Partnership across the River
The sister Unitarian Universalist congregations of Augusta, Georgia and Aiken, South Carolina straddle either side of the Savannah River. But the fact that they are in different states hasn’t stopped the spirit of collaboration that has existed since they were formed within months of each other in the early 1950s. The Aiken Unitarian Fellowship was formed first in 1953, and after Unitarians in Augusta decided to start their own fellowship in July of 1954 they carpooled their children to Aiken (18 miles away) for Sunday School until 1956; in 1958 Aiken children began to travel to Augusta for Sunday School.
All the while there was joint participation in cluster and district events, and Liberal Religious Youth retreats; but in 1974 the Aiken Fellowship disbanded and the deed to its property was given to Augusta. The funds were used as collateral to obtain a building loan for the Augusta campus to expand.
In the early 2000s the Rev. Dan King, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta, supported UUs in Aiken in reestablishing their own congregation. The Augusta board facilitated financial arrangements until the Aiken congregation could handle them.
Several years later, the Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church decided to pursue the goal of becoming a minister-led congregation. As a lay leader of the Augusta congregation, I occasionally spoke at Sunday services in Aiken. I then had the honor of serving as a half-time minister of the Aiken church during my internship years. I was ordained by both congregations before being contracted by the Augusta congregation as its full-time Developmental Minister in 2013. My Minister’s Study is in the office block built with the funds donated by the Aiken Fellowship. The 60-plus years of collaboration between Aiken and Augusta has made me the minister I am today.
The Aiken congregation is in its second year without a minister; its leadership felt it needed to do something to further its mission and maintain its energy and credibility in the community. So last year the Aiken board proposed to the Augusta board that the two congregations (Augusta has 150 members, Aiken 60) explore ways to work together in partnership to our mutual benefit and to the benefit of the larger Augusta-Aiken area. Going forward, we have agreed to assist each other internally within our congregations, and to promote our shared values in our communities. Our liaison team met for the first time in July, and our boards had a joint potluck and consultation with our Southern Region Congregational Life Staff member, the Rev. Carlton Elliott-Smith, in September. He challenged us to ask what we can do together that we can’t do separately…and that has opened up lots of possibilities!
In addition to training Worship Associates for both churches, swapping occasional speakers (and me) for Sunday services, and both social justice committees staffing a joint stall at the Augusta Pride festival, we are stepping up collaboration in the coming year to include a joint women’s croning ceremony in December and a new Coffeehouse series, which will be organized by a joint committee and held at the Augusta campus. We also will be off to The Mountain Learning and Retreat Center for a joint congregational retreat in April 2016.
The attitude of respect and the potential for partnership we now share were summed up by a statement both boards composed at the end of their September gathering:
Increasing our level of cooperation, we commit to:
Communicate openly and often through our liaison team;
Identify what we can do together;
Charge the boards to turn those opportunities into action.
Rev. Gaye Ortiz, a native of Augusta, Georgia, serves as Developmental Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta. She adores her five grandchildren and great-grandson Oliver, and she believes that the Atlanta Braves will one day again win the World Series.