By far the most unpleasant memory I have of serving in parish situations occurred in my last church. As I write about this, I refrain from mentioning names or even the church name (though for anyone keeping up with these Lenten posts, the church name is available elsewhere). I write generally here, and with less humor than exhibited in earlier posts.

I had been in that last pastorate for a little over a year when a Presbytery committee came to call. It was a routine thing for that Presbytery to assess the new relationship developing between a church and its pastor after only a year. Subsequent visits would be every two or three years, depending on the local Presbytery’s guidelines. Basically, this one-year “check-up” included conversations with the pastor, then the Session (governing board), and finally the Session and minister together. The Presbytery Executive reported to me later that it had been the most positive report he’d read since the practice had been in effect. That was good news. And not surprising; I think we all felt that things were going fairly well, considering the challenges.

For one thing, I was succeeding a very popular pastor who had served the church over a quarter of a century before contracting cancer. The church, with empathy and compassion, had suffered with him through his final illness, and after his death, the church went into mourning and transition under two very capable interim pastors, both of whom had known both the pastor and his church well. As I accepted the call of this church, I knew what lay ahead for me, the stranger, to enter this church and its close-knit local community. I was confident in my call, and secure in my faith that God had brought us together.

There were some bumps in that first year. I knew, and would abide by, the well-worn strategy for newly installed pastors: don’t make any major changes in your first year. I don’t recall even hinting at major changes. If I had thought “major changes” would be on the horizon early on, I wouldn’t have gone to that church to  begin with. There was only one change I’d like to have worked on…eventually. Years before I got there, the church had merged worship and Sunday School into the same time slot. Having taught at our denomination’s graduate school for church educators, and having become an advocate for “children in worship,” I wasn’t tickled that this church had streamlined its Sunday morning schedule into a one-time fits all slot.

I remember one Elder telling me with a smile that after everyone gathered in the sanctuary to begin worship, I could expect almost half the congregation to leave for Sunday School after the children’s time, all the children, youth (including high schoolers), and their teachers. Wow, I thought. Only recently had a compromise been reached (thanks to an interim pastor’s suggestion) that on Communion Sundays all would remain for the Sacrament. So, one Sunday a month, we’d all be together. I wasn’t happy with that schedule, but it was the way it was, and I accepted it as such.

Those two preceding paragraphs foreshadow the unpleasantness to come. As I said, all things considered Presbytery’s visitors and the Session and I were happy with how things were going that first year. We were well into our second year when the ambush came. The Chairperson of the Staff Relations Committee called me with troubling news. She had received a one-page letter from a small group within the church complaining about my pastoral leadership. She asked  me to come by her home to read the letter and help her decide what to do next.

As I read the letter, I started to feel sick. No one in all the years I’d been in ministry had laid out charges against me. I read through the complaints quickly, discounted some as downright silly, and owned up to a couple. Others were just plain odd. There were three steps to take. First, yes, call a meeting of the Personnel Committee. Second, I would call the Presbytery Executive and seek some counsel. And the third thing was to go home and tell Joan what was being said about me.

There were tears. And I never forgave the “posse” for that. Joan and I went through the list, grew angry at first, and then terribly sad. I confess that this was a new feeling for me. In every previous pastoral position, as well as in non-parish years, I had been — well, how to say this? — how about “popular?” “Well accepted.” “Happily embraced.” I mean, I was liked. Even loved. Really. At least, I knew of no detractors. I couldn’t think of a time in the previous 30+ years that I felt under siege. But now…here was this angry missive directed at me through the Personnel Committee, in part because the writers didn’t think I would respond well if they had made an appointment to speak directly to me.

[You realize, of course, that you are only reading my side of this situation. I confess that I am biased.]

Since I didn’t exactly save that letter in my keepsake files (!), I don’t recall each charge. But I do admit that the posse had a point. I did raise my voice now and then. They interpreted it as anger, and I considered it passion. But I concede the point. Late in my ministry I did become frustrated. And impatient. And retirement came just in time.

On the other hand, something I had said to an Elder as we drove home from a Presbytery meeting showed up in the posse’s letter. I was being blamed for decisions made by other church members. Change was happening, and some of the letter writers were feeling out of the loop. Oh, and the parent of a member of the youth group used the letter to complain that a “contract” (of behavior) we had asked the teens to sign wasn’t at all appropriate since they were too young to sign a legal document. Good grief, I thought. The idea of the contract had come from another parent who had grown tired of dealing with kids whose behavior was disruptive to planned youth group activities. It was a grown-up way of saying, Look…let’s agree to treat people respectfully when they take time to visit our group and do a program for us.

In my next post, I’ll write about what I consider the two biggest things that brought the posse together. But for now, I have to add that when I called the Presbytery Exec about all this, and confirmed with him that the Presbytery’s pastoral visitation had given me a solid report, he revealed that some in the church I was serving had previously complained about the minister who preceded me. “They have a bit of a reputation for that kind of thing,” he told me. “I wouldn’t let it worry you.”

Still…there were those tears.

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