Invisible Girl

dying_flowers_by_libbychisholm-d49q91a

For most of my life, I suspected I was invisible.  When I was a kid, I believed if I closed my eyes, no one would know I was there and I could pass through a room unnoticed.  I believed I didn’t leave any impression on anyone, as if I didn’t even have a footprint, or like a vampire, I had no reflection in a mirror.

If I were to paint a picture of this impression, it would be of a little girl standing outside a window on a snowy evening.  I must have been about four or five.  All of my brothers were still living at home and we still did things as a family.  That evening, during the Christmas holidays, we went to visit some of my father’s former parishioners for dinner.  It was really cold, as I remember being all bundled up in my coat, hat and scarf.  The house was all lit up and decorated for Christmas and there was snow on the ground.

When we got to the door,  Mr. Rohrbach, an older man with a graying crew cut, greeted my family loudly, gesturing excitedly.  He put his arm around my father and mother, ushering them into the warm living room.  When my brothers and I got to the door, he held up his hand.

“Nope, no, the kids go to the back door,” he said, with a strange smile on his face.  With that, he closed the door in our faces.

My brothers must have grumbled and made comments about how ridiculous this was, but they trudged around the the house toward the back.  I’m not sure what happened, whether I couldn’t keep up or I got confused, but somehow, by the time I got to the back door, it was closed.  Locked.  I knocked on the door with my mittened hand, but there was no answer.  Didn’t anyone notice I was missing?  I wondered.  I trudged through the snow to the front door, thinking I could get the adults’ attention somehow.  I knocked on the door, no answer.

I stood in front of the front window, where I could see my parents taking off their coats in front of the fireplace.  They were laughing at something Mr. Rohrbach said, my mother fussed with her hair as she took off her hat and scarf.  I thought maybe they’d look my way and notice me.  I waved, and knocked on the window.

I remember thinking, they really can’t see me.  They don’t even notice that I’m gone.  I shuffled through the snow again toward the back door, where my brother Don was standing with the door open.  He pulled me inside.

“Where have you been, silly?” He took off my hat, gloves, scarf and coat and ushered me into the living room, telling my parents what happened.  The adults laughed, as if it were cute, and I felt like I’d done something wrong.

At home when I played with my dolls, or my games of pretend, I’d imagine someone–an adult I admire– watching me.  It might have been my Sunday School teacher Mr. Phipps or my swimming teacher, Mr. Poole (that really was his name).  I didn’t look at my imaginary friend, but could feel their looking at me, smiling, like Pa Ingalls did when looking upon his sleeping daughters.  It was a look of love.  I basked in that imaginary love.

My first real sense of loss was when Don left home.  As he tells the story now, Mom and Dad agreed that he might be better off leaving.  I knew it was him that put the hole in the bathroom door.  Mom told me he’d gotten locked in and accidentally put that hole there, but I knew there was no way to get locked in.  She crocheted a flower and glued it into the hole, so no one would ever know.

Don was the one who showed me the most affection.  He’s 12 years older than me, and even though I got scared when he got in trouble, he was always very gentle and loving to me.  I adored him.  No one told me he was leaving, but when we were vacationing in Mississippi one summer at my grandmother’s, Don showed up in his old beat-up Mustang, which contained everything he owned– or could fit into the car.  I was nine years old.  We went to Mississippi every summer, and every time I had to leave Don, I cried so hard I made myself sick.

I was an excruciatingly shy kid.  I felt everything so deeply.  I don’t remember my father’s presence much in my childhood– he was always at the church office doing church things.  He came home and ate supper and went off to watch the news in his recliner.  He had a green vinyl recliner that had a button that made it vibrate.  It was his throne.  When there was some sort of problem or I had a question, my mother sent me to my father.  He was the one with The Answers.  I’d approach his green vinyl throne like Dorothy approached the wizard.  I was a grown woman before I discovered the man behind the curtain.

Because I was so shy, I got bullied a lot at primary school by a girl named Ruth Davis.  I never got beaten up because I gave her whatever she wanted.  My friends and I would walk down the street on the way home from school, and Ruth would walk right into me, shoving my shoulder with her own, looking down her nose at me.  My friends kept walking.  “I’m gonna kick your butt,” Ruth would say, and I believed her.  I never thought to ask why, I was just scared.  When she wanted my lunch, my milk money or the special hoagie I won in a spelling bee, I gave it to her.

God, I hate bullies.

When I approached the Green Throne to ask my father what I should do about Ruth, he looked thoughtful.  He didn’t ask me if I was OK, or if Ruth ever hurt me.  He didn’t ask if he could speak to my teacher or the principal.  At the time, I was too young to notice these things.  He was my father, the pastor, the Man in the Black Robe with stripes on his wings who flew above and around my life, always above me, always doing Important Things.

“You need to sit down with Ruth,” my father said to me, “and tell her, ‘I feel there is a conflict between us.’  Ask her how you can work it out together.”  He smiled.  Are you kidding me?  There was no way in hell I was going to try to sit down and try to work out with Ruth why she wanted to put my butt in a sling.  I knew I was on my own.

Then that fateful day when I began to learn that adults were mostly useless.  That they didn’t have my back.  Except Mrs. Fowler, my fourth grade teacher.  Mrs. Fowler was a tall, gray-haired woman with lots of lines in her face.  Her voice was raspy from too many cigarettes, and she was scary when she was mad.  She didn’t get mad at me.  She had my back.

One day while everyone was working on an art project, Ruth approached me and told me to ask to go to the bathroom.  Well, apparently all the bulbs in the attic weren’t on in my head, so I did.  I asked Mrs. Fowler if I could go to the bathroom.  The bathroom at the Mechanic Street School was in the basement, and it was like a dungeon.  The cement floors were painted gray, it was damp and echoey down there.

