A precarious path

A precarious path

The do-it-yourself fellowship movement spread Unitarian congregations far and wide.

Warren R. Ross


One morning in 1947, Lenore Stewart of Boulder, Colorado, became aware that her four-year-old son was going door-to-door asking his neighbors whether they would please take him to Sunday school. Dumbfounded, Stewart realized that he had taken her too literally. A Mormon by birth who no longer found the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints acceptable, she had explained to him that she did not believe the things he would be taught in Sunday school, so that if he wanted to go he would have to find someone else to take him. Well, there he was, looking.

Having heard of Unitarianism from a friend, and determined to find a religious education program in line with her convictions, Stewart thought it might fit her needs. There was, however, no Unitarian church in Boulder nor anywhere reasonably close. By coincidence, she spotted a notice in the local paper that the minister of the Unitarian church in Denver would be lecturing at the state university, and she went up to him afterwards to ask his advice.

“Well,” he said, “you are just going to have to do it yourself,” and told her where to write for Unitarian curriculum materials. That was the seed from which grew the first of the lay fellowships formed under a novel program launched by what was then the American Unitarian Association (AUA). Starting in 1948 and flourishing through the early ’60s, this program attracted thousands of new members to hundreds of new fellowships, some of which are among our most vibrant congregations today.

But while the do-it-yourself movement spread Unitarian congregations far and wide—estimates range from 400 to 600 new congregations—many remained much smaller than denominational leaders hoped, and many others failed after promising starts. While new fellowships continue to form today, Unitarian Universalist growth experts no longer regard the fellowship program as the ideal model for developing new congregations. But the fellowship movement gave the denomination far greater geographical reach and indelibly shifted its theological identity, its culture, and its worship practices. Looking back, the fellowships were a bold experiment in liberal religion, and new models of congregational growth continue to draw on their lessons.

From the end of World War II through the years after the consolidation of the AUA and the Universalist Church of America in 1961, the fellowship program helped hundreds of small congregations get started using a surprisingly simple model. The first fellowship, in Boulder, was a sterling example. Lenore Stewart and a few other mothers started using the curriculum she received from the AUA to teach their kids in their own homes on Sunday mornings. As the group expanded, the parents decided to get together themselves on Sunday evenings, and after they’d outgrown their homes, began to meet in rental spaces such as the Congregational church. As their numbers kept increasing, they looked for a permanent meeting place and eventually first rented and then bought a decrepit carriage house that they fixed up with their own labor. Eventually, the congregation called a minister and took on other characteristics of a church—and spawned a second fellowship—but that’s jumping ahead, and does not describe the course all fellowships followed.

Unbeknownst to these Boulder pioneers, so many young parents were searching for a liberal religious community that AUA leaders had started talking about ways to support them. In the 1940s, Unitarians were still heavily concentrated in the Northeast, especially in New England where their tradition had its origins. Outside of a few scattered cities, anyone interested in Unitarianism in most of the rest of the country had to be content, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “to be a Unitarian by myself.” With the baby boom just getting under way, though, many liberal parents like the Stewarts were searching for a religious home for themselves and their children. Because many of them were moving to the suburbs that were sprouting outside of metropolitan areas, they often had no social or religious ties in their new communities. Thus many of the new fellowships were formed in mushrooming suburbs.

Having voted in 1945 to explore forming lay-led “centers” in communities with too few Unitarians to warrant a church, the AUA board in May 1948 launched the Lay Fellowship Plan suggested by the Rev. Lon Ray Call, the AUA’s minister-at-large. His premise was that previous extension efforts lacked flexibility, so he suggested that each of these new units be permitted to “choose its own leaders and evolve its own purposes, goals, methods of operation, mood, setting, philosophy, and emphasis.” Headquarters would help the groups get started with ideas, suggestions, and worship and religious education materials, but otherwise they should be left to work out their own destinies. Part of the rationale was that there were simply not enough ordained ministers to support a lot of new congregations, so that any meaningful program of growth would have to depend on lay leadership.

