In memoriam: Mary and Wells Behee

Some very sad news this week in the death of Wells and Mary Behee, lifelong Universalists and church servants. I never met them, but knew much about them from Derek Parker, a friend and ministerial colleague (and successor) to the couple. I asked him to share his remembrances — lest this long-serving couple’s contribution be forgotten — and he’s graciously agreed.

Mary grew up in the Universalist Church of Lynn, Massachusetts.  She was the daughter of a long standing Universalist family in that community.  Following World War II she enrolled at Saint Lawrence College, to study religious education with Angus MacLean.  It was in theological school that she met Wells.

Wells grew up in Medina, New York.  His family attended the First Universalist Church of Middleport, New York.  During World War II, Wells served in the Navy.  His military service included both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of combat, including the Battle of Iwo Jima.  Later in life Wells would frequently comment that the only thing which kept his sanity at Iwo Jima were his repeated praying of the Washington Avowal of Faith.  Following World War II, the First Universalist Church of Middleport sponsored Wells to study for the ministry at Saint Lawrence College.

Mary and Wells served together in ministry.  While Mary was never ordained, she was sometimes licensed to preach.  This was a ministry she seldom exercised, preferring to work with young people in classroom settings.  Together they served the Universalist Church, Dexter, New York; the Universalist Church, Woodstock, Ohio; the Universalist Church, Eldorado, Ohio; and the First Universalist Church, New Madison, Ohio.  Aside from her work in Universalist religious education, Mary also worked as an elementary school teacher in different rural Ohio school systems.  Wells also enjoyed an additional career as a high school instructor of public speaking, Shakespeare and English composition.

Both Wells and Mary were gadfly critics about the Unitarian and Universalist merger.  While their opinions were sometimes abrasive to colleagues, the core of their criticism rested on three points:

  1. That post-merger redefinitions of Universalist theology and traditions were not faithful to the evolving traditions and spirit of Universalism,
  2. The post-merger closure of Universalist institutions like the Jordan School, and the theological schools at Tufts and Saint Lawrence.  Mary and Wells were of the opinion that the Tufts and Saint Lawrence theological schools should have merged.
  3. They expressed concerns about the lack of support for rural churches, and about the post-merger preparation of ministers to do relevant liberal ministry in rural settings.

In retirement Mary became involved in causes related to the humane treatment of dogs.  Wells also dedicated himself to a late life ministry of advocacy on behalf of combat veterans.  Following the beginning of the Iraq War, he would volunteer his time to provide a pastoral ear to young combat veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.  He would also preach on issues related to the extreme psychological cost combat service takes on armed service members.  One of his sermons, “War Never Ends,” was given to a Dayton, Ohio gathering of the American Friends Service Committee.

In retirement Mary and Wells also nurtured the religious vocations of a number of Earlham School of Religion students with Unitarian Universalist, Quaker and Brethren backgrounds.  The mentoring was not always requested, and sometimes made friendships difficult.  But the offer to buy seminarians dress shoes were real and sincere.

Noted advice to seminarians included:

  • “When you are preaching in many churches,  your feet are at eye level with the congregation.  Invest in professional looking shoes.  Anything else is a distraction to the congregation.”
  • “A good sermon is like a good play.  It has a beginning, middle, climax, and an end.   If you give people anything less than this, it is like giving somebody a hot dog, no bun, and a cheese danish; and then calling it a balanced meal.”
  • “Let me show you how to preach without a microphone and amplification.  Seminaries don’t teach that any more.  But how do you think we preached in those big buildings after World War II.  Without a microphone!  If the power goes out, or the sound system blows a fuse, you will need to know this.”

Mary Behee died Tuesday, December 13, 2011 from an automobile accident on a rural Ohio county road.  Her husband, the Rev. Wells Behee, was a passenger and sustained less serious injuries.  He died in his sleep at Heartland Eldercare of Eaton, Ohio on Thursday, December 15, 2011.  Mary was 85 and Wells was 86.

At their own instruction, Wells and Mary chose for the cremation of their remains.  The family will hold a private internment of Wells’s ashes in his boyhood town of Medina, New York.  Mary’s ashes will be scattered on coastal Cape Cod.  A public memorial gathering is tentatively scheduled for summer of 2012, in rural western Ohio. Wells and Mary are survived by their children Kris, Cathy, Carol and Emerson and a number of grandchildren.

  • Wells’s website, including sermons and the page of the New Madison church.
  • Guest: Perception?

    Yesterday, the Rev. Derek Parker wrote me yesterday morning about the front page, and he mentioned that if I wanted to put it up on the blog, I may. It was a variation on that minor annoyance which sends a bad message about the UUA: President Bill Sinkford’s overexporsure on the first page of the association’s web. Had it stayed at that, I think I would have declined because we’d touched on this before.

    A comment by uuwonk prompted me to follow-through. He wrote about the perception rank-and-file Unitarian Universalists have of the UUA administration. With that in mind, I give you our quest writer.

    Yes, on World AIDS day, Bill Sinkford has charted new ground on the UUA web-page. Featuring what he is heroically doing. Oh and yes… what UU congregations are doing as an after thought. Or perhaps what UU congregations “do”, is done vicariously through Bill Sinkford?

    Don’t you think it would be better use of web-space if the article was an in-depth feature about UU congregational ministries involving AIDS? Or perhaps an article about a UU chaplain who ministers in an AIDS related charity or non-profit?

    Nothing says integrity like advancing your personal publicity via a global tragedy. I believe Jesus had something to say about folks who pray on street corners in order to be seen. Truly, they have already enjoyed their reward.