I was in my stall when I heard Ruth come in, and she yanked my door open, closing it behind her.  She pulled down her own pants, leaned against me and whispered, “Strip.”  I didn’t know what she wanted or what she planned to do, but my sudden terror gave me the adrenaline to push past her, out the stall door and run for the stairs.

“Shit,” I heard behind me, as Ruth pulled up her pants and ran after me.  She tackled me on the stairs and hugged me while I cried.  “It’s ok,” she assured me, and I was really confused as to why my tormentor was now my comforter.  We got up and she disappeared.  I ran upstairs, and the entire class was already lined up for dismissal.  I stood at the bottom of the fourth floor stairway, looking up at Mrs. Fowler and the line of kids on the stairs.

“Susan, what’s wrong?” my teacher asked me from up above.
I stood there, with the eyes of 25 kids watching me cry at the bottom of the stairs. There was no way I was going to tell the whole truth.

“Ruth tried to take my shirt off,” I told her.

I don’t remember many details after that, but my parents were called in.  My mother informed me that “all the teachers are talking about it.”  All I knew was that Ruth didn’t come back for a very long time.  The principal called me to his office, alone, and as I stood before his desk, he said, “Why the hell won’t you stand up for yourself??” I looked down at the floor, ashamed, and just shrugged my shoulders.

One day, as we were lining up in the classroom to go home, I overheard one of Ruth’s friends say to another, “Ruth tried to rape Susan.”  I was humiliated.  I didn’t know what rape was or what Ruth had been trying to do that day, but I was ashamed.  I felt exposed.  Ruth never came back, though.

At dinner one night, with my two remaining brothers and my friend Donna at the table, I piped up with my question.  This time I asked my mother.  My father didn’t seem too helpful.  “Mommy, what is rape?”

My mother was always good at keeping that composed, everything-is-fine smile on her face, and was rarely caught off guard.  She swallowed.  “Well, honey, it’s when people do bad things to other people.”

Donna, who was eight, blurted out, “like throwing rocks in someone’s window!”  My brothers laughed out loud, and the subject was dropped.

 

 

 

 

 

All is Calm, All is Bright

candlesHanded

Ever since I was a child, I have felt things very deeply.  Back then, there was no name for it, now we call people like us HSPs, or Highly Sensitive People.  It’s seen now as a positive attribute, though at times burdensome.  I felt– and still feel– things very intensely.  When it involves bad things, that’s not great, but when it’s the good stuff… hoo boy!

Every Christmas, it’s inevitable that I remember the worship services of my childhood.  I was in Red Bank for the bulk of that time, and everything about that church left a powerful impression on me.  It was a large  building, with an entire education wing connected.  There was a large, high ceilinged fellowship hall that connected the education wing to the part of the building that housed the sanctuary and offices.  The sanctuary was a beautiful, colonial-styled worship center, with a long center aisle that led to the chancel, set apart by a communion railing.  Beyond the communion railing the aisle continued up a couple of steps toward the altar.  There were two areas for choirs on each side of that aisle, and behind the altar was a huge golden cross, looming above us all.  The pulpit, as I said before, was elevated above the congregation, like a little cup in which the pastor (my father) stood.  There was a light hanging down just above the pulpit, as a kind of spotlight or manufactured aura.  On the other side of that section was a lectern for the associate pastor to read the Bible from.

I loved that sanctuary.  The ceiling was high and came together in arches, and everything drew your eyes toward the beautiful cross up front.  While we were there, the church commissioned to have a German pipe organ installed in the balcony.  It was quite impressive (and expensive), but the sound was incredible.  I remember often feeling the bass notes of the organ vibrating under my feet as the music encapsulated us all in its strains.  Everything lifted our hearts upward as the organ was played.

The center of my worship memories in Red Bank is the Christmas Eve candlelight services.  It was a long room, that held several hundred people at a time.  There were no fire codes yet that affected churches, so at the end of each pew on both sides were long poles, at the top of which was a lighted candle.  Red Bank had a strong music program at that time, so there were several choirs.  I made my way up from the children’s choirs into the junior high choir.  As children, we processed in with electric candles, but when we got to junior high, we were trusted with our own lit candles.  All the choirs were included on Christmas Eve.  I remember standing nervously in the Fellowship Hall, all of us, short and tall and in between, robed and ready.  All but the children’s choirs held a large candle with aluminum foil at the bottom to catch the wax, and someone was assigned the task of lighting all of our candles before the first notes of the processional hymn began.

I was so nervous those first couple of times with a real candle.  I had to hold my candle steady in my left hand and my hymnal in my right, singing and walking forward.  I was so afraid I was going to lights someone’s hair on fire, trip and fall into the person in front of me, or forget to step up on the stairs leading into the chancel.  Both of my hands were sweaty, making it hard to balance my hymnal in one hand and my candle in the other.  But when we got to threshold of the sanctuary and heard the opening notes of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” all of that anxiety turned into awe and nervous excitement.  It was like walking into Never Never Land, or HersheyPark at Christmas time.  So much light!  The organ’s notes made the floor underneath my feet vibrate, and the sound of the organ and hundreds of people’s voices singing “O Come let us adore Him…” was enough to make my heart burst.  I tempted fate by looking up as I walked, seeing all the candlelight pierce the darkness of the room as we sang and followed the trustworthy guidance of the organ’s notes.  I always managed to not trip up the steps and solemnly followed my choir mates into our pew at the front of the church.  We had the best seats in the house to look out at all the people, many of whom only came once or twice a year, packed in while wearing their nicest clothes, with the candelight above their heads illuminating their faces.  They looked like angels to me.  I was a bit dizzy with the music and the lights and the smell of sulfur as we blew out our candles when the lights came on.