The AUA appointed a layperson, Munroe Husbands, as director of the new program. Husbands was also the appointed clerk of the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF), which the AUA had organized in 1944 to serve isolated Unitarians through the mail. (Two years later, the Universalist Church of America formed a similar nonresident church. The two were united in 1961. Today, CLF serves more than 3,000 members.) Husbands would scan CLF’s mailing lists to see where there might be clusters of Unitarians, and when he spotted three or more, he wrote to ask whether they were aware of each other and encouraged them to meet. If that worked, he would then plan to visit and suggest they form a fellowship.

By the time he came to Boulder, Lenore Stewart and her fellow pioneers had already established a core structure, with her husband, Omer C. Stewart, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado, serving as president. They liked what Husbands had to tell them about the new program, and on July 28, 1948, the Unitarian Fellowship of Boulder was officially recognized by the Association as the first of its new lay-led congregations.

“Husbands was a modern version of the old Universalist circuit riders,” according to the Rev. Dr. John C. Morgan, minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County in Reading, Pennsylvania. Morgan served for five years in the late 1980s as a church growth consultant at UUA headquarters and spent many hours interviewing Husbands to learn from his experience. (Husbands died in 1984.) “He would come into town, book a public site for a presentation, meet with people interested in forming a new group, provide them with resources, and then keep going,” Morgan says. “He would try to stay in touch with them, but the denomination lacked the resources to help them to keep going.” As a result, while Husbands helped an astonishing number of fellowships get started, only about half survived for more than a few years.

Another of the many communities Husbands went to visit was Bismarck, North Dakota, where a fellowship was formed with fifteen or so members in 1952. Betty Mills, one of two surviving founders, explains that Husbands visited in 1951 after another of the pioneers had written to Boston for information about lay-led Unitarian groups. But Bismarck’s course differed from Boulder’s in several respects. Unlike Boulder—the site of a state university and within Denver’s orbit of growth—Bismarck remains small and isolated. Except during a brief 1950s oil boom, there was never a large pool of the young professionals and academics who formed the core of many new fellowships. Today membership stands at forty-eight, and the group remains lay-led.

One helpful experience the two communities shared is that they received critical support from settled ministers in other cities. The Rev. Dr. Rudolph Gilbert of the First Unitarian Church of Denver—the same person who had suggested to Stewart that she start her own Sunday school—drove once a month to lead the Sunday service and meet with the leadership in Boulder. (The other Sundays, as remains the pattern in many fellowships, worship featured either one of the members or a guest lecturer.) These were the days of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red hunt, and Dr. Gilbert’s outspoken attacks on the threats to freedom made the fellowship a beacon of liberalism. The Rev. Catharine Harris, who serves Boulder’s second fellowship, has written that the Unitarians “provided the only anti-McCarthy platform in the greater Denver area.”

Supporting the Bismarck group was the Rev. Arthur Foote II of St. Paul, Minnesota, who would undertake the seven-hour drive to perform weddings and memorial services and, while he was there, give professional help and guidance. “The Twin City ministers helped us to survive,” says Betty Mills. “Once we knew a minister was coming, we would schedule children’s dedications, as well as workshops and conferences.”

As they began to grow, they stopped meeting in each others’ homes, first acquiring an existing building for all of $35,000, and then building their own in 1959. From 1983 to 1986, Bismarck shared an extension minister, the Rev. Lucy Hitchcock, with a fellowship in Fargo. (Extension ministers were paid by headquarters to help new and struggling groups get better established.) In 1989 they were able to afford a full-time minister, but that lasted only two years, and the reaction of the members is illustrative of the ambivalence many fellowships felt (and some still feel) about giving up their adventure in self-sufficiency.

Those in favor of calling a minister, Mills recalls, welcomed the presence of someone trained to help them cope with death and other crises, to provide pastoral counseling, and to raise the visibility of the congregation, especially in relation to other ministers. “Also,” she mentions, “visitors would be unnerved by not seeing a minister in the pulpit, and often not come back.”

