The Rev. R. Lanier Clance, 74: Founder of First Existentialist Church

In 1976, around a dozen people gathered in a Decatur house, led by the Rev. R. Lanier Clance, and became the First Existentialist Congregation of Atlanta. It was the beginning of an adventure that was perfectly suited to Clance, who aimed to create a community of like-minded people, friends and colleagues said.

“Lanier was the ultimate eccentric,” said Franklin Abbott, a friend of 30 years. “What he was able to do was develop a community of kindred spirits, where he could give them support and he could receive support, so that he didn’t feel all that odd.”

Clance and the growing Congregation welcomed everyone, no matter their ethnic group, economic status or sexual orientation, and still does, said Marsha Mitchiner, who is a fellowship minister there.

“His underlying philosophy was that people should experience the world in different ways, and that what is true for one is not necessarily true for another,” she said. “And there was a real need to have a place where people, who have diverse beliefs, could come together and share our experiences.”

Health problems forced Clance into retirement in 2000, but he still stayed involved with the Congregation, continuing to share his life experiences.

Robert Lanier Clance, of Atlanta, died April 15 from cardiac related complications. He was 74.

A memorial service is planned for 3 p.m. Sunday at First Existentialist. Wages & Son Funeral Home was in charge of the cremation.

Clance’s approach to life was hardly conventional, said Pauline Rose and Nancy Zumoff, the two women with whom he shared his life. The women, who identified themselves as his “life partners,” say Clance promoted individual and communal respect through existentialism.

“His goal was to establish a philosophically-based spiritual community, centered on the principals of existentialism,” Zumoff said. “Although you think of existentialism as dealing with the individual, he had a real commitment to community. He wanted an intentionally diverse community.”

“He encouraged people to look for the possibilities in life, and to take risks,” Rose said. “He had a commitment to helping people grow and develop.”

Clance’s ministry also involved social and civil rights activism, she said.

“It was rights for women, minorities and all different groups,” Rose said. “He really wanted to leave a legacy that reflected a tremendous respect for human dignity, human rights, equality and opportunity.”

Retirement from the day-to-day rigors of leading didn’t stop the preacher. Clance simply changed his medium and began to communicate his experiences through art. In a 2004 Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview, Clance told a reporter he’d never picked up a paint brush until he retired, at age 62.

“I still can’t believe I created that, there’s this wonder,” he said at the time. “I picked up a brush and things came out of me that I didn’t know were there.”

His willingness to explore new experiences at any age was classic Clance, whose personal philosophy was: “I experience, therefore I am,” Zumoff said.

“He really encouraged women to find their own voices,” she said. “Or that women and men should go after whatever their passion was. He did a lot of encouraging of others behind the scenes.”

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