We nervously filed out into the center aisle in the chancel to sing our songs, my hands sweaty again on the music folder.  I concentrated on keeping my grip on the music and not losing my place, aware of the heat of the lights and the candles and hundreds of faces starting at us.  I always looked around and behind me to make sure there was a pathway for me to exit in case I felt the need to throw up.

The end, of course, was always the best part.  They turned all the lights out again, allowing the candles on the end of the pews to be the only light at first.  My father and his two associates stood in the center and lit the candles of the ushers, who would then venture out into the darkness to light the candles of the parishioners.  I envied my father in that moment.  If I ever thought of being a pastor back then, it was to be in that position.  To stand up front in the billowy black robe with my big candle, looking out onto all the innocent, clean faces, lit up in the night as we sang.  I looked out at the sea of faces as they leaned toward one another to light their candles off of each others’.  Even the Church/Easter attenders knew most of the words to the hymn by heart.  For a few minutes, all of our faces were lit up in the vast darkness of the sanctuary, the organ playing more gently, and my heart felt like it was beating its way out of my chest.  I always worried a bit about passing out from the heat, the close bodies and my racing heart, but for a few moments, I also felt the peace.  All is calm, all is bright. No matter what was going on in our lives, in that moment we were all ok.  No matter what fears I carried with me daily, what anxieties made it hard for my adolescent body to sleep at night, in that moment everything was ok.  I loved Jesus and God and Mary and Martha and Moses and Abraham and Bartholomew and Peter and all those bumbling disciples that I read about in the church library.  It was like I could bathe in the light, assured that I was ok, that God loved me just as I was–sweaty hands, racing heart, painfully shy and terrified little me.  Like a light came down from heaven and lit us all up and said, “all is calm, all is bright.”  

Sometimes, when I’ve felt God’s distance or wondered if God’s answering the phone anymore, I think back to memories and images like that.  Sometimes all I need is to go back to the basics.  Light in the dark.  Music that pierces right through the middle of you and shakes you up and threatens to knock you out.  I didn’t have the words for it all back then.  But it was Grace.  Joy.  The Light that will never be put out by the darkness, no matter how dark it gets.  The smell of pine and of candles and sulfur and the feel of melted wax on my fingers… all take me back to that sanctuary.

And I remember the Light.  And for a moment again, all is calm.  All is bright.  And that’s all I need for now.

Pastor’s Kid

barbie and ken

“I go to prove my soul!” my father announced before his departure.  He grasped the doorknob as if it were the doorway to a vast horizon of windmills to conquer.  He looked up at the closed door leading to the garage and continued his morning recitation.

“I see my way as birds their trackless way. I shall arrive!”– at which time he threw his fist into the air toward the ceiling.  He squinted as if looking into a brightness too intense for human eyes and whispered the reprise. “I shall arrive.”  He looked down at the doorknob and turned toward me.

“Do you know that?”

“No,” I mumbled, with a mouth full of toast, playing my part in our morning ritual.

“I didn’t think so.”  And with briefcase in hand, he left for the day.

* * * * *

When I was a hospice chaplain, I visited a little old lady  who was originally from New York City.  She’d followed her military husband from the Bronx to the Midwest, yet never lost her stereotypical Bronx accent.  She showed signs of dementia, but some days were clearer than others.  I enjoyed listening to her stories of her Catholic childhood in the Bronx and her trek west as a young Italian bride.

One day she asked me if I had any siblings.  I told her, yes, I was the youngest child with three brothers.

She immediately let out a rather hearty laugh and clapped her hands.  Then she leaned in and grasped my hand in hers.  “Tell me dear, was that a blessing or a coise?

I wanted to hug her.  She was the first one in my over four decades of living, who suggested that being the only girl with three older brothers may not be a picnic.  Most people said, “Oh, I bet you were spoiled!”  And I’d smile a polite smile.

When I was about nine years old, my friend Beth and I were playing with my Barbie dolls on the living room floor, deep into our little drama, when we heard a long, agonizing scream from upstairs.  I paid no attention.

Beth’s eyes went wide.  “What was THAT??”  She was a little scared, halting the strange kissing and moaning noises she was making with Ken and Barbie in her hands.

“That’s just my brother Mark,” I shrugged, explaining, “he does that every once in a while.”   I made my plastic horse gallop across the flat green carpet, away from the dollhouse and all the unbridled passion within.

“Is he ok?” she asked, as Barbie knocked Ken back onto the hard plastic bed and rubbed up against him, while Beth still provided a very strange vocal soundtrack to their activity.

I stared at the dolls, wondering what they were doing and why Beth was making such weird noises.  “Uh…yeah.  Daddy says that it helps him get his anger out.”

“Oh.”

“Augh!  Sh–damn cat!” My brother Don yelled from the hallway.

I held my breath.  My cat Frisky liked to hide behind the closet door when he heard people coming down the stairs.  When the person reached the bottom, Frisky would pounce, digging his claws into the victim’s leg.  Don was wearing shorts.

I closed my eyes when I heard the cat screech and I opened them just in time to see the white streak that was Frisky fly into the living room from my brother’s punt kick.  Frisky ran under the couch.  I bit my lip, and tried not to cry.

Meanwhile, Barbie and Ken were still going at it.  Beth looked up, alarmed by the flying cat.  Only for a moment.  Then she began to aggressively pull off Barbie and Ken’s clothes while they rolled around on the bed.  When she noticed my confused expression, she giggled.

“They’re having sex,” she said, proudly enlightening me.

“What?”

