Home Christian News In ‘Search,’ a Church Committee Plots Over Fiesta Chicken and Cookies

In ‘Search,’ a Church Committee Plots Over Fiesta Chicken and Cookies

Search
Author Michelle Huneven, left, and her book "Search." Photo by Courtney Gregg

(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 TimesThe 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.