The History of Shared Ministry at the UUFA

By Myrna Adams West

As we continue our year-long celebration of UUFA’s Diamond JUUbilee, September ushers in Sixty Days of Celebration, beginning with recognition of ministers, staffers, and lay leaders. In addition to the following remembrance of our shared ministry, you can find a chronological listing of our professional and lay leaders here.

In 1954 nine people gathered for the initial meeting of the group that soon became the Universalist Unitarian Community Church of Athens. According to records, they were Ruben Gotesky, Paul Pfuetze, Don Martin, Ann Martin, Horace Montgomery, Gladys Montgomery, Jack Foster, Ethel Foster, and Thad Suits. None of them were ordained ministers in any church or denomination. They set the precedence for the strong lay leadership that has deepened throughout the sixty-year history of what is now known as the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens or UUFA. For the next 16 years, the congregation remained completely lay led, inviting University of Georgia professors, clergy from other churches, and knowledgeable folks from among the membership to present Sunday Programs on a variety of topics.

Horace Montgomery notes in the “Pursuit Continued, 1980-1985” chapter of his treatise on UUFA’s first 35 years of existence, “Central to the well-being of the Fellowship have been its leaders, the presidents and ministers.” Among the early presidents of the congregation were some of its founders, Thad Suits, Jack Foster, Horace Montgomery, and Reuben Gotesky. (For a complete listing of UUFA presidents and their years of service, see the addendum, “UUFA Presidents.”) Also among the early presidents was Ann Woodruff, who later was chair of the Long-Range Planning Committee when the current property on Timothy Road was purchased.

The Rev. Clifton Hoffman, a Unitarian Universalist minister, was called as part-time minister in 1970. Montgomery records that during Rev. Hoffman’s 11-year ministry, membership greatly increased, the budget grew ever larger and ties with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Mid-South District grew stronger. Presidents who worked with Rev. Hoffman to achieve those milestones included some who are still members of UUFA: Murray Blum, Jane King, Nancy MacNair and Larry Dendy. Rev. Hoffman also periodically exhorted the congregation to greater social responsibility, which resulted in the founding by UUFA members of the Clarke Community Federal Credit Union and “a variety of other important community projects.” Among those projects were counseling conscientious objectors, participating in the Athens Area Food Bank, and assisting a Laotian refugee family.

One of the chief lay leaders of that era was Kay Hoffman who built upon the efforts of earlier religious education teachers to strengthen the foundations of the Children’s Religious Education Program. Rev. Hoffman was appointed to Minister Emeritus status in 1981, recognizing his years of service during which Montgomery notes, “he consistently worked overtime,” and “gave [the Fellowship] direction and confidence.”

The Rev. Mitchell G. Howard became the first full-time minister in 1982, was elected secretary of the Mid-South District Board and worked to bring the 1985 UUA General Assembly to Atlanta. Unfortunately, however, the connection between Rev. Howard and the members of UUFA was not always warm. As Montgomery notes, many saw him as “unskilled in the management of pastoral duties.” As tensions mounted, a UUA consultant was dispatched as mediator, but Howard resigned in 1984. Among the Board of Trustees Presidents who served during Howard’s tenure were Larry Dendy and Stu Fors who remain active in the Fellowship today.

During 1984-1986, Interim Minister Beth Ide served both UUFA and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Middle Georgia in Macon (now High Street Unitarian Universalist Church), but she was successful in easing the tensions within the Athens Fellowship and helped influence the shift toward “more spiritual substance.”

In 1986, the Rev. Nancy Roemheld became the third settled minister.  As Montgomery notes, during her tenure, a building committee was formed, and, after considerable planning, which included cottage meetings to survey members about what they hoped the building would include, land on Timothy Road was purchased in 1988.  The current building at 780 Timothy Road was erected and dedicated in 1993.  The new building provided room for Sunday services, a choir loft, a fellowship hall, offices, a kitchen, and a religious education wing.  After moving to the new building and changing the Sunday service time to 11 AM, the Fellowship inaugurated the Forum, which continues in 2014.  Each week speakers from the Fellowship and the Athens community are invited to speak to Forum attendees about topics of interest, harking back to the days when services ended with discussion.