“They’re having sex.  It’s how babies are made.  Boys have a penis and women have a hole and so they get naked and get together and the baby gets in the woman from the man and gets bigger and bigger.  My Mom just told me.  Gross, huh?”

I didn’t know whether to believe her.  She was a year older than me and knew a lot of things that I didn’t.  I found this explanation quite disturbing.  Looking at the plastic dolls, I couldn’t quite figure it out, but I wasn’t about to ask questions.

Aauuuuuuuuuuuggggggggghhhhhhh!”  Mark screamed again upstairs.

“That’s weird.”  I made a mental note to ask my mother about this.  Barbie and Ken, meanwhile, rolled off the bed and onto the floor, apparently really wanting a baby.

As a United Methodist pastor’s kid, I lived in four different places in my first 18 years.  Red Bank was where I lived the longest, moving there when I was five and leaving when I was 14.  Yet still, I don’t regard it as my hometown.  When people ask me where I’m from, I usually say, “South Jersey.”  I was born in a town called Cape May Court House, right at the very southern tip of the state.  I usually have to explain to people that that really is the name of the town, and that I was not born in a county courthouse.  I have absolutely no memories of it, however, because my mother and I moved from the hospital to Pennington, NJ, my father’s next appointment.  I was three days old.

While it is true that as a pastor in the United Methodist Church you don’t get to decide where you live, where your children go to school, what house you live in or what salary you’ll accept, I enjoy adding that the UMC even decided my birthday.  I was  due to arrive in the world on July 4th, but that interfered with the moving schedule of the Church Conference.  As per advice from a district superintendent– my father’s boss–my father asked the doctor to induce labor on June 22.

We lived in Pennington for five years, then went on to Red Bank.  When I was 14, we moved to Woodbury, where I graduated high school.  My brothers were old enough that by the time I was 10, they were all out of the house.  I was mostly an only child after that, though occasionally, they’d move back in for short intervals.

Don and Mark  gave my parents hell, and Stan says that by the time they got to him they were too tired to care what he did.  By the time they got to me, apparently, they were even more tired.  Mom mostly told me not to ever do what the boys did, and when I saw her wrath, I decided to be the good kid.  The perfect one.

It’s no secret that Don and Mark got in trouble with the police, mostly in regard to their driving, and Mark had a reputation with the Middletown police.  He finally lost his license for a while.  It was the 1970s, so both of them grew their hair down past their shoulders, drank too much, and blasted their music too loud with the windows open on Sunday morning (the church was right next door).  Don painted his room all black and had pictures of Satan on his wall, lit by purple lights.  Mark took the door off his bedroom and hung a bead curtain.  He burned incense and played his electric piano much too loudly.  Both of them were kind to me, though, when they weren’t getting yelled at, slamming doors or punching holes in the bathroom door.

Stan was a quiet rebel, sneaking around all the chaos and doing his own thing, completely unnoticed.  He’d get on a bus and go into New York City when he was 14, attending concerts that my parents knew nothing about.  I didn’t know this until years later, but I noticed he was missing.  He wrote controversial articles for the high school newspaper that got the principal on the phone to my parents.  He refused to get confirmed at church when it came time and devoured Kurt Vonnegut books.

I had a vague idea of what my rebellious brothers were up to, as every time they got in trouble and  got yelled at, my mother would turn to me and say, “Don’t you ever do that!”– which was everything from having sex  before marriage to drinking to dating a “black boy.”  When I was 12, my mother said to me, “If you ever have sex before you’re married, I will know…”

I believed her.

I thought the best way to win my parents’ love was to not make them mad like my brothers all did.  I decided at a very young age to be the best little girl in the world. I became quite obsessive at this, trying hard to get through an entire school year without getting scolded once by the teacher.  My offenses were minor, but I could not achieve perfection in that regard.

All of my brothers stopped going to church very early.  I was the only one who stayed.   It was the 1970s when pop psychology was big.  It was the time of I’m Ok, You’re Ok and “growth groups.”  I distinctly remember a dance group as a part of the worship service.  Women of all ages and sizes danced down the center aisle of the sanctuary, wearing leotards and bodysuits.  It was considered “modern dance” and didn’t have the class of current liturgical dance.  It was just weird– and a little embarrassing.

My father started reading psychology books when he was in Pennington, trying to keep up with the intellectual culture of nearby Princeton.  His sermons were full of the psychological theories of Carl Rogers and Carl Jung.  They were way over my head, but the congregation loved it.  I learned early that my father was put on a pedestal by a large number of his parishioners.  When we left Pennington, the church  lavished many expensive and generous gifts upon my parents that included a Tiffany lamp and two airline tickets for my parents to go to India, my father’s birthplace.  In the Red Bank sanctuary, the pulpit was high above the congregation, so that my father had to climb a few stairs to ascend it.  All during my childhood, the image of my father as pastor was one of ascendance.  He flew above my life in his doctoral-striped black wings, delivering words of wisdom that was far above my understanding.  But people were enthralled.

My mother taught me about God, my father taught me psychology.  My mother told me God loved me.  My father told me I had penis envy.  Being the only child at home, my father began dinner table lectures on psychology.  I was a trapped audience.  I believed from as far back as I can remember that as a girl, I was “too sensitive,” “too emotional,” “too this and too that.”  And I was stupid.  I didn’t even consider ever becoming a pastor back then; I truly believed I wasn’t smart enough or strong enough.  There weren’t a lot of women pastors in the 70s and 80s in our Conference, but the ones that were there were women that my father didn’t like.  They were “trying too hard to be like men,” he thought.  They were too “angry.”

