Ron Hargis, an obscure religious educator

The story of Ron Hargis, the minister of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto (then called the Palo Alto Unitarian Church) from 1971-1977, offers an interesting insight into the changes facing congregations in the 1970s, particularly the decline in the number of children, and the emergence of new educational approaches.

Ronald Irving Hargis was born on May 26, 1924, in Battle Creek, Michigan. His father was Gerald C. Hargis (b. Aug. 18, 1896 in Des Moines, Iowa), and his mother was Marian Adelle Howard (b. Mar. 25, 1893 in Newark, New Jersey). I know little about his childhood except that he apparently was raised a Seventh Day Baptist; this denomination observes the sabbath on Saturday.

Hargis received an A.B. from Western Michigan University. He then moved to Connecticut, where he received a B.D. (1949) and an M.A. (1950) from Hartford Seminary Foundation. He did a student pastorate from 1948-1950 in Waterford, Conn. This congregation was founded in 1784, according to the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference Web site [http://www.seventhdaybaptist.org/content/churches accessed 12 June 2013 13:25 PDT] Then from 1950-1952, Hargis served as the Executive Secretary in Religious Education of the Seventh Day Baptist denomination.

In 1952, Hargis left Connecticut, and the Seventh Day Baptists, to serve as the Minister of Education at First Congregational Church in Fresno, Calif., where he stayed until 1955. From 1955 to 1961, he served in a yoked ministry with Penngrove Community Church, an independent, non-denominational church in Sonoma, Calif., and Church of the Oaks, another nondenominational church in Cotati, Calif.

While he was serving in that yoked ministry, he was pursuing his Th.D. degree at the Pacific School of Religion, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ (UCC). The United Church of Christ is a liberal Christian denomination with roots in Congregationalism; it is a close cousin to Unitarian Universalism. Hargis’s 970 page dissertation was titled “Perspectives in Personalism: George Albert Coe, Pioneer in Religion. A Definitive Study of the Influence of His Thought and Teaching Upon the Religious Character and Forms of American Protestant Church Schools, as Well as an Interpretation of the Role He Played in the Struggle for Recognition of the Inherent Worth of Person as a Central Affirmation of Christian Education.”

Hargis returned to the ministry of religious education in 1961, when he became Minister of Education at the Neighborhood Church, a UCC congregation in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif. He left that congregation in 1965 to become the Minister of Education at First Congregational Church in Pasadena, Calif., which was also a UCC congregation.

In 1971, he left Pasadena, and the UCC, to become the Minister of Religious Education at Palo Alto Unitarian Church (PAUC), as our congregation was then called. In the profile he sent to PAUC, his personal statement reflects both the times, and his own increasingly liberal religious outlook:

“The ministry has always been for me a deeply significant, precious and fragile style of life. Deeply significant because of the personal intertwining of your life with those of the congregations and communities with which you share your life and work; precious because of the meanings and ministry that are built together in this shared search for truth and fulfillment; and fragile because such a task affords such possibilities of serving others yet risks so much of one’s self. I see the ministry as an enabling, challenging, celebrating, supporting, growing, loving process that is shared with all the people. I hope that you see it in this way too. — Ron.”

Moving to PAUC was a step down for Hargis. The report from PAUC’s president to the annual meeting, Jan. 28, 1972, notes: “The R.E. Committee found an exceptionally well qualified candidate in Ron Hargis; and, by showing him our varied programs, they talked him into joining us at a substantial reduction in salary.” One wonders if part of the attraction was that Hargis was continuing his leftward theological movement, and no longer felt so comfortable in the UCC. In any case, it would have been almost impossible to find a Unitarian Universalist minister of religious education with equivalent experience, and a relevant doctoral degree, in 1972; PAUC must have had a vanishingly small pool of candidates from which to choose.

Hargis arrived at PAUC on July 4, 1971, with his wife Barbara and his daughter Susan. By the fall, he realized PAUC was riddled with conflict: “It was evident that I had arrived at the church in the midst of a real conflict of staff personalities and church people. I sought in several ways to be a bridge between these persons….” Hargis goes on to note that Rev. Felix Danford (Dan) Lion, then the senior minister, “sensing the continuing unrest in the church tendered his resignation in June of 1972….”

With Lion’s resignation, Hargis found himself as the sole minister in PAUC. He served in that capacity until December, 1972, when the congregation hired an interim minister, Rev. Sid Peterman. During the interim process, Hargis was formally called by the congregation (in fall, 1973). After Hargis was called, PAUC called another minister to serve as the parish minister, Rev. Bill Jacobsen.