Horace Montgomery’s chapter, “Still Pursuing, 1986-1988,” in his treatise names many of the lay leaders who worked diligently beside the ministers during those years to lay the strong foundation of volunteerism that keeps the Fellowship running to this day. Among those are the Board Presidents who served during those years, including current members Mac Rawson, Jim Woodruff and Stu Fors (who signed on for a third term!). Without those leaders, Presidents and others, the shared ministry that guides the governance and ministry of the Fellowship today would not have evolved. Copies of the treatise, which traces the Fellowship’s growth from 1954 through 1988, are available in the Fellowship office.

Following Rev. Roemheld’s resignation in 1994 after the congregation had moved into the building on Timothy Road, the Fellowship was completely lay-led for about a year. Rev. Roemheld had trained a Sunday Service Committee to plan, organize, and conduct Sunday services using a workbook handout with answers to such questions as, What is a worship service? What is the opening for? How do we do the middle, the closing, etc.?  How do we use the readings in the hymnal? Cathi Doherty was chairperson of the Sunday Service Committee (SSC) and Tom Martin was President at that time, the fall of 1994, when Rev. Roemheld’s tenure was coming to a close.

A Diamond JUUbilee article, “The Evolution of Spiritual Arts at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens, 1954-2014” (available at http://www.uuathensga.org) tells more about the volunteers who, in addition to President David Sweat, stepped up to keep UUFA going during this period, with Adult Religious Education Classes as well as lay-led Sunday services throughout the summer. The article goes on to explain how the Worship Arts Committee continues to work today with the minister to plan and execute Sunday worship services.

The Rev. Terre Balof succeeded Rev. Roemheld in 1995 and served until 2008. Current members who served alongside Rev. Balof in the President’s position are David Sweat, George Koch, Patty Freeman-Lynde, Caryl Sundland, Kay Fors, Kay Giese, David Jarrett, Frank Boardman and John Olive.

An important shared ministry program organized under Rev. Balof’s leadership is the Care Program, which was started in 1995 with Helen Wilcox and Helen (Cookie) Kabat as volunteer coordinators. Under the Care Program, the congregation is divided into geographical Care Rings, small groups of members who can be called upon to support others within the group with food and transportation or other help when needed.  A volunteer team of coordinators oversees each Care Ring’s activities.

Another important aspect of the Care Program is the Pastoral Care Team, started in 2001. This team consists of specially-trained members who help to provide spiritual care and support of those who are experiencing extended illness or other needs. Susan Ponsoldt has been the coordinator of this group of volunteers for many years. She has worked closely with the members of the team as well as with the ministers, including the Rev. Dr. Don Randall who has assisted with training and counseling.

Rev. Randall, who holds a Ph.D. in counseling, became Affiliated Community Minister of UUFA in 2003. In this position, he serves the UUFA community by helping to train and counsel the Pastoral Care Team, filling the pulpit several times a year, and leading workshops and classes for adults as needed.

In 1993, the UUFA began a partnership with the Unitarian church in the historic village of Okland, Romania, in the area formerly known as Transylvania. Over the last 21 years, the UUFA has supported the Okland church in its efforts to renovate its buildings, to restore the village economy, and to aid deserving students who must pursue secondary education in boarding schools far from the village. In 2014 we are supporting four young people who are attending school away from home.

Rev. Balof led members on a trip to Romania to visit our sister church in 2005, and members have enjoyed other pilgrimages since then.  The Rev. Levente Kellemen, Okland’s minister, his wife Eva and their children, as well as other adults and youth from Okland, have visited UUFA many times over the years. Heather Kleiner’s leadership has been especially important in keeping the relationship between Okland and UUFA vibrant and ongoing. Bruce and Jane King have also been very active in visiting the Okland congregation and keeping in touch with the minister and members there.