My mother was very well-read, perhaps more so than my father, but she rarely got to share her insights.  In my memory, my father had center stage both at home and at church.  I tried to understand what all my father said, and occasionally argued with him when I was sure that what he said didn’t speak to my experience.  But I still figured he was smarter.  My father’s pontifications at dinner left me feeling anxious and vulnerable.  I found hope in the books on my mother’s bookshelf.

She had books published by Guideposts magazine, a Christian magazine that was full of personal stories of hope and triumph.  She had inspirational books by Unity, a Christian but more liberal denomination, that focused on the positive, on resurrection, on God’s love, on healing and growth through faith.  I read a lot of books by Henri Nouwen, a humble and profound Christian writer who wrote a lot about suffering and struggle, but hope in Christ.  There were more mystical writers like Brother Lawrence and Quaker writers.  She also read novels like All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot, books that had soul even without being specifically Christian.  I learned early how to find spiritual food in secular writings, though I couldn’t have named what I was doing.

Meanwhile, my brother Stan took notice of me long enough to teach me the power of music.  Again, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate then what music did for him and also for me.  But he chose music that he thought “fit” me.  Music became a lifeline for me– as I believe it was and is for him as well.  I always found Truth in books and music and discovered how it all only enlarged and expanded my growing faith.  My childhood creed that developed early and stayed with me for the rest of my life was penned by Mac Davis:  “I Believe in Music, I Believe in Love.”  “Stop and Smell the Roses Along the Way.”

Though I don’t remember a precise moment when I truly became enamored with God, my interest in Jesus specifically, was influenced by Johnny Cash.

 

Leaving

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I called my husband from the Quick Stop in Lincoln after I caught my breath.  I told him the short version of what happened, and his main concern in that moment was that I get home safely.  In his usual way, he listened, comforted, and loved me.  I headed back west on Interstate #80, talking out loud to God, crying a bit more, but calming down.

By the time I got home, I knew what I was going to do.  It wasn’t reactionary.  After two hours on the road I was much calmer.  Still stunned and incredulous, but calm.  All I could think of was the Bishop saying, “Know that you will still be under my authority.”  It was clear to me that she wasn’t trustworthy to have authority over my life.

By the time Larry got home from work, he had made his own decision.

In 2003-4, he and I had served a large member church together in Pennsylvania after their pastor of 18 years had been abruptly removed for sexual misconduct.  We didn’t get two full-time salaries, nor did we get any support from the Conference.  They simply sent us there and said, “YOU deal with it.”  There’d been a lot of anger, miscommunication on the part of the Conference, and the church congregation felt abandoned in more ways than one.  A lot of people had sided with the pastor and blamed the victim.  Some quietly were disillusioned by his multiple “encounters” with a parishioner, but were afraid to say so.  What the Conference didn’t realize was that the congregation was a victim too, and needed some intervention.  We were thrown to the wolves.

That year we met with a conflict mediator while at a conference event, and he told us that a very large percentage of “afterpastors” (pastors who serve churches after a pastor is removed for sexual misconduct) leave church ministry.  We were sure that we wouldn’t be a statistic.

In 2006, just two years later, Larry officially retired from the UMC at the age of 55 and went to nursing school to become a hospice nurse.

When I returned from Lincoln and Larry came home, we had both made decisions.  I was going to write a letter to the Bishop, but in that letter, I would hand in my ordination papers.  I didn’t want to be under the authority of any more bishops who didn’t care about their pastors or their well-being.  Larry announced that he, too, would write a letter, and hand in his ordination as well.  He wrote that he didn’t want to be associated with a system that treated people the way I’d been treated.

It was a very painful thing to do, despite my confidence that it was what I had to do in order to stop being in so much pain.  I’d grown up in parsonages.  Aside from being at school, the only houses I lived in for 44 years were houses owned by a church.  Before I finished my time at my most recent church, Larry and I bought a house.  Our first house.  For the first time I could decorate it the way I wanted to.  I could pick the furniture, the carpeting, the colors of the walls.  I didn’t have to get anyone’s approval to do anything to my house.  And most importantly, we’d decided to stay in the same town so Sarah could be in the same school for the last three years of school.   She’d been in four schools by the 6th grade.

Initially, I felt very alone, despite Larry’s support.  He was already established as a nurse in his new job, gaining enormous respect for his gifts.  I am grateful for the people at the hospice office where I became Bereavement Coordinator and then Chaplain.  It was still a small office, then, and simply going to work everyday with people made real by their exposure daily to the dying, was a gift of grace.  My new boss was compassionate and listened to my story.  Working with people who were facing death was about as real as you can get.  I gained strength from very precious people and felt supported by my coworkers.  I didn’t have to work alone anymore.

What was unexpected and painful was the lack of support I received from colleagues in the ministry.  I came to understand, of course, that they were still in that system that structured their lives and therefore had difficulty seeing its faults.  It was very lonely to walk away from the only world I knew.  The Church had been my world for 44 years.  I knew the language, the rules (so I thought), and the community.  I was proud of the UM history and traditions.  I felt a part of something much bigger than I.  I was a United Methodist pastor.  I was connected.  The role of pastor gave me an identity.  It also gave me dignity, in a way, as answering a call and working for God was impressive, still, to a lot of people.  It gave me a chance to know what I was good at, what gifts I had.  I knew I was a good preacher.  I was a good listener.  I worked well with the dying and those in crisis.  The call to ministry brought me out of myself back in 1989, empowered me, and gave me purpose. It brought me out of myself.

Who was I without that identity?  Who was I if I wasn’t a pastor, and worse, if I wasn’t a United Methodist?  My colleagues’ lack of support made it worse.  It also made me feel like I’d done something horrible.  But I remembered how I’d seen people who left, when I was still in it.