But the mid-1970s saw high inflation, worsened by an oil crisis, and a steep decline in the number of children being born. Inflation exacerbated a decline in congregational giving due to shrinking numbers of people and ongoing internal conflict, and congregational revenue shrank. The religious education program at PAUC shrank; at the peak, during the “glory days” of the mid-1960s, religious education enrollment went as high as 600 children and youth; by the mid-1970s, enrollment dipped below 200. In a mutual letter to the Finance Committee and the Board of Trustees, dated Nov. 8, 1975, Hargis and Jacobsen proposed that they take an additional day off each week and accept a reduction in salary of 20% to try to close the yawning budget gap.

In January, 1977, Hargis tendered his resignation, to become effective December 31, 1977. In his resignation letter, Hargis carefully went over his time at PAUC (much of the material in the above three paragraphs is drawn from this letter), and looked at the challenges facing the congregation. He pointed out that many people were expressing their dissatisfaction with the state of PAUC by cutting their pledges, and this would force the congregation to make difficult financial decisions. He went on to say that he wanted to give ample lead time for the congregational leadership to have a smooth transition, and to “provide opportunity for myself and the co-minister, should he choose to leave, to make plans for our own futures….” Jacobsen, it may be noted, did not leave; he stayed until 1990.

Hargis faced a mixed reaction from members of the congregation. Rev. Darcey Laine, researching Hargis’s ministry in 2002, solicited feedback from members of the congregation who still remembered Hargis. One person remembered Hargis’s skill at pastoral care, and his excellent teaching. Another person said simply, “we decided that he lacked some properties that a good minister should have, and he decided that he was interested in doing something else….” Elsewhere in congregational records, there are rumblings of discontent with Hargis, including his innovations in worship services. At the same time, he seems to have instilled fierce loyalty among members of the religious education committee and parents and volunteers in the religious education program.

So why did Hargis leave PAUC? First of all, the state of the U.S. economy, the abrupt end of the Baby Boom, and the radical change in religious habits during the 1970s made it all but inevitable that PAUC would shrink in size. Second, Sid Peterman, interim minister from 1972-1973, noted in a report from the fall of 1973 that during Dan Lion’s twenty-three year ministry, the congregation grew rapidly in attendance, but continued to stay organized as a small church: “Many of the administrative and personnel practices in 1972 were the same as they had been for a much, much smaller church.” Third, in looking over the minutes of the religious education committee for the mid-1970s, people in the congregation wanted very different approaches to religious education — e.g., some wanted traditional Sunday school, and some wanted experimental approaches such as the “open classroom” approach — and it was difficult to please everyone.

The external economic forces, the internal forces of conflict, and the wide range of preferences when it came to educational approaches combined to make it all but certain that no minister of religious education could survive. On top of that, it is possible that a number of smaller conflicts resulting from sexual experimentation in the congregation (such experimentation occurred in many mainline congregations in that era) added to the turmoil. There were probably other factors as well. In her column in the church newsletter of May 23, 2003, Darcey Laine wrote: “By some reports this was an amicable separation as Ron pursued other interests; by other reports it stemmed from a clash of personalities. These were, by all accounts, unsettled and difficult times for the church.” Given all that was going inside and outside PAUC, it is not surprising that Hargis felt he had to resign.

I don’t know what Hargis did after he left PAUC. Darcey Laine writes that he suffered a heart attack in 1977, “which no doubt made him reconsider his path.” He seems to have continued living in La Honda, Calif., and Social Security records show that he died on January 18, 2000. [http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=jonsaunders&id=I140643 accessed 12 June 2013 14:38 PDT]

Nevertheless, his career up through 1977 is of definite historical interest. His trajectory through PAUC is quite similar to the trajectory of a better-known minister of religious education through another Unitarian Universalist congregation: Rev. Barbara Holleroth, author of “The Haunting House,” one of the best UU religious education curriculums ever produced, began serving First Parish in Lexington, Mass., in the midst of staff conflict which saw the departure of the parish minister; offered alternative educational programs and innovative worship services, just as Hargis did in PAUC; suffered a serious reduction in salary; and resigned from her ministry. The mid-1970s were a time of turmoil in mainline churches, and that turmoil, coupled with a steep decline in the number of children, meant any minister of religious education was going to face difficulties; add staff conflict to the mix, and its hard to see how any minister of religious education could survive.

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