Author: Tim Owens
Title: The Search Committee
Publisher: Tyndale House
Google “the search committee novel” and topping your results is an intellectual tome by noted Hebrew scholar Dr. Marc Angel, rabbi emeritus of New York City’s prestigious Congregation Shearith Israel.
Um . . . that ain’t the book of the same name by Tim Owens.
Everything Rabbi Angel’s novel is, Owens’ novel isn’t. From religion to location to the personal backgrounds of each search committee’s members.
But that’s OK. Because while the urbane Jewish search committee explores heady Judaic theological themes, our conventional Southern WASPs in this, Owens’ first novel, live a daily existence of more tactile, ordinary reality.
As the title implies, a search committee has been commissioned by a small Presbyterian (USA) church in North Carolina to find a new pastor. Sunday after Sunday, this faithful band of committee members bundles themselves into their church’s aging van and heads out to hear prospective preachers in their current churches. Our committee includes a couple of retirees, a young husband whose wife thinks her biological clock is running down, an attractive divorcee, the town’s gossip queen, and an erstwhile school teacher with a Ph.D. who’s moved back to the town where he’d grown up.
Along the way, one of these committee members discovers a little romance, and another two lose their spouses—one by death, another through infidelity. Sometimes things get messy, sometimes doctrine gets left by the wayside, and a lot of the time, absolutely nothing earth-shattering happens.
That’s the basic plot. Nothing complicated or controversial, unless you aren’t crazy about female preachers (that’s why I pointed out that this is set in the PCUSA, not the PCA!). No shoot-outs, no high drama, no cliffhangers. And that’s what makes Owens’ tale so clever. What at first may sound downright boring soon draws us into a compelling juxtaposition between genuine struggles of semi-rural, middle-class church folk and what we’re all really supposed to be doing within—and expecting of—church itself.
You see, Owens’ purpose in telling this story isn’t to thrill or humor us as much as it is to point out truth that’s staring us plainly in the face, but that is so ordinary we often fail to see it. Conventionality can be its own distraction. Fortunately, patience with such a story isn’t an abstract virtue, since discovering Owens’ teachable surprise at the end is indeed its own reward.
After all, everyday faith doesn’t necessarily rivet us with spellbinding theatrics and emotion. Everyday faith sustains us precisely because it’s made for every day, and our lives are full of days in which challenges and opportunities skew decidedly to the mundane and perfunctory. It’s this type of faith Owens attempts—with remarkable success—to nuance out of the personal stories he tells of each committee member.
Not that he gives us any grand heroes of the faith to admire. Remember, these are ordinary sheep looking for a shepherd for their flock. Still, Owens weaves a subtle counterpoint to the ordinary members of our search committee in the form of two comparatively disenfranchised black women. Two supporting characters who nevertheless manage to display a staunchness of faith that is convicting and satisfyingly apropos.
Yes, The Search Committee is Owens’ first novel, but don’t let that fool you. He’s already won an award for it, and his knack for storytelling—complete with descriptive details and geographical factoids—helps you feel like you’re really along for the ride with the rest of the committee.
You’ll also probably feel just as surprised—with an “I should have known all along!” type of smile—when Owens’ committee finally finishes their work of discovery.
For their church, and their personal faith—and ours.