We tried to go to church.  We all agreed that we couldn’t go to a United Methodist Church.  It was too painful, and we “knew too much.”  We tried the Episcopalians, the Lutherans and the Presbyterians.  That first Christmas Eve after we handed in our orders, we went to an 11:00 p.m. service at the Lutheran (ELCA) church.  As a pastor, I’d loved the candlelight services.  I loved the music, the darkness, the peace, the light of the candles, the smell of pine.  As they lit our candles that Christmas Eve and started to sing, “Silent Night,” I started to cry.  I couldn’t stop.  Sarah saw me cry, which made her cry.  It was bittersweet.

We visited those three denominations for two years before we all admitted to each other that we didn’t feel like we belonged there.  In any of them.  Preaching has always been very, very important to me.  It was always my goal as a pastor to lead people into the Story, and connect our real lives with the Gospel and/or the text of the Bible.  We didn’t hear any preaching that stirred our hearts, which is what I wanted worship to do.  And so we stopped going.

Thankfully, I am a part of Al-anon, a group for those whose lives have been affected by alcoholism.  I didn’t know how much my grandfather’s alcoholism had affected my mother’s life, which then affected my own.  There were many others in my life whose alcoholism affected my life.  In Al-anon, I met with people who didn’t care that I left the church, and who helped me see what a difference our Higher Power makes in the transformation of lives.  It is community.  The group is made up of people I’d not necessarily have met or associated with in any other context.  We’re all different, but when we tell our stories, we’ve all been in similar relationships and experienced similar things.

My church friends were not the ones who supported me in those first few years; but a group of people, some recovering addicts or alcoholics themselves, who knew that life is hard, and it is literally unmanageable without a Higher Power and a community of people who understand pain and healing.  I am grateful they welcomed me.  I’m also grateful for my first “out of church” friends at the hospice where I went to work.  I was a mess at first, and they were supportive.  Hospice workers are unique people.  Intensely compassionate people.  They’re not afraid of death, but know it’s a fact of life.  The fact that we’re all going to die someday makes us even.  I felt safe for the first time in a long time.

Some of my colleagues came around after a while, and some of them just haven’t stayed in touch.  It’s been 8 years, and even in the most difficult days of grief, I never doubted that God had led me to that decision to leave.  That it was time.  It was what I needed to heal, to grow and to continue learning.  I also learned that my leaving did not discount my very real call to ministry for 19 years.  I believe God used me in ways I may never know, and in ways that some kind folks expressed to me as well.  I did the best I could.  I made mistakes, I didn’t always express myself well, but I did the best I could.

It’s take me 8 years to come to some sort of peace about it, to let go of the anger and pain.  But even in the most painful places I served in ministry, I knew some remarkable people whom I grew to love.  There was grace in the midst of it all, and for that I am grateful.

Thanks for reading… till next time;  Peace.  Grace.

 

Chargeable Offense

shame

I’ve never been one to purposely do anything wrong.  As the youngest of four children and the only girl, I learned how to keep the peace.  Every time one of my brothers acted up or embarrassed my parents, I was told emphatically, “Don’t you ever do that…”  And I  didn’t.  I never wanted to make my parents that mad.  I knew that in the life of a pastor’s family, what other people thought was incredibly important.

When I was a pastor, I never dreamed of any scenario involving me leaving the ministry.  My colleagues and I quietly wondered about those who did leave.  What was wrong with them?  More often than not, pastors left under a cloud after committing sexual misconduct, abusing children, or exposing themselves.  People who left the ministry were suspect.  How can you leave a call?  

“You have committed a chargeable offense,” the Bishop said to me that Monday morning in October, 2009.  Wait, what??  I thought she’d called me to get my side of the story, to talk directly about what was going on and to discuss how I could maintain my Conference membership and ordination while serving as a hospice chaplain.

I was naive.

The tall, skinny bishop sat back in her chair across the wide conference table and pushed her glasses forward, thereby looking over them at me.  “My colleagues are anxious to press charges and take your ordination.”  She paused dramatically.  “What you’ve done is  wrong.  Do you understand this?”  She folded her hands on the table and held my gaze.

The air went out of my lungs and my chest hurt.  My hands were  ice cold in my lap and my eyes burned.   I would not let her see me cry.  I held her gaze, refusing to look away.  The large cross and flames loomed behind the Bishop–the symbol of the United Methodist Church.  Two District Superintendents were sitting beside her, both in suits, both clutching copies of the United Methodist Book of Discipline.  They both looked at me, awaiting my response.

I was silent for what seemed forever, hoping to choose my response carefully.  I was terrified.  My mouth was dry and I could feel sweat running down from my armpits.  I suddenly felt very alone.  I looked to my left, for my people.

I hadn’t known what to expect five days previously when I’d received the call from the Bishop’s secretary.  The email from my mother was still on my computer screen, two words looming like a billboard in front of me, “Georgi died.”

Georgi, as we all called her, had been my friend, my mentor, and confidante when I was a young adult.  We’d kept in touch off and on over the years.  We lived 1500 miles apart.  She was never one to write letters or emails.  But when we came back together, it was always as if no time had passed.

“Georgi died,” my mother had written.  She’d died ten days previously from a very short battle with ovarian cancer.  Along with my shock was a barrage of silent questions.  Why didn’t my mother call me?  Why did she wait ten days?  My hands were shaking in my lap as I tried to comprehend the news.

I was heartbroken.  The revelation that she’d had stage 4 ovarian cancer would have taken my breath away.  But she was dead.

An email.  

I was still staring at the screen through a blur of tears when the Bishop’s secretary called.  9:00 a.m. Tuesday. Bishop’s office. Be there.  And she hung up.  Wait.  What?  Why?

