This history was originally compiled by our historian, Dot Hornsby, then condensed by our Ministerial Search Team, then updated by our office administrator, Wendy Altmeier.
In the late nineteenth century, the Rev. Albert Walkley, a former Episcopalian minister who came to embrace liberal Christianity, apparently found his life’s work in organizing Unitarian societies throughout the Midwest. The Midland Unitarian Church was one of his societies, established in 1885, with its own building — “a handsome little structure with Queen Anne proclivities” — capable of seating two hundred, completed in the summer of 1886. Unfortunately, this society did not thrive; and after housing the ﬁrst Midland library, the Church of the Nazarene, and an automobile agency, in turn, the building itself was ﬁnally torn down in 1938.
In 1954, the society which became the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland was initiated by a half dozen couples who were, independently of one another, members of the Unitarian Church of the Larger Fellowship, and who shared an interest in discussing religious and ethical issues. They met in each others’ homes at ﬁrst; then, as they grew and developed a religious education program, their weekly meetings were held in the Midland Community Center. Finally, in 1962, when the membership included some thirty families, with almost seventy children among them, they raised the funds to build the ﬁrst piece of the current Unitarian Universalist Fellowship building. This building was enlarged in 1973, with the help of funds provided when the Unitarian Society of Bay City dissolved. The building was enlarged again in 1992, when we doubled the size of the facility with a beautiful new sanctuary after a capital fund campaign.
The Unitarian (and then Unitarian Universalist) Fellowship that evolved was, for many years, very much a product of its discussion group roots. Members took turns presenting a topic, or ﬁnding a speaker to present a topic, with subjects ranging from psychoanalysis and religion, to racial problems in America, to Walt Whitman, to “Should Unitarian Children Pray?” The speakers were frequently area ministers, and from time to time the fellowship invited a minister to join us on a more regular basis, speaking once a month, or even spending one full week a month, to provide ministry in addition to Sunday services. We had a part-time minister from 1979 to 1982, an extension minister from 1984 to 1985, and another part time minister from 1989 to 1993. (This last minister, Rev. Karuna Kistler, became a source of contention, and left under allegations of sexual harassment, creating division in the fellowship that took some years to heal.)
During this evolutionary period of the Seventies and Eighties, we developed a strong paraministry (pastoral care) team, and an increasingly active RE program, led by a series of dedicated lay directors, ﬁrst on a volunteer basis and eventually as paid staﬀ. We also grew a choir during this period, and hired a part-time choir director in 1990. To a certain extent, this maturation was stimulated by our interaction with the UUA and with the district. There were several members over a period of 10 or 15 years who made a point of going to General Assembly whenever possible, of attending district meetings, and of serving on the district board. For many years, we have sent presidents-elect to the Midwest Leadership School. All of this generated energy and ideas about how we might grow the fellowship.
Social action was also a signiﬁcant component of the fellowship during our formative years, beginning with the decision in 1970 to make our building available to the Selective Service Information Center, a group of ministers and lawyers who counseled young men of draft age during the Vietnam War era. The Fellowship has long been known as a center for the LGBTQ+ community in the Tri-Cities area, serving as the meeting place for P-FLAG and the Triangle Foundation. Social action projects tended to be inspired by individual members rallying people around a speciﬁc cause — e.g., recycling, opportunities for Native American children, peace activism, clean energy, Habitat for Humanity, Heifer International, a local women’s shelter, and the Midland Area Homes (now Home to Stay).
In 1995, following a decision by the membership that we were ready for the kind of growth and development that only comes with full-time ministry, we called the Rev. Lee Bluemel. Lee was a much-loved minister, who, although she only stayed for four years, helped us enormously in our transition from discussion group to something like a religious community. We acquired a greater sense of ourselves as belonging to a centuries-old denomination and as heirs to a substantial religious tradition, and were encouraged to develop spiritual practice as well as intellectual activity. Lee was also dedicated to raising our proﬁle in the Midland community, taking a leadership role in community activities and drawing in new members who admired her values and her commitment.
After Lee left to be closer to her family, we called the Rev. Jane Thickstun in 2000. Our relationship with Jane was less smooth, but during her eight years with us, we continued the growing process begun with Lee. We adopted (and then modiﬁed) the Carver model of policy governance. We initiated small group ministry. We re-built our RE program with a new, energetic (albeit still half-time) DRE. Jane challenged our tendency to intellectualize, and attracted new members who were interested in exploring a range of religious practices. Jane was a fairly recent convert to Unitarian Universalism. Nevertheless, as a committed environmentalist, as a social activist willing to spend her vacation time with a construction crew in New Orleans, as a person who was always ready for an adventure — with a busload of Unitarians in Transylvania, on a commune in Georgia, on a spiritual retreat in Massachusetts — she set an example of Unitarian Universalist practice that has signiﬁcantly inﬂuenced our sense of who we are.
In May 2001, we officially became a “Welcoming Congregation” for folks in the LGBTQ+ community.
In 2008, Rev. Frances Dew came to our congregation as an interim minister. In 2009 we began taking an oﬀering for the ﬁrst time as Fran led us in ﬁnancial re-evaluation.
Rev. David Pyle served as our consulting minister in 2010 after our unsuccessful ministerial search. David was a military chaplain who challenged our perceptions of the military. He continued to serve as an active chaplain through the Army Reserve. In 2010 we started exploring the Hotchkiss governance model. 2010 was also a time of re-evaluation for our congregation.
In May of 2011, Rev. Jeﬀ Liebmann became our settled minister. This period began with optimism as we sought to grow and improve our visibility in the community. As time went, on tensions increased between congregants and the minister and ultimately Jeﬀ left the congregation in 2017.
Rev. Connie Grant served as our interim minister, joining us in August of 2017. She came into our congregation at a diﬃcult time. We had no secretary or sexton (after the death of long-time sexton R.G. Converse) and a relatively new DRE. We have since hired Wendy Altmeier as office administrator and Sandy Hay as sexton. We worked to reﬂect on how we wanted our congregation to grow and develop as we searched for a new settled minister.
Our search team recommended Rev. Eric Severson to the congregation as our next settled minister. The congregation was very impressed with him, and his ideals aligned with ours. We called Eric in May 2019 and he began in August of that year.
Rev. Eric had an interesting two years at the fellowship. First, he and the board made the difficult decision to close the fellowship’s doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Staff continued to work remotely. Rev. Eric was instrumental in keeping everyone connected by working with lay leaders and volunteers to move all Sunday services, small group, ministry team, and committee meetings online using the Zoom platform.
In May 2020, two area dams broke and flooded Midland, Sanford, and surrounding communities. Many houses were destroyed, and others filled with water. Fellowship members gathered safely (during the pandemic; some sheltered briefly at the fellowship) and helped each other clear out debris, furniture, and mementos and start to rebuild.
COVID-19 forced us to postpone Rev. Eric’s ordination and installation until October 2020, which was held online. Thanks to Rev. Eric’s leadership, our congregation strengthened during the pandemic. He, the board, and a task force are working toward eventually, safely reopening the building to fellowship activities.