Under Rev. Balof’s leadership, Small Group Ministry (SGM) was implemented in 2007, giving members the opportunity to know each other in deeper ways as they meet twice a month in groups of eight to ten members to discuss topics of concern, often of a spiritual nature.  Michelle Leebens-Mack provided extensive lay leadership in promoting and supporting this vital connection among members. When Michelle stepped down from the leader’s position in 2011, Kelly and Andy Case-Simonson assumed responsibility and provided facilitation until 2013 when Michelle Swagler and Todd Dinkleman took the position.

Rev. Balof also engaged the help of the Sunday Service Committee (now called the Worship Arts Committee) to assist in planning and carrying out the Sunday worship services.  In 2008 Rev. Balof and members of the Sunday Service Committee presented a workshop entitled “Orchestrating the Rhythm of Worship: Annual Worship Planning” at the General Assembly. The workshop was designed to help small churches plan the worship year easily and quickly. By encouraging members to participate in ministry through such groups as the Pastoral Care Team and the Sunday Service Committee, Rev. Balof helped to instill the concept of shared ministry into the life of the congregation, encouraging strong lay leadership and the participation of all in planning and carrying out the mission of the Fellowship.

Following Rev. Balof’s departure, the Rev. David Johnson served as interim minister for two years, continuing to support the concept of shared ministry and providing much help in transitioning to a new settled minister. Challenging UUFA to grow into the mid-sized congregation he knew us to be destined to become, Rev. Johnson often rallied members and friends at meetings and services with the motto “Onward and Upward!”  Serving as Presidents during his tenure were Patty Freeman-Lynde and Wilma Harrington.

In 2010 the Rev. Alison Wilbur Eskildsen came to us as our fifth settled minister.  Under Rev. Eskildsen’s guidance and direction, the UUFA is maturing into that mid-sized congregation Rev. Johnson foresaw and is becoming even more deeply committed to shared ministry.   Management of the Fellowship is now divided into two parts–Governance and Ministry.  Since 2010, the Board of Trustees, the Governance body, has been led by Rich Clark, Herb West, Dan Everett and Marguerite Holmes. The current President is Merridy McDaniel, who, like her predecessors, guides the Trustees to set policy, to maintain fiscal responsibility, and to help meet the vision and mission of UUFA, which were revised under Rev. Eskildsen’s leadership in 2011.   The minister’s role in this model is to direct programs, supervise staff, and work with the Ministry Council, which includes the Lay Ministers and the paid staff, to implement and oversee the ministries of the Fellowship.

The Ministry Council meets regularly to plan and direct the ministries, including lifespan religious education, connections within and without the Fellowship, spiritual arts, justice, stewardship, and fun and fellowship.  Rev. Eskildsen began the Lay Ministry program in 2011 and installed sixLay Ministers in 2012.  They are Patty Freeman-Lynde, Michelle Leebens-Mack, Nancy MacNair, Jane Mayer, Aleta Turner, and Myrna Adams West. Three members of this class, Patty, Nancy and Jane, retired to Emerita status in spring of 2014, and a new class was installed to join the remaining original members. Members of the 2014 class are Ange Kahn, Vivian Preston Sellers, Karen Solheim, and Herb West.

Under Rev. Eskildsen’s leadership and with a generous donation from anonymous donors, a Memorial Garden was designed by Julene Anderson and built by Bud Newton in 2013 with a wall on which plaques maybe mounted to commemorate those whose ashes are buried or scattered on the grounds.

