Photo by Danny Fulgencio

More than 50 youths from seventh through 12th grade stay after church for Variations choir practice on Sundays at First United Methodist Church in downtown Dallas. As they run through the vocal warmup, neighbors might ask why so many kids pledge their time and hearts to a church activity when sports and academics beckon — when some say it’s not cool to go to church.

Lake Highlands residents Tim and Dana Effler are the Pied Pipers of faith. Dana, the church’s director of music and arts, and Tim, organist and associate director of music, have inspired the youth at First United Methodist Church for 25 years. Soccer star learning to dance? Young woman who doesn’t think she can sing belts a solo? The Efflers push the students beyond their comfort zone, encouraging Variations members to grow spiritually, mature and mentor one another. 

The Efflers started their career at Lake Highlands Methodist Church where Tim served for six and Dana served for seven years. When they left Lake Highlands Methodist Church, 84 children were in the choir. When they started at Lake Highlands Methodist Church, there were seven in the youth choir. 

“Let’s do the math,” Dana says. “We have had a choir of 50 to 60 youths every year for 30 years.” 

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Variations choir members come every Sunday and practice for the seasons. They sing sacred music in worship services, prepare for a tour fundraiser and travel by bus sharing their voices and prayers along the way. The destination may be Disney World, Disneyland, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Louisville or Chicago, but the group stops along the way to sing at churches and senior homes. Life on the bus is a bonding experience.

“There’s a great tradition here,” Dana says.  

A heavenly match

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When Tim was 14, his mother dropped him at a neighborhood shopping center on Sunday mornings. The church’s music director would pick him up and take him to church. Tim’s mother was also a church musician. 

The Efflers met at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Tim was a red-headed accompanist. Dana worked at a bank. Her father was a banker, and the teller suggested she meet Tim when she arrived at Furman. “I just be-bopped right up to him, introduced myself and said, ‘You need to meet me,’” Dana says. “He was a snob, but I chased him until he caught me.” Their first date was judging the talent portion of a Junior Miss Pageant. “He was the only one I ever pursued,” Dana says.

Dana and Tim first lived in an apartment on Audelia Road in Lake Highlands. They decided they could afford a house when they were hired at First United Methodist Church. They knew right away that they wanted a home in Lake Highlands. The couple has lived in the same house on Coveridge Drive for 25 years. 

“There are a lot of kids on our street,” Dana says. “They play outside, and it’s great. We have block parties.” The Efflers’ dog, Monya, is popular with neighborhood kids.

The Efflers were on a Variations tour in June when they returned home after a summer storm. Neighbors and church members had removed branches and cleared their yard.

It had been a long trip. The bus broke down on this year’s tour on the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was the first time in 25 years that the bus broke down. There was a bathroom and water, and the kids brought out ukuleles and performed skits. “The upperclassmen shepherd the younger ones to make sure they have a great tour,” Dana says.

The couple has had the same mission statement at both churches: “Serving God and God’s people with excellence in music and arts.” Dana says that’s how they measure success: Is there excellence? How do we minister to kids? How do we engage them? How do we assess their talent and abilities and put that to work?

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“The bar is high and the students may gripe a little bit about it, but they keep coming back,” she says. Next year, Variations plans to sing in England.

Every year in May, Variations members sing “May the Road Rise to Meet You” for graduating seniors. Parents cry, choir members tear up. The youth feel loved and supported as they make their way to college. Variations members know they can always come back. There’s the Christmas Choir and the Efflers’ open arms.

“For a lot of kids, this is their home, their support group, their place away from school and friends,” Tim says. “It’s a supportive environment.”

Says Dana, “We’ve always managed to bring everybody home.”