Mid-South District Recent History

Mid-South District was born of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s division of regions of the country into districts in the mid-20 th century. It has always included Atlanta and most of Georgia, all of Alabama and Mississippi, and had part of Louisiana for a while, and now Middle-Tennessee and the panhandle of Florida. Congregational polity and choice have been at work over the years, and some congregations requested changes in the districts in which they functioned, resulting, for example, in the addition of First Nashville in the mid-1980s, the addition of two congregations in the panhandle of Florida but the loss of New Orleans congregations in the 1990s and the intentional choice of two emerging congregations to be in Mid-South (Clarksville and Cookeville).
Mid-South has been served through most years by staff funded largely by the parent denomination and called, generally, “field staff.” Under this arrangement Mid-South District has known “district executives” and “inter-district representatives” (during a budget crunch in the 1970s-80s when several districts were served by one person); those who served as field staff included Rev. Todd Taylor (through the 1970s), Rev. Sid Peterman (for a short while following Taylor), and Rev. Bob Hill (until the mid-1980s). In the mid-1980s Mr. Roger Comstock joined the field staff and served the northern part of Mid-South along with all of Thomas Jefferson District; a second field staff position served the southern and western parts of the district along with Florida District (Rev. Bob Hill preceded Rev. John and Mary Louise DeWolf-Hurt, who preceded Rev. Mary Higgins, who served until 1997). Thus, until 1997 Mid-South’s staff services and administration were shared with two neighboring districts; it did not have its own staff person serving the whole district, nor its own office.
The reality that neither Unitarianism nor Universalism were prominent faith traditions in the South contributed to the uphill battle Unitarian Universalist congregations faced, and, indeed, until the last quarter of the 20 th century, few Unitarian Universalists living in the South had been born in the South. Although there was always energy and strength in the Atlanta area (a base for Unitarian Universalist activity since the turn of the 20 th century), congregations in the areas outside the “southern capital” were not as energized or strong; indeed, one prominent denominational leader once observed that for years Mid-South was about “Atlanta – and then everybody else” (UUA VP Kay Montgomery, a former UUC Atlanta member and a former Mid-South President). Though there were always fine ministers and excellent lay leaders in the congregations, leadership at the district level was not consistently strong, and the district suffered from a lack of cohesive identity and positive image. Moreover, congregations “outside Atlanta” were often left “to fend for themselves” much of the time, with the net result being less growth or stability in congregations in Alabama, Mississippi, and the Gulf Coast. Thus both the district and these “outlying” congregations were marginalized in the denomination and the culture, a circumstance intensified by the impact of the Civil Rights Era, when support of progressive issues by Southern Unitarian Universalist congregations put them in harm’s way, and apprehensions about the region by Unitarian Universalists outside the South accelerated. By the time of the changes in the late 1990s, a number of people named the district a “red-headed stepchild” in the denomination, or, at best, an area “underserved for a long time” (UUA President John Buehrens spoke the latter in 1997).
A decision in the mid-1990s by Thomas Jefferson District and Roger Comstock to make him full-time district executive in that district forced Mid-South District to make some decisions about its future, and especially its staffing. In conversations with the UUA the two chose to seek a half-time district executive, a position that would be funded in generous measure through the UUA budget and that would give Mid-South its first wholly-owned staff and office. Eunice Benton began work in that position in July 1997, from the first Mid-South District office in Oxford, Mississippi. The move energized the district and its leadership, and by 1998 the Mid-South Board was recommending a plan to make the position full-time, a change which was effected by July 1999. Over the same period the Board approved funds for a half-time office support position, better office space, and improved electronic equipment.
In the years since 1997 Mid-South has blossomed with new energy, new leadership, and new congregations. Excellent leaders guide the work of the district and meet regularly. Annual conferences, fall and spring, offer training and inspiration for congregations and their leaders. Congregational growth is observable in new buildings, new and additional ministers and staff, and increased membership. Interest and activity in new congregation starts is lively. Professional association connections and cluster activities are in growth patterns. Electronic communications link congregations and leaders to resources, each other, and the district office. Both the Mid-South District Executive and other key leaders are visible and accessible to congregations. Giving to the district and those entities which support it directly and indirectly is generous. The “southern” connection for Unitarian Universalism in the region is now regarded as an asset rather than a liability as the UUA and the district realize the opportunities of population growth in the “sun belt” and as Unitarian Universalism grows in the region. Opportunities for learning and training at The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center have many Mid-South participants. And, district leaders and staff are giving attention to the institutional health of the district and attending to planning to meet coming opportunities and needs for Mid-South.
In 2003, Mid-South District, with approximately 3500 Unitarian Universalists in 32 affiliated Unitarian Universalist congregations, 4 emerging congregations, and a fully-engaged Board, District Executive, Office and Administrator (half-time) is generally healthy and lively and poised for next opportunities.

In July 2011, Eunice Benton retired after 14 years of dedicated service.  Connie Goodbread transitions in as the Acting District Executive and Reverend Fred Hammond joins the Mid-South District staff as the Acting Lifespan Program Consultant.

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