The First Five Years of UUBC

by Dr. Jeffrey Tate

 

jefftateEver since moving to Rogers in 1993 Ellen and I had talked about our desire for a UU fellowship in Benton County; for we had found that our UU fellowships in Houston, Texas, gave us a congregational experience without supernaturalism. We eventually became members of UU Fayetteville but the drive felt too long, and it was hard to participate in any UU activities during the week. Still, we attended regularly and I served on the UU Fayetteville board of directors for three years. But it never quite felt like home.

The compulsion to start UU Benton County was one of the strangest experiences of my life; perhaps the strangest. It began about two years before our first UUBC meeting, and it grew stronger mostly against my wishes. I really did not have time to take on the project of starting a UU fellowship: I had a full-time medical practice and I was in the midst of working on a master’s degree in philosophy, my first love intellectually. And I didn’t know it, but I was soon to start teaching at the Humanist Institute. And I had absolutely no experience in starting any type of church or fellowship. But I couldn’t stop myself. I knew that I needed, and I hoped that others in Benton County needed, a fellowship to enjoy a congregational experience without supernaturalism; a community based on compassion and on the goal of developing the best about ourselves, of living up to our highest ideals. I had recently completed studies at the Humanist Institute in New York, and I had many years of studies in psychology and philosophy, all of which had given me an identity as  religious Humanist. So I felt that I could at least intellectually start and catalyze the formation of a UU fellowship. The biggest question was whether anyone else in Benton County would be interested.

 

In the fall of 2007 I created a homemade UUBC website, but I didn’t advertise it. Then for the next year I successfully talked myself out of starting UUBC. Throughout the fall of 2008 Ellen and I discussed the pros and cons of starting UUBC; the pros were all potential and in the future, the cons were all real and immediate: mostly obligations of time and effort. Nevertheless we slowly talked ourselves into proceeding. In January 2009, I read an announcement at the monthly Board meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville. Here, in part, is that announcement:

 

For a long time, among the members of UUFF there has been conversation about the need for a UU fellowship in Benton County—a UUBC. For the past two or three years, I have felt the urge to begin the process of creating UUBC. Recently, my circumstances have become right to make such an effort. Susan Smith, our UUA district executive, has given this effort her support.

 

This coming Sunday, the first meeting of UUBC will be held. I have reason to hope that a small crowd will attend. I will serve as lay leader. There will be a service and an invitation to become involved in UUBC. I hope this will be the first meeting of what will become a full-service UU church.

 

I had read a few books about “church planting.” The books said that a good way to start is to meet just one Sunday morning each month to avoid church-planter burnout, so that’s what we did. Before our first meeting, Iwhat-is-a-seed placed a 1-inch ad in the newspaper announcing a talk on “Christianity, Science, and Reason” to be presented Sunday, January 25th 2009 at 10:30 a.m. We met in the waiting room of my clinic; about 12 individuals attended, and I was thrilled. I collected email addresses to add to a Yahoo! distribution list. At the February 2009 meeting the next month I presented a talk on “Religious Humanism” and collected more email addresses to add to the UUBC Yahoo! group.

 

harrismckeeThereafter, UUBC met one Sunday a month, except for summers, over the next the next three years. The first two years we met in my clinic waiting room, setting up folding chairs, until attendance began to exceed the seating capacity of the space. I remember eagerly waiting at my office on Sunday mornings wondering whether anyone at all would show up. I think our smallest attendance was about nine. And here I want to acknowledge someone who, from nearly the beginning and unasked, showed up regularly on Saturdays to help set-up my waiting room for our Sunday meetings: Harris McKee. UUBC has been blessed with several individuals who have steadfastly supported its development, and I will mention a few later; however, Harris McKee is in a class by himself. In any way that he could help, he has helped; whatever he could do; he has done. Practically every UUBC meeting for the past 5 ½ years he has come early to set things up and stayed late to take things down. And Mary McKee has been at his side helping in every way.