It was an intimidating thing to be called to the Bishop’s office.  The secretary gave me the information as if reading from a script and abruptly hung up, not giving me a chance to ask any questions.  I immediately reasoned, optimistically, that the Bishop just wanted to clarify my intentions.

My years in ministry had been anything but a picnic.  Larry and I had both struggled through the years to pay the bills from the beginning.  Some people said the Cabinet of the Nebraska Annual Conference didn’t like clergy couples.  We were a problem to appoint.  In the UMC, the Bishop tells you where to go, literally.  At ordination, we were asked the question, “Will you go, without reserve, wherever the Bishop sends you?”  And we were to answer “yes.”

And we did.  We were sometimes appointed to churches that couldn’t pay us a full salary.   When we got full-time pay, we were paid the absolute minimum required salaries.  It took us three years to pay off the hospital bills when Sarah was born.  We struggled to pay off our student loans, sometimes having to defer for years at a time.  We were always under enormous financial stress.  In many of our churches over the years we faced all kinds of crises that made us feel sometimes that we were walking in minefields.  Finances were always an issue, however.

In March of the previous year– 2008– it felt like things had fallen apart for me.  An accumulation of events had finally caught up to me, not least of which was the two-month vigil by my friend Karen’s bedside in the fall of 2007.

Karen had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during the summer and took a drastic turn in October.  She was 62 and was enjoying years of early retirement with her husband.  I went to the hospital every day and sat with her till she fell asleep.  For two months, I focused entirely on her, taking a break only to preach on Sunday.  Every day I left her room, turned the corner of the fourth floor and sobbed all the way to my car.  My friend was dying.  Quickly.

“Are you scared?” I asked her one day. It wasn’t easy for me to talk so directly about death, despite being a pastor.  In my family growing up, we never talked about death.  It was like sex.  You just acted like it didn’t exist.  In the church, most of the time I learned of a parishioner’s death after the fact;  I was rarely called in as it was happening.  But Karen was my friend.  She was bold, funny, courageously herself.  She and her husband wore their Birkenstocks to church, even when they were ushering.  She thought I was the best pastor she ever heard.

“No,” she said in answer to my question.  “Not really.  I know God is waiting for me.”  I knew she meant it.  She wouldn’t pretend.  If she was scared shit-less, she would have said so.  She smiled as she saw the tears form involuntarily in my eyes.  It was the first time I’d allowed a parishioner to see me cry.

I was there, as she’d requested, the night she died.  It was peaceful, in her home, by the window where she could see the geese on the lake outside her window.  After I prayed, her breathing simply slowed down until it stopped.  And she was gone.  Her husband Jim and I were the only ones present.

Her death was the final blow in a crisis-filled year at the church.  I went on with my pastoral duties in the months to come until March of 2008.  I had held it together as best I could, putting on the “pastor face” I had learned from my father.  But the day came that I couldn’t hold it together anymore.  I started hyperventilating in the middle of a conversation with a friend and nearly passed out.  I started to cry and couldn’t stop.

I took a week off and spent it mostly in bed.  Larry had already begun his new career as a nurse and was available to preach for me that Sunday.  I knew that it was time to do something else.  It felt like a life and death matter.  Karen’s death ripped away any more denial in my life, leaving me feeling naked and raw.  Years of stress and conflict crashed in on me.

I called my D.S. for yet another meeting.  Dr. Rodriguez was a former bishop from South America, who’d been invited to Nebraska to be a D.S. and help us minister to the very large Hispanic community.  However, he’d never received any training for such a thing, was not schooled on American culture, and his English was very limited.  He was disoriented and bitterly critical.  He came from a tradition where he didn’t need to earn respect but believed he was entitled to it.  He didn’t like women very much.

Dr. Rodriguez stared at me as I relayed my situation.  I was burnt out, I told him.  I needed help.  I needed a break from church ministry.  It was affecting my relationship with my husband, my mental health and my physical health.  I needed to find something else to do.  I wanted to be appointed to an Extension Ministry.

It wasn’t the first meeting we’d had on the subject.  He was silent, and unsympathetic.  I had more meetings with him through the year, imploring him to intervene in crises in the church.  He did nothing except leave me feeling like a hysterical woman.

During the summer of 2009, I took matters into my own hands.  I got a job as a hospice chaplain at the company where Larry was a nurse.  I wrote the Conference a letter telling them when my last Sunday would be and that I hoped to be appointed to this job as an Extension ministry; thus keeping my ordination and Conference membership.

I heard nothing for weeks.  Then I was called to the D.S.’s office.  “The Bishop wants you to know that this is unacceptable.  You are part of a covenant. You don’t tell us what you’re going to do.”

I reminded him that I’d been trying to tell him all year about my needs.  I knew what I’d done was a bold move, but I was desperate.  They hadn’t listened to my pleas for help.  I didn’t want to crash and burn.  I’d seen too many pastors do just that; either by running off with the church secretary, exposing themselves in the city park, or shooting themselves in the head.  I hoped to avoid drastic measures.

“You don’t do this,” he repeated. “This isn’t how it works.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

      Before I’d headed to Lincoln that morning, my friend Jan had said to me, “Whatever this is about, remember… you’ve got people.  We’re there with you in the room, whatever happens.  You’re not alone.”

My appointment was at nine.  I drove the two hours to Lincoln, watching the sun rise directly in front of me.  I pulled into the Conference office parking lot at 8:50 a.m.  I took a few deep breaths before heading into the newly constructed building.

The secretary greeted me without a smile and guided me toward the conference room.  She pointed to a chair and left without a word.  I sat down at the long conference table.  To my left was a bookshelf containing all the Books of Discipline from over many years.

