History of Bis-Man UU
Excerpt from a UUA article on History of Bis-Man UU
The history of Bis-Man UU cannot be touched upon without mentioning one of its founding members, Betty Mills. The following is an excerpt from an article describing the formation of our church.
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.
History of Bis-Man UU – The Importance of Outside Help
Obviously, these two budding fellowships needed more help than their members could provide. The two communities received critical support from settled ministers in other cities. The Rev. Dr. Rudolph Gilbert of the First Unitarian Church of Denver drove once a month to lead the Sunday service and meet with the leadership in Boulder. (The other Sundays worship featured either one of the members or a guest lecturer.) The Rev. Arthur Foote II of St. Paul, Minnesota supported the Bismarck group. He undertook the seven-hour drive to perform weddings and memorial services and 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.”
History of Bis-Man UU – The Minister Question
As they began to grow, they stopped meeting in each others’ homes. They first acquired an existing building for all of $35,000 and then built 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 hired a full-time minister, but that lasted only two years. 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. They desired someone to provide pastoral counseling. Having a minister would 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. Finally, as in most fellowships, the members felt a great sense of pride and achievement which they feared would be diluted by reliance on a paid professional. In any case, when the minister left, she was not replaced.
History of Bis-Man UU – Where We Are Today
Today, the Bismarck fellowship continues to fulfill the religious needs of its members using its own resources. UUA headquarters and the Prairie Star District provide aid whenever possible. The fellowship won the UUA Bennett Award for social justice work in 2001.
Betty Mills – a founding member of Bismarck-Mandan Unitarian Universalist Fellowship