You’re actually much more deeply connected than you thought. There’s something about going somewhere and sitting next to someone week after week and getting to know them because you’re on the membership committee or you teach a cooking class or whatever. There’s a lot of connectivity that happens at church.

Have you been surprised by the response to the book?

The whole time I was writing the book, people would say, “Well, what’s your book about?” I would say, “It’s about a church search committee.” Then I would laugh and think, who would want to read this book. But it turns out people would say, “Oh, I’d read that book.” People who have been on committees and they’ve been part of group dynamics that have sort of swerved out of their control. I’ve been delighted that people have read it and wanted to talk about it.

Have you had any Unitarians give you feedback about the book?

I was on Scott Simon and I made a little gaffe where I said Unitarians believe anything. I went on to say, you can come from any religious tradition, which is what I meant. They don’t, they can’t believe anything. They do believe in the seven principles. I hope I’m not offending anybody. The really hard thing about the book is that it is a comic novel. And people do make mistakes.

Here’s something funny — I’ve already heard from a couple people on search committees that are now reading the novel as part of the search committee, which I think: It’s life imitating fiction.

I do want to say one more. The book is a little bit satirical, but not too satirical. I hope. One of the things I found very encouraging initially was when my editor first read it, she called the book loving. That relieved all my anxieties when I was writing it.

I really did not want to hurt anybody’s feelings. At the same time, there were just things that were too delicious to leave out. 

RELATED: Dinner church movement sets the table for food, faith and friendships

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