I’m writing each day in Lent 2015 about some of my experiences in the six churches I served in a pastoral capacity. The general theme I originally chose as I began these reflections was “Confessions and Celebrations.” I suppose that each of my posts contains some admission of shortcomings and offenses, but also some notes of grace and gratitude. Yesterday may have been the exception, with the happy faces notably absent. I wrote of a tough time in my last congregation.

Today, the saga continues, but with a subdued happy ending.

While things seemed to be going along nicely in my first year in that church, the second year brought an ugly revelation: my pastoral leadership was under fire by a “posse” who didn’t care for the direction I seemed to be taking the church. I’ve mentioned that some of the complaints they listed in a full typewritten page were valid. But others assigned blame to me for decisions or actions made by other church folk, but under my presumed influence. And, as previously noted, some charges were downright silly. One of the saddest consequences for me was the subversion of trust between me and some of the signers of the letter. What I had taken to be private conversations were obviously shared with a disgruntled group and made the top ten list of their problems with my pastoring.

Aside from the particulars, looking back I think there were two main issues. One was that I wasn’t their long-time, beloved (now deceased) pastor. Any change is hard for churches to handle. But a change of leadership, trending transitional modifications to any church programming, even slight adjustments to the “way things were” — these can be especially threatening to church folk still in mourning.

So, no…I wasn’t Tom. I am confident that had our paths crossed before his death, we would have liked one another. We had a lot in common, and that could very well have led to a close friendship. For one thing, we both liked our electronic gadgetry. From the video equipment I found in a church closet, and having seen a few videos Tom was involved with, I know we would have enjoyed a shared visit to Radio Shack or Circuit City (might have kept those places going a bit longer!). Plus, Tom was into photography…big time.

Whenever I visited a church member or even in the home of some neighbor who wasn’t a church member, there would be a photo Tom had taken, developed, and printed in his darkroom. He went everywhere with his camera, people would tell me. I, too, was a photographer, and I was well aware that while people like Tom and I seem personable and outgoing, we are actually introverts. At public functions, we hide behind our cameras, and then go into our darkrooms and in solitude watch what develops. Knowing Tom’s reputation as a photographer, I publicly kept my camera lens covered, lest I seem to compete with his endearing connection with so many in the community.

I was surprised to learn that Tom too had been the subject of some unrest in the church, and the Presbytery had had to deal with the upset. I couldn’t help but wonder if the posse that came after me was made up of the same folks who’d previously complained about Tom.

I’ve been using the term “posse.” That’s the word Joan and I have used as code all these years since the hurt of that ambush. I guess I was the outlaw, you see. And one crime was that I wasn’t Tom. The other problem was related to that Sunday School schedule I mentioned yesterday. I think that with all the items on the list of grievances in that letter, beneath it all was the Sunday School controversy.

My theological education and my having served on the faculty of the denomination’s graduate school for church education created no little conflict with the idea of Sunday worship and children’s Christian education classes running concurrently. I suppose I could write pages about why that’s such a bad idea, but I need only one sentence to express why some see it as a positive thing: it’s convenient. Period. Streamlines the family’s Sunday morning, getting all the church stuff done in one hour, and also keeps kids from getting bored in church. (May I list all the more ambitious ways to keep kids from being bored? Not here, not now.)

The posse apparently thought I had forced my personal agenda on the church. Years have passed, but this is my memory of what really happened. I admit I made my “druthers” clear in informal conversations. Some Elders thought a change might be worth considering, so the issue was studied, including I believe some informal surveying of church folk. A motion to separate worship and Sunday School time was made at a Session meeting, but defeated, and perhaps rightly, considering the strong feelings of some families opposed to the change.

A year later, the proposal came up again. No, it wasn’t because the pastor was rallying for it. It wasn’t my hobby horse. We were having trouble recruiting teachers for Sunday School. It turned out that prospective teachers didn’t want to miss worship week after week!

The tide turned. The Session voted. We changed the schedule. Many were happy. But some weren’t. And I believe that was the back-breaking straw that precipitated the posse’s search for a strong rope.

The Personnel Committee, with help from the Presbytery Executive, worked with me and the letter’s framers to resolve some of the issues that led to what I can only refer to now as — what? a crisis? (too dramatic) a bump? (too slight). Whatever it was, it was resolved, and unsatisfactorily for some who dropped out of the church for the rest of my term there. Frankly, it wasn’t finally resolved for me either. The breakdown of trust, the hurt this episode caused Joan and me, played a role in my early retirement, not a major role, but there were scars.

One last note…and an important one. There was one church member whom I took to be a part of the posse. If he were my nemesis, I was his. In my first year in that pastorate, we locked horns over lots of things. In the second year following what I considered the ambush, it was terribly awkward when we came face-to-face; we were civil, barely. But the next year, we were reconciled, thanks to his wife! She loved him and they both loved the church, and the animosity that kept him and his pastor at a distance had to be resolved. They made an appointment to see me in my church study.

He told me it was his wife’s idea, but that he agreed with her that we needed to put this behind us. “Can we just start over?” he asked. It was a wonderful moment. We had good words. We embraced, the three of us. And we did start over. It was one of those grace-filled moments one remembers always. No thanks to me. His wife was the reconciler. Good for her! She was boldly faithful, a model for us all.

OK. Tomorrow, something lighter: five really good things that happened in my last parish!

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