The Evolution of Spiritual Arts at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens, 1954-2014

In July we celebrate UUFA’s Diamond JUUbilee through revisiting our decades of growing spiritual practice.

By Myrna Adams West

Until the calling of the Rev. Clif Hoffman as the first settled minister in 1970, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Athens, founded in 1954, was entirely lay led.  The Sunday morning programs, as the 10:30 gatherings were then called, were led by members, friends, University faculty, and a sprinkling of local clergy, including, as Horace Montgomery noted in his 1979 treatise on the founding of UUFA,  “rabbis, Catholic priests, and numerous Protestant ministers.”

Horace Montgomery 250According to Montgomery, “Their [the Sunday morning programs] high quality prompted a leading faculty member to characterize them as the best lecture and art series in the community.”Montgomery went on to characterize the attitude of the members as follows:  “Within the Fellowship one of the most persistent problems has been religious.  It is rooted in both our denomination’s heritage and our own personal religious convictions.  Because we are who we are, we might act as if we prefer not to consider either human emotions or superhuman power.  We don’t want to ‘screw up’ our tidy intellectual corner.”

In his 1985 update, Montgomery indicated that the “tidy intellectual corner” may have opened out a bit.  “With the advent of the Hoffmans in 1970 more structure and a bit more spiritual content came to characterize the Sunday programs,” he wrote.

Ten years into Hoffman’s ministry, the more intellectual themes still seemed to resonate, however.  A listing of “Sunday Morning Programs for January” (1980) includes “Why Is Sex So Sinful?” led by the Rev. Hoffman, and “Biological Basis for Morality,” with Hoffman and Michael Dykstra as leaders.  But as Hoffman’s tenure was winding down in 1981, the titles for September  did indicate intellectual interest in religious and spiritual concepts:  “God is Back:  Return to Religion,” Clifton Hoffman, leader; “This Fellowship:  A Creedless Community?” with Hoffman; “Styles and Forms of Worship for Our Fellowship,” a panel discussion with Hoffman, Hilah Gugino, Leighton Ballew, Mardie Shirly, and Gene Holshouser.

Nancy Roemheld and Rev Hoffman 220
Rev. Nancy Roemheld begins her UUFA ministry as former minister Clifton Hoffman looks on.

Montgomery noted that “there has been a shift, to be sure a slight one,” and listed several causes for the shift: “a longstanding and deep yearning for more spiritual substance, the advent of the choir, the temper of the times, and the influence of Beth [Ide, Interim Minister, 1984-1986].”

In succeeding years, this “tidy intellectual corner” evolved into today’s Forum, as the Sunday “worship” hour took on more spiritual themes.  This further shifting toward more religious matters was influenced by the Rev. Nancy Roemheld (1986-1994), who led a “build your own theology” seminar, and the Rev. Terre Balof (1995-2008), who introduced more spiritual concepts into the Sunday morning service.

The lay-led practice of the early Fellowship, however, has continued throughout the decades.  The “Sunday Morning Program Committee,” which in the beginning planned the programs and then assisted the ministers in the planning of the Sunday morning events, eventually evolved into both the Forum Committee, which procures speakers for the weekly Forums that meet before the worship service, and the “Sunday Services Committee,” whose duties and involvement have progressed under the guidance of the consecutive ministers.

Elizabeth Bishop-Martin recalls that the Sunday Services Committee became responsible for planning all the services when the Rev. Mitch Howard resigned in 1983.  Alice McKinney, chair, along with Ann Nalls, Elizabeth and others worked out a schedule of speakers for the months before the Rev. Beth Ide was called as interim minister in 1984 and continued to help plan services after her arrival.  Again, when the Rev. Nancy Roemheld, who became full-time minister in 1986, resigned in 1994, members of the Fellowship realized they would be without a minister, at least for a few months, so, in the words of Charlotte (Chip) Ashurst McDaniel, “the congregation stepped up to the task of keeping the Fellowship going.” To that end, volunteers began to organize Adult Religious Education offerings:  Caryl Sundland and Nancy MacNair organized the Welcoming Congregation series.  Caryl, Virginia Carver, and Chip co-led the UU Women’s Federation curriculum Rise Up & Call Her Name.

Service 350
Our choir in the Prince Ave. location. See familiar faces?

And that year, for the first time, the Fellowship did not completely close down for the summer.  Chip recalls that before 1994, members had held 13 summer brunches at various members’ houses around 10 a.m. on Sundays. However, active leaders Helen and John Wilcox suggested that the number of summer visitors—people moving to Athens or visiting friends and relatives in Athens—was great enough to warrant summer services.  Helen persuaded Chip to plan thirteen services, and the Board of Trustees agreed to Chip’s proposal for services to continue through the summer months.