Those who resisted the change, on the other hand, were concerned that they might lose the sense of being a tight-knit community. “Everyone knew everyone, and we developed personal relationships that not only enriched our lives but that enabled us to be highly effective in social action,” she says. Also, they liked the variety of having members and guests take turns leading the Sunday services. And finally, as in most fellowships, there was a great sense of pride and achievement that they feared would be diluted by reliance on a paid professional.

In any case, when the minister left, she was not replaced. Today, the Bismarck fellowship continues to fulfill the religious needs of its members using its own resources, with such help as UUA headquarters and the Prairie Star District are able to provide. A proud moment came in 2001 when the fellowship won the UUA Bennett Award for social justice work.

In Boulder, a similar ambivalence about the effects of growth led some of the founders to leave the congregation, disappointed by the fruits of their own success. Both membership and programs had flourished, with nationally known speakers, weekly square dances, an active religious education program, and well-attended discussions about human rights, capital punishment, the position of women, and Unitarian principles. It was time, the majority felt, to become a church and call a minister. Early in 1957, they retained one part-time, his salary paid in part by the AUA; in 1959 they made the relationship full-time. Four years later, they broke ground for a new building, as church school enrollment—there was by this time also a professional director of religious education—and attendance at Sunday services both reached 250.

Not everyone was happy. According to a fellowship history, many of the original founders felt that the organization “was no longer to their liking and . . . did not fulfill their needs.” They missed the grass-roots independence they had enjoyed and feared that, no longer being a “fringe group” themselves, their impact on social issues was being diluted because they could not relate as well to racial minorities and other alienated people. In any case, in 1979, some members, including many of the founders, formed a new fellowship. Forty-two of an estimated 375 church members signed on as fellowship members the first week.

Such conflicts were by no means unusual among fellowships and sometimes wound up killing them. But in Boulder, the new fellowship also thrived—and eventually called its own minister. In 1998 the two congregations, with a combined membership of close to 500, jointly celebrated the fiftieth year of a Unitarian Universalist presence in Boulder, Colorado.

“Sometimes I wonder,” Laile Bartlett quotes an early fellowship member in Bright Galaxy, her 1960 Beacon Press book about the fellowship movement, “if the true meaning of Unitarianism can be known to anyone who has not struggled and bumbled through his [sic] own first sermon, and who has not respectfully listened to the spiritual birth pangs of his fellow laymen.”

No wonder there was great ambivalence about ministers in many fellowships, and that this ambivalence, in turn, sometimes proved to be a major cause of dissension. It was, incidentally, often mirrored by ambivalence about fellowships among parish ministers. When Munroe Husbands was presented with the Distinguished Service Award at the 1974 General Assembly, some clergy grumbled that the “rival groups” he had spawned—many assertively anti-clerical—should not be celebrated.

Another source of tension was the desire by a growing number of members to find more institutional stability, including a more permanent meeting place. Quoting some of the many early members she had interviewed, Laile Bartlett reports that some felt that “dissent needs institutional organization to make itself effective,” and that structure was required to offset “a rootlessness which is frightening.” Those who disagreed saw institutionalization as a threat, saying, “We won’t be ourselves anymore!” These debates led a minister trying to help struggling fellowships to observe: “The day on which the building plans are trotted out is they day from which their troubles begin.”

In the denomination at large, however, the growth generated by the fellowship movement was widely welcomed. By 1958, Bartlett reports, 315 fellowships had been formed, attracting an estimated 10,000 members, of whom three-fourths were new to the denomination. Of that original 315, some 40 had already failed, while 26 had become churches (though not necessarily changing their names). No wonder she called the movement “the growing edge of the denomination.”

The Rev. Peter Raible estimated in 1958 that one-third of all new members had first joined fellowships, and reported that 43 percent of Unitarian congregations were either fellowships or churches that had previously been fellowships. In 1974, someone asked at a General Assembly plenary session, “How many of you discovered Unitarian Universalism through the fellowship movement?” and half the delegates stood up. Twenty years ago, John Morgan estimated that a third of all congregations had at one time been fellowships—but he also noted that between 1937 and 1983, 300 Unitarian or Universalist congregations had closed.

