The Legend of Prairie Group and the Disciplines of the Group
The Oral History preserved by The Bard The Reverend Dr. Kendyl Gibbons November 2016
The Prairie Group was summoned into being on the banks of the confluence of the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri Rivers in the year 1951 by four wise servants of the liberal church.
James Luther Adams, Max Gaebler, Leslie Pennington and Thad Clark sought to preserve the heritage of the scholarly ministry and nurture the life of the mind among Unitarian clergy serving on the sometimes isolating stretches of the Midwest prairie.
After meeting twice at the CCC-built lodge in Pere Marquette State Park, they had found an enduring home.
In the early days, men made their way across the Golden Eagle and Grafton ferries, among the leaves of late autumn, stopping for last minute purchases at liquor stores along the way, arriving to cabins scattered up the hillside.
They challenged one another with a discipline of presenting five original academic papers, each with a critical response. Papers were printed, distributed and read aloud to the group. Discussion, theological debate, and intellectual engagement followed, in a room often thick with cigarette smoke and testosterone.
Fabled experiments of years past have established that papers are to be delivered by authors who are sober at the moment, regardless of the influences under which the paper may have been composed. It has also been demonstrated by sufficient example that when a paper is first provided to the respondent by sliding under the door of their cabin the evening before it is to be delivered, neither scholarship nor friendship is served.
An appointed chaplain for the year’s meeting offers worship at the beginning of each day, with full-throated singing from Hymns of the Spirit. Not only do we continue to sing those classic hymns today; we hold in our hands the very hymnals that the founders once held in theirs.
The unique percussive downbeat addition to “For All The Saints” was initiated by long standing member and leader Jack Hayward, whose burdened heart found this expression for his devastating grief among Prairie Group colleagues the year his adult son died tragically.
On Tuesday evening, an aesthetics program sought to approach the topic at hand from a less intellectual perspective, through a shared experience of art or practice.
Over the years, customs have arisen that give shape to the group’s periodic incarnation. Apples are brought by the president for refreshment during sessions. A traditional walk to the hilltop for the scenic vista pulls members outdoors in the afternoon.
At the end of the day’s official events, members gather impromptu parties in their rooms and cabins, where discussions range widely, and spirits are freely shared. The practice of hospitality decrees that all members are welcome at each of these soirees; any open door and clamor of voices is an invitation to any member to enter.
Food and service at the restaurant in the Lodge have typically been pedestrian and slow; various remedies have been attempted, but none has offered notable improvement. Often on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, groups will drive to a restaurant in Grafton or Alton; all are invited to make part of these expeditions.
It was on one such dinner quest that brothers Haney and Bertchausen were arrested for trespassing having inadvertently parked in the midst of a feud between the restaurant owner and a neighbor. They were taken to the sheriff’s office to await processing, perhaps overnight or longer. The situation was resolved when sister Moore put in a call to an interfaith colleague who happened to be the minister of the sheriff’s wife, causing the brethren to be released. This incident put to rest any lingering reservations about the admission of women to Prairie Group.
The advent of women as a significant presence in the UU ministry brought changes in the Prairie Group.
Smoking was first ejected from the meeting sessions, and relegated to cigars in the lobby, until being abandoned altogether, at which time the women’s caucus ceased their nail polish protest.
A more refined sensibility in language and tone of discourse was found to be an advantage by all, provided that it did not interfere with the full outstretch of intellect, passion, and ego so long relished by the participants.
Nevertheless, painful encounters around the power dynamics of gender continue to arise from time to time.
The needs of hearing-challenged members, together with remodeling of the meeting rooms to the significant detriment of their acoustics, caused the group to seek effective sound management technology, and to institute a practice of orderly turn-taking in a moderated discussion process.
Over the years, rooms have been added to the lodge itself, as well as pool and hot tub facilities, which some members enjoy. The process of brainstorming and lobbying for topics for the coming year often originates informally at meals, on hikes, or in the hot tub.
The Prairie Group has become a venue for the incubation of life long collegial friendships, as well as the initiation of new ministers into the realities and possibilities of our shared vocation. Members who are supervising parish internships often bring their students with them as guests.
As members follow their callings to new churches, the scope of the prairie expands across the country.
Once you are connected to the tradition, the community, and the intellectual stimulation that is Prairie Group, it is very difficult to leave.
Other Ministerial Study Groups exist, including one that was visioned and seeded by members of Prairie Group, the Ohio River Group.
For more than half a century, the Prairie Group has appeared each autumn in the stone lodge on the banks of the Illinois River, a community shimmering with laughter, friendship, the profound encounter of ideas and mutual collegial discipline and care. It is a legacy that we hold in tender trust, to hand on to those who come after us.
To join the Prairie Group is to assent to the following disciplines:
To read the materials designated by the program committee in preparation for the yearly meeting.
To attend the meeting, or else relay a highly compelling and pathetic excuse through the Scribe, and in any case to pay travel equalization.
To complete the meeting registration form, transportation requests, and other logistical matters promptly.
To write papers or responses, or accept other responsibilities for the group, as assigned by the program committee. These are not requests, but requirements.
To keep papers and responses within the prescribed lengths of 5500 words and 1500 words, respectively.
To provide papers to the assigned respondent by September 1
Sent to website by November 1 for 2017 and 2018
To bring 60 printed copies of papers and responses to the gathering, and to send the electronic text of them to the web site manager
To do solid, original, academic work on the topic assigned, and make what you have learned accessible to your colleagues.
To engage in thoughtful, candid, and vigorous mutual enquiry in discussion related to the chosen topic.
To practice inclusive hospitality toward all other members and visitors throughout the yearly gathering.
Make it relevant to ministry – questions, or why does this matter?
Practices of Prairie Group
Five papers are presented at each annual gathering of the Prairie Group; on Monday evening, and Tuesday and Wednesday morning and afternoon, each followed by a shorter response paper.
The papers are intended to be original works of research, constructive scholarship, and intellectual engagement.
The body elects a president, and a member to rotate onto the program committee for a three year term.
At some point over the decades, the president was given a gavel, in an effort to augment his/her authority over the raucousness of the business meeting.
The usefulness of this gesture has yet to be proven. The position of scribe, who handles the group’s money, arrangements, and correspondence Came to be regarded as an office of twenty years tenure.
Creation and reading of the minutes from the previous year’s meeting offers an opportunity for the exercise of the Scribe’s narrative creativity and dry wit, while the relative permanence of his/her appointment traditionally evokes random impotent condemnation by the members.
On the final night of the gathering, a business meeting is held, at which topics for the following year are proposed and one is chosen, under the direction of the three-person program committee. the just-elected junior member of the program committee records nominations from the floor.
This committee later selects texts for all to read, with an aspirational limit of approximately 500 pages, and assigns members to prepare papers and responses relevant to the chosen topic.
They also appoint a chaplain and a member to be responsible for the aesthetics program.
A number of members small enough to maintain the intimacy and intensity of conversation to which the group has grown accustomed, continually stands in tension with the impulse to welcome newly arriving colleagues.
In order to become a member of the Prairie Group, one must be invited to attend one year’s gathering as a guest,and then request to be voted into membership at that year’s business meeting.
Traditionally, the candidate is required to put his/her head down on the desk, while the members vote to admit him/her.
A would-be member may communicate his/her wish to be invited as a guest to the Scribe, or a member may suggest to the Scribe that a colleague be approached to attend as a guest.
A member who retires from active ministry may request emeritus status in the Prairie Group. If granted, this means that all future participation of that member is voluntary, and no assignments will be made to them.
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