    The unintended effect is making the UUA (as a religious fellowship) look smaller than it is. It also makes the press office look bad. Sorry, that’s how I read it.

    Guest: Pathways Down Hill

    I’ve asked my good friend, the Rev. Derek Parker to comment on the state of the much vaunted intended-to-be-large new-start church in Texas. I can’t image he and I would have been talking much about it if it had been locally funded, or if the UUA had a more comprehensive new church start program. But neither is the case and it seems like fair game. Thus . . .

    Greetings gentle readers. Those few who follow my low tech writings in The Universalist Herald, might recall a past article I wrote about Pathways Church in Texas. Here is chapter 2 in that saga.

    When we last left Pathways it was the UUA’s hyped new attempt at planting large churches with memberships between 300 and 900. The UUA had ended virtually all support to other kinds of new liberal churches, and put all its eggs in the large church basket. I suspect today that folks in Church Extension are preparing to eat omlettes. A faculty member at the Earlham School of Religion recently advised me that this kind of a church plant costs about $500,000 to get going. Now I don’t know exactly how much the UUA spent to date, but it has likely been a lot. What did the UUA get for its large investment? A church with about 120-150 members, and which can not support its staff of 3 ministers, a musician, and a full-time administrator.

    So what did the UUA do, because this evangelism project missed its vaunted 300-900 person target? With little notice the UUA has pulled the financial plug, effective at the end of December 2005. This in turn has resulted in the “release” of all paid staff except the senior pastor. Now while I’ve had very mixed feelings about this project, and see it as too expensive and poorly conceived, the UUA
    approach of sudden withdrawal of support strikes me as destructive. The team of three ministers effectively had the rug pulled out from under them, with little time to adapt to a new funding structure. The message this sends potential future UU evangelists is that support from the Association is fickle, and could go cold turkey with very short notice. What we have
    is a semi-viable and salvagable 120-150 member church, which could become sustainable with some careful financial weening. Without this care, the shock of sudden financial and personel losses might kill Pathways Church, and then those efforts will truly be for nothing. But time can only tell.

    We would do well to learn from other non-creedal religious bodies, like the Disciples of Christ, who have had marked recent success in church planting. The Disciples process allows for multiple models of church planting, and multiple models of funding. They plant high investment large churches, and medium sized spin-offs of mother churches, and low investment house churches, etc.. And all church planting is in relation to the gifts and situation of the church planters (lay or ordained). But
    alas, the UUA HQ often can not work with more than one model of anything at a time.

    As an addendum, I would also add that research published by the Alban Institute and Abington Press has shown that any growing American religious movement has many of the following characteristics:

    1. A clear and articulate religious message which speaks to the
      experience of the population (a difficulty for both Pathways and most
      UU’s, which have tried to be all things to all people)
    2. A willingness to grow new churches of many different sizes, for many
      different contexts (rural, urban, and suburban). Pathways style large
      churches can only be placed in fast growing suburbs and a few choice
      urban areas.
    3. Worship where a Higher Power is often experienced by the congregation.
      Often a challenge in UU contexts where any Divinity provokes theistic
      verses non-theistic tensions and unwllingness to believe or disbelieve
      anything specific (think back to the problem of trying to be all things to
      all people).
    4. A permission giving culture that empowers the gifts of many, instead
      of the leadership of a chosen few. The Pathways model is very top-down,
      and guided by market demographics. The UUA chooses at HQ where to plant,
      and who will do the planting. This is not a grass roots effort, beyond
      what the church planter does with his/her own congregants AFTER they are

    If I was planting liberal churches (and if I do it may not be for the
    UUA), I would look into the inexpensive model of networked house churches.

    Guest: What is Ballou’s Treatise about?

    The Rev. Derek Parker — a good friend and frequent commenter — wrote me an email this morning that summed-up my feelings about the Rev. Bill Sinkford’s most recent letter as the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. (I’ve been slammed with other work, thus my non-posting.) You can see it here.

    With his permission, this is his note (lightly edited) and it the first ever BitB guest blog entry:

    Bill Sinkford, in his posting on atonement and social activism brought up Hosea Ballou. He implies that the Treatise on Atonement teaches that we are saved through our good works. That wasn’t Ballou’s point.

    Ballou wrote that we were all saved because of the supreme power and good moral character of God. Good deeds are merely our inspired response to God’s goodness.

    There’s just something odd to me about citing Ballou’s text, but trying to by-pass the main point of Ballou’s theology. Universal salvation is not the result of our own self-righteous works; but the result of Divine sovereignty and Divine character. Sinkford’s implications seem to me, to be an attempt to pave over Universalist soteriology with a humanistic-Unitarian (and very American) theology of salvation via our own good works. At the very least Sinkford has terribly misunderstood Ballou, and reversed the cause-effect relationship in Ballou’s writings on atonement. And this only begs the question for me, how many good works do I then need to do in order to be in some sense saved? Unless you answer zero, most of the other answers to that
    last question are hardly Universalist. As a Universalist I know I was born saved, by the grace of God.

    What do you think?

    My only difference with Parker is that I don’t think the Unitarian theists and Christians would have said much different, seeing as they come from rationalist Arminianism. In time, you get a works morality and a works meritocracy, neither of which is properly Universalist. (I’m certainly no Unitarian any more.) Indeed, Sinkford’s comments fit better with his observation of Yom Kippur, and had he left it at that I wouldn’t have thought to comment, but this interpretation of Ballou beggers reason.