How many of the Husbands-era fellowships still survive as lay-led congregations is difficult to determine. What seems certain, however, is that while some of the original fellowships continue as lay-led congregations, many more have either called ministers and become churches in all but name (and sometimes in name as well), or have faded away.

Munroe Husbands and the leaders of the AUA confidently assumed that the fellowships would be the seeds from which new churches would grow, but as Husbands came to realize, “The fond belief that once Unitarianism has been introduced in the community, little or no effort is needed to attract new members is false.” The notion that they might stay small, that they might even want to stay small, came as a surprise, but as the Boulder experience shows, not all the founders sought to grow or call a minister. Many wanted to avoid the changes that would come with institutional structure, so—consciously or not—they often discouraged growth.

As a result, once the pioneer generation grew older, moved away, or lost interest, there often was no one to pick up the mantle of leadership. Denominational leaders obviously did not welcome this phenomenon, especially as these small groups were (as the extension staff came to think of it) often “sitting on the franchise”—that is, they made it impossible to encourage another, more growth-minded group to go into competition with them.

Sometimes, of course, the fellowship leaders welcomed competition. In Prescott, Arizona, a minority of the Prescott Unitarian Universalist Fellowship’s members wanted “more church.” They pushed and pushed, until the leadership agreed that they should feel free to leave and start their own congregation. Five years ago some two dozen of the growth-minded folks did just that. Today Prescott’s Granite Peak Unitarian Universalist Church has some 110 members and the Prescott Fellowship has 61, and both are flourishing and content to be what they are.

There were other reasons why so many fellowships failed to flourish. Husbands himself mentioned “creeping apathy; the domination of the group by a few people; personality problems.” In such a tight environment, even relatively trivial differences could prove lethal. A common cause of contention centered on the Sunday offering. They needed the money, obviously, but was taking a collection too reminiscent of the orthodoxies they had left behind? Too coercive? Some groups compromised by leaving the collection plates by the exit. Others decided that plates were unacceptable, but baskets were okay. It was a symptom of the fact that many new Unitarians were “come-outers” who, in the words of one of them, needed to “spit out” their childhood “indoctrination” before they could discover the positive aspects of liberal religion. They resisted not only offerings but hymns, responsive readings, and sermons—unless they were called by another name.

As Laile Bartlett, herself the wife of a minister, wrote: “In the unpretentiousness of their structure, the fellowships are almost defenseless, far more than the church, against personal idiosyncrasies and pressure. There is no place to hide the human defect and no way to hide from it.” Because the typical fellowship was so small, she added, “one or two troubled souls can not only rock the boat; they can capsize it.” By contrast, she claimed, “the professionally cool and objective leadership” of a minister can spot danger signals and handle them.

While not as successful as hoped as the denomination’s instrument for growth, the fellowships did meet many individuals’ search for religious fulfillment. They also rejuvenated the denomination at large. Even traditional, well-established Unitarian and Universalist churches, miles away from the nearest fellowship, are not the same as they would have been if fellowships had never been invented.

The Rev. Catharine Harris of the Boulder fellowship, reviewing the history of her community and citing studies by the Rev. Daniel O’Neal, arrived at this assessment of the fellowships’ impact:

  • They had a secularizing influence, narrowing “the focus of the religious endeavor on the . . . intellect,” and putting “a significant damper on spirituality.”

  • Many adopted a rational scientism that shunned metaphor, especially traditional religious metaphors.

  • They tended to accelerate rebellion against and suspicion of authority and promoted anticlericalism.

  • They fostered a spirit of parochialism, including a reluctance to see themselves as part of a larger Unitarian Universalist family.

  • They felt a lack of historic continuity, in fact often remained deliberately ignorant of the tradition of which they were a part.

But Harris noted that the fellowships also brought several boons to the Unitarian Universalist movement:

  • They brought a geographical redistribution to the denomination, making it a far more continental movement.

  • They generated involvement and enthusiasm among a new and often younger crop of volunteers.