 

For the first three years, I led all of the UUBC monthly meetings, and I delivered all of the homilies. The topics I talked about included:

 

  • Developmental Levels of Religious Belief
  • Moral Evolution and Development
  • The Development of Faith Over the Lifespan
  • Hinduism
  • Would Jesus Celebrate Christmas?
  • Easter for Modern-Thinking People
  • Why Be Moral?
  • Buddhism
  • Thank Whom or What? (at Thanksgiving)
  • The Real Meanings of Christmas
  • Rational Hope
  • Our Good News (about the evolution of compassion in human history)
  • Why Are You Here? (about the development of beauty, truth, and goodness in individuals)
  • Religion: Problem or Solution? (about the constructive aspects of religion)
  • What UU is All About
  • Living an Authentic Life
  • Is Faith Still Relevant (faith in the progress of Goodness)
  • The Meaning of Life (which is one’s personal development of beauty, truth, and goodness)

 

In addition to the homily, each of our monthly meetings included a few minutes of Zen-style meditation, and starting in September of 2009 we acquired UU hymnals and added singing to our meetings. We began to pass the plate to collect an offering in September 2009, and from the first our collection has always been adequate to cover our expenses. The second year of our meetings, as we began to get crowded in my waiting room, we tried to hold two Sunday morning meetings, the first at 9:30 a.m. But there were never more than six or seven in attendance at the early service, so after several attempts, we stopped that.

 

Our first three years, when we met just once a month, we also held a Saturday evening social event monthly, usually at my home. These were potluck affairs and gave us a chance to get to know one another. We usually had 10 to 15 in attendance.

 

From January 2009 through May 2010, we had no Sunday school program for children, so our meetings were essentially adult-only. In September 2010 we hired Rachel Meyers as a one-room Sunday school teacher, tateofficeand we held children’s Sunday school in an empty room at my office building. Rachel led our Sunday school program for the next three years, with an assistant after the first year, until she went to law school in Atlanta in the summer of 2013. Rachel did a wonderful job, and our current teachers continue that fine effort.

 

On March 15, 2011, Rev. Susan Smith, the UU Southwestern District Executive met at my office with representatives of UUBC to advise us in how to proceed to develop further. At that meeting were, besides me, Jane Barfield, Carol Bobek, Michelle Harvey, and Tony Miltich, most of whom have continued to give regularly of their time, talents, and financial support. Rev. Smith’s main advice was not to have a rigid idea of what UUBC should become—to let its people guide its development—and to provide for the three main reasons that people go to churches: for community, for spiritual growth, and to implement social service ideals.

 

I had learned about the World Café method of brainstorming during my time as a student at the Humanist Institute, and I was eager to give it a try in creating a direction for UUBC’s future. So in January 2011, at one of those Saturday evening socials at my home, we held our first UUBC World Café with about 20 in attendance. The key ideas from our first World Café were: to meet more than just one Sunday morning each month; to create more small-group opportunities such as book-discussion groups and dinner groups and adult Sunday school classes; to increase our profile in Benton County via social service projects; and to have a separate Sunday school class for pre-teens and teens. One of the ideas was to create a Lunch Bunch right after our Sunday meetings.

 

Mary and Harris McKee have often made this happen. We have had a UUBC World Café every year since then. Our current Sunday meeting schedule, and our rotating meeting formats are direct outgrowths from our first two World Cafés.

 

holiday-inn-express-and-suites-rogers-3606889805-4x3Because we needed more space, in September 2011 we began meeting—still just monthly—in the ballroom of the Holiday Inn in Rogers, also renting a room for children’s Sunday school; our UUBC supplies were stored in big rolling bins the back of my Ford Explorer. Shortly thereafter we hired our first keyboardist, David Arivett, to provide our music, although he had to leave after a few months. We could tell immediately that having more music and having professional musicians make a big improvement in enjoyment and in attendance. By then several individuals were regularly helping to set-up for our Sunday meetings, and helping with social activities, but there was no formal leadership of UUBC other than me, until September of 2011, twenty months after our first Sunday meeting. At that time, I asked several highly supportive individuals to serve on a board of advisors for UUBC. These first members of our Board were: Dave Barfield, Harris McKee, Carol Bobek, Tony Miltich, Michelle Harvey, and Kay Weiderhaft. Since January 2012 the Board has met most months, and has provided the month-to- month guidance for UUBC.

 

The shift from once-a- month Sunday meetings, to meeting every Sunday is a point where many new churches fail because the increased workload is often overwhelming. So, in the spring of 2012, when we decided to meet every Sunday starting that September, the Board knew that we needed lots of help to put on a service every week. So we asked for the creation of “Sunday Support Teams,” one support team for each Sunday of the month, to handle the arrangements for that particular Sunday format. In July 2012, we had a big organizational meeting of all the Support Team volunteers at my office building. At that meeting, the each support team was charged with creating a plan for one Sunday each month for the next year.