Social action continues to be an integral part of the UUFA mission, with members of the congregation participating in many community programs, recently including supporting weekly Women in Black vigils at the University of Georgia Arch in downtown Athens to promote peace-related events; a total congregation vote to adopt a resolution against the Georgia anti-gay marriage amendment; support of the Economic Justice Coalition, founded by UUFA member Ray MacNair; establishing the “Cause of the Month” program with half of the Sunday service collection going to the cause; the collection of canned goods to be donated to the Athens Area Emergency Food Bank; and wide congregation participation in the local Smart Lunch/Smart Kids Program.  Under the leadership of the Social Action Committee (SAC), the Fellowship became an official Welcoming Congregation in 1995.  More details on the Social Action Committee’s projects can be found in the addenda, “UUFA Social Action” and “UUFA Members Who Volunteer in the Community in Significant Roles Representing the Congregation.” Nancy MacNair, Caryl Sundland, Karen Solheim and David Jarrett are long-time SAC leaders who have spearheaded various projects throughout the years.

The Social Action Committee also leads the congregation in active participation in “Standing on the Side of Love,” an interfaith public advocacy campaign that seeks to harness love’s power to stop oppression. It is sponsored by the UUA. In 2012 the Economic Justice Coalition established the Ray MacNair Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of Dr. MacNair’s dedicated leadership in the greater Athens community.  In 2013 the award was given to UUFA member and active Social Action Committee member Caryl Sundland in recognition of her social justice commitment to the Athens-Clarke area.

A recent addition to the SAC agenda is the Green Sanctuary Committee, chaired by Terry Jones, which is working to make UUFA an accredited Green Sanctuary under the guidelines established by the UU Ministry for the Earth, part of the UUA’s environmental justice project. To learn more at the UUA Green Sanctuary program, go to http://www.uua.org/environment/sanctuary/; about Ministry for Earth, http://uuministryforearth.org/; and Georgia Interfaith Power and Light, http://www.gipl.org.

Find further details of UUFA’s social action and justice activities  along with a listing of members who have led community organizations in the June JUUbilee post.

With the founding of the UUFA Choir by Stu Fors and a group of volunteer singers and musicians in 1981, music became an integral part of life at UUFA.   Judith Preissle also provided pre-recorded music for the Sunday morning programs, but hymn singing and special music were not essential parts of the Sunday experience until the advent of the choir.   Caroling for the holidays and occasional other fun musical activities were sometimes offered. For names of choir/music directors and pianists as well as some other musical volunteers and information about the Music Program today, see the article, “UUFA’s Fabulous Music Program: 1981-2014” here at the UUFA website.

Building on the strong foundation laid by Alma Walker and Gladys Montgomery in the earliest years and later by Kay Hoffman, UUFA’s Children’s Religious Education program is vital and energetic. A succession of dedicated paid and non-paid coordinators, directors, RE Committee chairs and members, parents, teachers, and other volunteers (See the document “Paid and Volunteer Staff of UUFA” for a list of coordinators/directors.) have sent generations of children and youth into the world to live out the liberal religious values they learned about in Chalice Children, Seeker, JRUU, and YRUU classes. Participation in Our Whole Lives (OWL), a UUA curriculum that teaches healthy attitudes toward sex and gender, has become a right of passage, not just for children of UUFA but of the greater Athens Community.

In the summer of 2011, RE Director Morgan Watson offered the first Peace Camp, pulling in not just UUFA children but local children, youth and adults for a week-long emersion in the art of peace. The popularity of that camp encouraged the offering of an additional themed camp the following summer, based on the popular Harry Potter series of books and movies. Hogwarts at the Pyramid transforms the UUFA Fellowship Hall into the famed school for wizards and encourages thinking outside the box and inclusion of all things in the web of life.

Although Katie Sadler-Stephenson was hired as Director of Lifespan Religious Education, serving from 2007 to 2009, neither Young Adult/Campus Ministry nor Adult Religious Exploration have enjoyed full-time attention by a dedicated staff or volunteer leader. In 1996, Sanjay Lal devoted some time to working with UU students at the University of Georgia, and Donna McPeek spent two years immediately thereafter in the same pursuit. More recently Allen Jones and Karen (Pinkie) Bergmann offered Small Group Ministry-type gatherings to students for one academic year.