  • They fostered a creative spirit of experimentation in worship and programs, loosening “the sometimes staid formality that can become entrenched in traditional churches.”

The Rev. Tom Chulak, who headed the UUA’s New Congregations Program in the early 1980s, adds that Unitarianism had traditionally been both hierarchical and patriarchal. The new fellowships rejected both models, giving lay people an opportunity to discover their potential for leadership and often bringing women into leadership roles. At first the rejection of historic patterns sometimes led to outright hostility toward professional clergy. When this anticlerical impulse died down, what developed was a power shift from clergy to laity, opening the possibility of today’s concept of shared ministry.

The fellowships also changed our perception of where Unitarian Universalist worship could appropriately take place, as they met not in steepled churches but in fire houses, YMCAs, offices, and private homes. When they did build, they often strove for structures as un-churchlike as possible. (Many of their buildings were also tucked away in scenic but out-of-the-way spots, accessible only by car, without even a prominent sign—discouraging walk-ins and reinforcing the socioeconomic narrowness of our denomination.) They also introduced far greater informality into what’s considered suitable for worship: dance, talk-backs after sermons, drama, and pop and other nonreligious music. Today these practices have thoroughly saturated all but the most traditional of our churches, but the fellowships embraced them first.

They were often quite daring in challenging social conventions, too. In the still-segregated South, some fellowships were pioneers in accepting black members. Among them, the group in Jackson, Mississippi, was not only repeatedly evicted from its meeting sites, but members were threatened with the loss of their jobs for opposing segregation.

Laile Barlett concluded that the fellowships had “jolted the denomination from its rather comfortable complacency . . . into an alert awareness of new needs and new problems.” After talking to many of the early members, she saw a common denominator in their sense of discovery bordering on awe at the growth and sharing they had forged for themselves. When she asked them to sum up what it meant to them, they again and again said: “Well . . . it’s fellowship.”

Few people today have as broad a perspective on the fellowship movement as John Morgan and Tom Chulak, who studied it intensively in an attempt to develop new strategies for extension. Morgan not only served as an extension consultant; he simultaneously ministered to two fellowships. Later, as an extension minister for the Joseph Priestley District, he spent considerable time working with new and existing fellowships. Considering how many folded, he sums up the fellowship record as one of “mixed blessings.” But at the same time he found them to be “exciting places to be, and often in areas we never could have organized a full-service congregation.” The ones that continue to thrive, he describes as “vital, open to change, willing to accept ministers in partnership for growth, and eager to share their faith with others.”

He stresses that the assumption that fellowships were uniformly antigrowth and anticlerical is wrong. “Of the five fellowships I have served,” he says, “only one exhibited these characteristics.” More typical was the Thomas Paine Fellowship in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, which was about to close when a few leaders decided that what they had was worth sharing. Morgan became their first part-time minister, and says he still cherishes his time there. Today the congregation has some 120 members and a church school enrollment of more than 60.

Chulak does not minimize the fact that so many fellowships failed, but he describes the movement as “an amazing and bold experiment that gave us new models for being together.”

Morgan, commenting on today’s emphasis on starting large multi-staff churches, expresses the hope that this objective can be combined with the spiritual depth and intimacy characteristic of fellowships. He sees small group ministry within larger congregations as a possible solution. “Here, small groups of people meet throughout the week, Sunday becoming the point at which the entire church gathers,” he explains. “This model meets the need for small groups and for a larger church at the same time.”

That would be the ideal lesson to be learned from the fellowships’ experience: to assure the continuity of the new congregations by wedding institutional strength to their enthusiasm, their pride in personal discovery, their sense of being a family.

The story of Carl Stewart, who as a four-year-old gave his parents the impetus to found the first of the fellowships, illustrates the importance of such continuity. He says: “My membership in the Boulder Fellowship has given me an undogmatic frame of reference in looking at the world. But most important, it has given me a place to send my son so that he, in turn, can develop an open view of religion.” Therein lies a lesson for all future efforts to stimulate extension: We should build not only to satisfy the founders’ needs, but for future generations.

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