 

As we moved from one meeting per month to meeting every Sunday, it was a good time for me to step down as managing church planter and preacher. I very much enjoy giving homilies, but it takes about 20 hours to elhslodgecompose a good homily, and other obligations were demanding my time. So at our March 2012 Sunday meeting, three years after starting UUBC, I announced that I was stepping down from my position as active “church planter,” but that I would continue to be an active UUBC participant and a Board member. I rotated off the Board at the end of 2014 to make room for fresh ideas. But I have continued to preside at most of our Sunday meetings, and I often deliver the Sunday homily. Since we were going to meet every Sunday and, we hoped, grow in attendance, we needed a meeting place that was inexpensive enough, large enough, and  conveniently located. So we moved to the Elks’ Club lodge in Rogers, where we met for the next couple of years. Since then we have met at Little Einstein Montessori School in Bentonville.

 

2016-06-05 09.57.32Our 2013 World Café identified three key needs: our own dedicated meeting space with 24-7 access; having a UU minister; and defining UUBC membership criteria and becoming a full member congregation of the national UU Association. Taskforces were assigned to investigate those issues. We learned that a minister would cost at least $80,000 a year; that our own space at a convenient location would cost at least $2000 per month; and we do now have membership criteria, which were announced this 2014. Full voting members are those who attend more than 25% of our Sunday meetings, who make and fulfill a financial pledge to UUBC, and who attend educational sessions about UU.

 

At our March 2014 World Café the primary needs that were identified were:

 

  • More intellectually stimulating content on Sunday mornings
  • A stronger sense of UUBC community
  • Better marketing of UUBC to the people of Benton County
  • More meaningful ritual elements on Sunday mornings
  • Starting and closing services with a song or recitation
  • Singing the children away to Sunday school
  • Celebrations of seasonal holidays
  • Find a way to have our own dedicated meeting space

 

So that’s our five-year history so far. We have developed from being an idea owned by one person to a community owned by us all. At a Sunday meeting in 2012 I called for a development from audience to ownership. A score of individuals have vigorously answered that call, and made UUBC as we know it happen. As the church planter, I am very gratified to see us develop from seed, to sprout, to sapling.

 

What of our future? Can we develop from a sapling into a beautiful, sheltering, nurturing, tree with various places for all kinds of activities and interests? Well, here is the UUBC Vision Statement that I used to include on the back of every Sunday bulletin:

 

Imagine UUBC in the next several years:

  • Weekly Sunday Services
  • Full-time professional UU minister, carefully selected for education, speaking abilities, and for inspiring leadership toward being the best that we can become
  • Choir presenting uplifting music and songs every week
  • Sunday school for children and teens teaching the UU Seven Principles; and teaching the world’s religions, not as dogma but as human creations; teaching the fundamentals of the Enlightenment values and compassionate relationships
  • Adult Sunday school teaching the world’s wisdom literature, the sciences, and philosophy as they apply to our developing toward our full capabilities and growing unendingly toward mental maturity
  • Social outreach projects in our local society, where we enact our UU Seven Principles
  • Youth Group for teens
  • Lectures and presentations open to everyone introducing them to UU, teaching them non-dogmatic spirituality, even teaching them the wisdom of Christianity with non-dogmatic interpretations, and revealing to them the universal and highest values of wisdom and compassion.

 

Creating such a community—that is what we can do together, that is what UUBC can be. There is no other organization like it: no college, no other church. This is a vision and a possibility; only you, by taking ownership of that vision, by making it your personal project, can make it real. It will take your presence, your time, your money, and most importantly your participation in planning and carrying out our development. I hope that you will join me and others to do just that!”

 

Well, that’s a vision for UUBC that I still like. But it would require an average weekly attendance of about 150. That’s more than three times our current average attendance. And it would require a monthly income of about $15,000. That’s about seven times our current income.

 

These days, realistically, I foresee our future development as small, manageable, experimental steps to implement the ideas for improvement gathered from each annual World Café. In this way UUBC can gradually develop and improve, staying very close to what its members want their spiritual community to be and to provide them, without overextending our human and financial resources. Our best developmental path is through small steps, always readjusting to internal and external conditions.

 

I think that our future will depend of course on the continued involvement of our “old guard” of UUBC who created its first five years and who sustain its present—but growth and additional progress will require the new ideas and added energies of a “new guard” of UUBC members as well. Many of you can be in that new guard. You can be new leaders of an ever growing and ever improving Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Benton County. I need that, you need that, and Benton County definitely needs that.