Caryl Sundland, Charlotte (Chip) McDaniel, and Heather Lee Navarre volunteered time to coordinate Adult RE over the last 15 plus years. Many other volunteers have facilitated classes, discussion groups, and workshops through the years.   The Ministry Council introduced the concept of Stepping Stones in 2012, as a way to more fully engage members and friends in both the spiritual and social life of the Fellowship. The ongoing Forum and other adult Religious Education offerings engage members and friends in learning and growing.

The Goddess Group, which began in 2003, is a circle of women who are exploring their inner goddess through appreciation and participation in the arts, everything from crafts to fine art, to gardening and nature walks, to singing and dancing and drumming, to reading and writing, to cooking and sewing. The group formed following study of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s curricula about thealogy (the study of the feminine aspect of the Divine, i.e. the Goddess), Cakes for the Queen of Heaven and Rise Up and Call Her Name. Ritual, conversation, sharing, and caring are part of the group’s ongoing ministry to each other. Besides Cakes for the Queen of Heaven and Rise Up and Call Her Name, the Goddess Group also periodically offers other courses including Becoming Women of Wisdom: Marking the Passage into the Crone Years and learns about other cultures and ideas by sharing fun activities such as henna tattoos, belly dancing, poetry workshops, book discussions, and field trips.

Another popular Stepping Stone is the Writing as Spiritual Practice group which meets monthly to share writings on topics ranging from “beginnings” to “letting go” to “relationships,” subjects which echo the monthly worship themes. Perhaps the longest-meeting Stepping Stone besides the Forum is the Book Group which gathers monthly to discuss a selected book. Other groups gather periodically for seminars on works by UU authors, such as A Chosen Faith, Articulating Your UU Faith, and others. Other Stepping Stones include dinner groups, exploring the Bible classes, potlucks, game nights, hiking and water adventures, and Hootlucks (combined potlucks and hootenannies). Even the fundraisers are billed as “Funraisers” and engage members and friends in skits, plays, talent shows, auctions of goods and services, movie nights, and trips to exotic locales, such as Costa Rica and Cumberland Island.

Begun in 2013, Face Time is an innovative idea for integrating both long-term and recent members and friends into activities within the Fellowship. Face Time volunteers pair up with new members to discover their skills and interests, entering the results into a database that can be utilized by committees and program leaders who have specific needs for projects and programs.

The Fellowship has joined the 21st Century with its adoption of technology.  We have a website, a Facebook page, an online newsletter (a nod to going green) and weekly email announcements through which members are kept abreast of current events.

Membership has grown from the five founding members to more than 250 along with an equal number of friends. The building, parking lot and grounds are no longer adequate to meet our growing needs. In the fall of 2013 we began offering both a 9:00 am Sunday worship hour and an 11:30 am Sunday worship hour with Forum sandwiched between and Children’s Religious Education concurrent with both worship services. Youth and Adult Religious Education Classes also meet periodically during the “between” hour.

However, the parking lot is still crowded at the 11:30 service and participants in the many Sunday morning activities bump into each other, jostling for space in the Fellowship Hall, Foyer, classrooms, and parking lot. Weekday, week night and weekend activities, both rental and Fellowship-related, keep the building in almost constant use. The Committee on Shared Ministry, established in 2011, keeps its finger on the pulse of the membership, asking questions about how to improve and grow our ministry, and is currently leading a study of how the building is meeting the needs of individuals and groups. The Board of Trustees has also appointed a Long-Range Planning Task Force to take the Committee on Shared Ministry’s findings and begin to develop a proposed solution to the overcrowding and other building/parking issues. A Capital Campaign and building expansion program could be in the Fellowship’s not-too-distant future.

Find more Diamond JUUbilee posts here.