Not knowing if anyone would show up, Chip and Helen determined to be there to open the doors, no matter what. Not many did come for the first few Sundays—30, 40. But Chip wrote about “how much we were enjoying the Summer Services” in the bi-monthly newsletter.   She moved the podium to the floor and seated folks on just one side. The order of service filled a half sheet.  Several members stepped up to lead services:  Elizabeth Bishop Martin led a singing service. Mary Jean Hartel did a service. The first Fourth of July “sharing service” was held.  Stephen Corey did a poetry service. Kay Fors did a service.  A chaplaincy intern from Emory did a service on poet May Sarton.  By the time Carl Priest gave his service in July, there were 75 in attendance. John Wilcox and Chip filled in as speakers on the other Sundays.

At the end of July 1994, the Rev. Terre Balof was called as part-time minister. She did her first service in August, and then did only two services a month for a while, because of her commitment to Emerson UU Fellowship in Marietta, Georgia, so the Sunday Services Committee had to plan at least 26 services the next year and continued to work with Rev. Balof to plan services throughout her full-time tenure which began in 1996.

Time with the Children with Rev Balof  350 and Jennifer Morley
Rev. Terre Balof gathers the children in worship.

The committee and Rev. Balof became adept at filling in a Sunday Services Planning Calendar with themes and ideas for a year’s worth of services.  Some of the themes and plans changed as the year progressed, but the overview of the year provided a useful and successful framework on which to build the spiritual life of the congregation.  In 2008 Rev. Balof and members of the Sunday Service Committee (the “s” had been deleted by then) presented a workshop entitled “Orchestrating the Rhythm of Worship:  Annual Worship Planning” at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The workshop, designed to help small churches plan the worship year easily and quickly, was well received. The Sunday Service Committee continued to help plan services during the interim ministry of the Rev. David Johnson in 2008 to 2010.

Goddess quilt 250
Worship is tangible in this quilt created by Goddess Group members.

In the second decade of the 21st Century, the congregation is deepening its understanding and practice of Unitarian Universalist spirituality.  This developing understanding of what it means to connect with that which is both beyond and within self coincides with the movement begun by former Unitarian Universalist Association president the Rev. Bill Sinkford, and continued by current president the Rev. Peter Morales, calling UUs to reclaim religious language and to begin to talk more openly and freely about what they believe and practice.

As UUFA grows from a small-sized congregation to a mid-sized congregation, we are also engaging in new models of governance and ministry. The elected Board of Trustees has taken sole responsibility for the governance while the recently formed Ministry Council, made up of the minister, paid staff and lay ministers, oversees the various ministries of the Fellowship. Likewise, the idea of spiritual arts is blooming into a much larger understanding of what it means to be spiritual, that is, in Horace Montgomery’s words, how “to consider either human emotions or superhuman power.”

choir with african chant 320
Amber Fetner brings the choir’s voices together beautifully in a recent service.

The Spiritual Arts ministry category on the ministry chart of the Fellowship includes a broad spectrum of arts:  Religious Affinity Groups, such as the Goddess Group, those with Jewish heritage, those who identify with Pagan beliefs, and others; Music Ministry (which will be the focus of the August 60th Anniversary Celebration); Spiritual Practices, such as Writing as Spiritual Practice; the Art Gallery, which features a bi-monthly display of art in various genres by UUFA and other local artists; and, of course, Worship Arts, which includes the ushers, worship leaders, and the Worship Arts Committee.

Rev. Alison W. Eskildsen welcomes us.
Rev. Alison Eskildsen welcomes us.

With two worship services, Forum, and Religious Education for youth and adults, as well as a few committee meetings, Sunday mornings at UUFA remain the center of congregational life.  As the congregation has grown over the last 60 years, Sunday programs have evolved from the original lecture and art series of the 1950s and 1960s into something deeper and greater:  spiritual arts activities that provide thought-provoking, spirit-enriching experiences that help to send members of the congregation out to fulfill UUFA’s mission “to support our members and to commit deeply to our shared Unitarian Universalist principles by worshiping, playing, and exploring life’s meaning together, thus promoting love and justice in our larger community and the world.”


Our "Charlie Brown's Christmas" features lots of grownups sharing the joy of the season.
Our “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” features lots of grownups sharing the joy of the season.

For more 60th Anniversary news, visit the JUUbilee page.