Meadville Lombard Theological School
When I was approaching graduation -- or at least departure -- from Meadville/Lombard Theological School in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, I had very little idea of what sort of church to look for. All I knew was that I was desperate to get back to the West, preferably to Montana.
My “home” minister in Portland, Oregon, Alan Deale had said to me two things that suddenly struck me hard. One was that for ministers Unitarian Universalism is an urban religion because it needs population density to accumulate the critical mass necessary to support a building and a professional minister. The other was that through the rest of my life as a minister, I would not be associating with other ministers but rather with the members of my congregation, with a little peripheral relationship to other non-UU church ministers. I was about fed up with Chicago and I had learned to speak a language that lay people could not or did not want to hear.
Alan Deale and Mary Scriver
What he did not tell me, or I just didn’t hear, was that as much as I admired him and Peter Raible, the Seattle minister, I did not understand that their dedication was to the institution rather than to the ideal. Also, the UU denomination has very much a “learned” ministry at that time bumping against a spiritual surge from the Sixties and Seventies. It is open to the culture in which it exists and vulnerable to all the same dilemmas: race, sex, war, and money. The “association” (rather than denomination) is an often uncomfortable assortment of various free-will congregations of different sizes, styles, expectations, and budgets. Like all institutions, the association was relentless in its emphasis on membership and endowments because those were the indices of survival. If they went too low, the “denomination” would gutter out.
Two “old hands,” even more experienced than Deale and Raible -- or maybe I should say masters of a different body of understanding -- loved the prairie as much as I did and set out to find a way to get me there. One was Emil Gudmundson, an Icelandic Canadian, and the other was Russ Lockwood, a man of the American Mid- and SouthWest. Both were ministerial “district execs” meaning that they oversaw regional events and connections. Both were committed to growth in terms of small congregations.
The Universalist denomination had been smaller, more rural, more Christian, than the academically anchored Unitarians. When the 1961 merger between the Unitarians and Universalists happened, the more conservative and cautious Universalists managed to shelter some of their assets in secret paper instruments. Russ Lockwood knew about this and saw me as a chance to use it. Both men set about persuading the Montana fellowships, as ornery and independent as any, that having a minister was essential to their well-being and would magically cause growth. A little conference was arranged in Great Falls where I was introduced like a prospective bride.
Montana had six lay-led “fellowships,” which were a 1948 invention for places that did not have populations that would support a minister, a step up from the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a mail-order congregation, and also a necessity at a time when there was a shortage of ministers. Munroe Husbands was a circuit-riding minister except that he didn’t set up loops. Rather he played “Johnny Applechurch” all across the nation. Of the hundreds of groups he started by providing a public lecture, some advice, and a box of materials, about half failed after a few years.
Whitefish (Glacier) said they were not interested. Neither was Billings. Helena was, but despite having an actual church at the turn of the 19th century, they were having trouble sticking together as a fellowship. The two university towns, Bozeman and Missoula, thought it was a matter of conscience to do this extension effort but feared being drained of resources to serve the small weak groups. Great Falls was the town I knew the best and they were the ones who knew of Bob Scriver, the charismatic sculptor to whom I’d been married in the Sixties. Two Montana towns, Red Lodge and Butte, had once had churches that collapsed in the Depression and never recovered because their economic base was mining.
The four fellowships who agreed to the idea -- Bozeman, Missoula, Great Falls and Helena -- each pledged, but the bulk of the money came from the Universalist cache in the Midwest. I might have been technically an employee of the UUA, though I was ordained by the Helena fellowship on the stage of the Grand Street Theatre that had once been the Unitarian Church. When that congregation collapsed, the building was given to the City of Helena, leased for $1 a year, with the provision that it would always be used for civic improvement. It’s first use was as the library. When the new Lewis and Clark library was built, the building was nearly bought by a restaurant chain, but Don Marble, an alert and progressive lawyer with UU leanings, blocked the transaction. It became the Grand Street Theatre and I was ordained on the set of “Death of a Salesman.”
In the days of the original church, the ministers had done a bit of mission work, always traveling by trains that criss-crossed the state, mostly to serve the mining industry. My plan was to keep a pied a terre in Helena but to live in a van, more basic than an RV. My salary was $12,000 and my expense money was $12,000 ANNUALLY. No insurance, no retirement, no bennies. The first vehicle was a pickup with a camper but no brakes. The second was a Ford F150 cargo van that had been used for mining investigations so that the motor, which had run machinery, was much older than the rest of the vehicle. It was subsidized by a member of the Helena congregation. Antennas for radio transmissions had been removed from the side, leaving holes. When the wind was just right, they played a pleasing chord. Otherwise, I cobbled up a plywood box across the rear for a bed and a plywood box along one side for a desk. I had a series of rough baskets for hymnals and other books, and one bag for clothes.
At Meadville I rarely saw Russ, who traveled the SW, but Emil came through now and then and since we had things to talk about that were not of interest to the usual Curtis Room lounge crowd, and since I was living in the big old Fleck House, which had no living room and where my upstairs bedroom would be suspect, we sat halfway up the stairs of Fleck House for long talks about which town might grow and how to make it happen. I always wanted it to be Great Falls, closer to “home,” but Emil pitched for Billings. We couldn’t quite figure out how to manage to get Lethbridge into the mix, though it was only a short distance into Canada, well within Blackfeet Country. Either Russ or Emil told me a wonderful story of flying in a small airplane over the prairie along the border. Each of us thought, “If only I were a pilot!”
We talked a lot about logistics, but very little about what the content ought to be. As it turned out, some people thought it was a church for divorced people and free sex (that Aquarian influence) and others felt it should be purely scientific. All agreed -- without admitting it -- that they thought a church should be a source of high status. They were a little disappointed that I wasn't jazzier, more of a prize winner.
My contract was for three years. If the fellowships could pay for the program to continue, there was no reason to stop as there was for Interim Ministers, who in those days were forbidden to stay more than one year. By 1985 it was a moot point since I was exhausted. At age 46 I went to Kirkland, WA, as an interim. Older women had become the “adjunct faculty” of the UUMA, taking the small, short, underpaid jobs and moving often. But what a glorious three years it was!