The UMC Book of Discipline is the UMC’s book of law, second only–though not always–to the Bible.  It guides how the church functions and how everyone in it performs their roles.  There were varying opinions from the top of the Church structure on down as to what degree of authority the Discipline has.  A seminary professor told me once that if I ever wanted to be successful in the UMC I should memorize that book.  I never did, of course.  I wasn’t interested in climbing any corporate ladders.

It turns out I should have read it more carefully.

At exactly 9:00 a.m., Dr. Rodriguez walked in and sat down across the table to my right.  He didn’t greet me but pulled out a yellow legal pad and began doodling on it.  It was very cold in the room.  The secretary had not offered me any coffee, though I smelled some brewing down the hall.  I heard the Bishop talking with the secretary and another staff member, laughing and joking.  I looked to my left and imagined Georgi sitting on the ledge, leaning on her hands.

“You’re ok, Peggy,” I imagined her saying.  Jan and my friends from Al-Anon were all leaning against the shelf, waving.  As the minutes ticked by, George periodically rolled her eyes, giving her opinion on the intimidation tactic.

     “I am so sorry,” I said wordlessly, “I didn’t know, if I’d known in time…” She shrugged off my apology.  “I know.”

I sat there for 45 minutes before the Bishop and another D.S. entered the room, both wearing suits.  They nodded to me as they pulled out the chairs on the opposite side of the table, dropping their legal pads and Books of Discipline loudly on the table.

They made no apology for being 45 minutes late.  They offered no courtesies.  My mind immediately pictured the interrogation scenes from some of my favorite crime shows.  Special agent Gibbs always made the accused wait and sweat it out alone in the interrogation room for a long time before he entered.  I wondered if the Bishop watched NCIS.

“Chargeable offense.”  I stared at the Bishop.  Carol, the other D.S., stared at me without expression.

     Chargeable offense.  I’d heard the term many times in reference to pastors who were literally caught with their pants down.  Then there were the ones who performed same-sex ceremonies for lesbians or gays, which was a no-no in the UMC.  Or a pastor who molested children.  The Big Stuff.

Had I known what the meeting was about, I would have read my Discipline.  I would have read the appropriate sections in the book and be able to answer the charges appropriately.  With a sudden, burning panic, I realized:  that was the point.  They didn’t tell me because they didn’t want me to be prepared.  Had I read the Discipline, I would have known that I was entitled to bring someone with me as support, that they were required to tell me ahead of time what the meeting was about.  But they didn’t.  At the time, I didn’t know.

I didn’t want to believe that they would manipulate me like that.  They wanted to catch me off guard.  I still believed in the goodness of the church, and the integrity of its leaders.

“Obviously you didn’t realize that what you were doing was wrong,” the Bishop said smugly.

“Uh, no.  I tried to talk to Dr. Rodriguez, I tried to tell him I needed help, I needed a change, that I needed to get out,” I replied in a shaky voice.

Dr. Rodriguez looked up at the Bishop and shrugged silently as if he had no idea what I was talking about.

“I was trying to take care of myself,” I pleaded. “I was trying to avoid a major crisis.” I thought I could appeal to their compassion, but soon realized I was only making myself more vulnerable.  “I also felt that God led me this job, to provide a way to take care of myself.”

The Bishop laughed.  “You think God led you to this?  You already said that it paid more money– that sounds like more your motivation than God’s will.”  Her tone was mocking.

I started to tell her that we were behind on federal taxes, years behind on student loans, and that my husband and I had never made above the minimum required salaries.  Obviously, that wouldn’t move her.  Twice over the years of pastoral ministry we seriously considered bankruptcy.  The hospice job felt like a gift of grace. Truly an answer to prayer.

The Bishop shook her head in my silence.  “My colleagues are pressuring me to take your ordination,” she said, “but I’m trying to hold them off.  I do believe you didn’t realize what you were doing.  So, I’m going to give you a chance to redeem yourself– perhaps against my better judgment.”  She uncrossed her legs and leaned her arms on the table.

Inside I was furious, but my body was still reacting with terror and anxiety.  Before today, the Bishop would not have been able to pick me out in a crowd.  She had no idea who I was, what my gifts were, what good I had done in ministry– often, under incredible stress.

The Bishop pursed her lips as if she were tasting something bitter.  “In fact, when you and your husband moved back to Nebraska, someone said to me that you never were committed to ministry.”  She let that sink in.  I felt tears form in my eyes.

She looked at Carol with a smile, then back at me.  “Oh, I suppose I shouldn’t have repeated that.”  She put her long, thin fingers over her mouth, but she was still smiling.  I imagined Cruella Deville staring back at me, all warm and cozy in her Dalmatian-skin coat.

I held her gaze.  I refused to look away.  I imagined Georgi, Jan and others sitting nearby, shaking their heads in righteous indignation.  I have people, I thought.

“Here’s what you can do,” the Bishop continued. “You go home tonight and write a letter to the Cabinet, telling them that you did not realize what you were doing.  Tell them that you are very sorry, that you know now that what you did was bad.”  She paused, and I imagined her inhaling dramatically on a burning cigarette, stamping it out in a nearby ashtray.  “And let me say, be very careful how you word that letter.  I will take that to the Cabinet and plead your case, and perhaps you can keep your ordination and therefore your relationship to the Conference.”

She leaned in a bit closer to me, bracing herself with her long, thin fingers.  “But know this.  Even if you are appointed to this job, you will still be under my authority.  If I want to appoint you to a church, you would be required to leave that job.”  Still under my authority… in my mind I added, for the rest of my life. 

“You go home and think about what you want to do.  I suggest you write that letter today.  Maybe, just maybe, you can recover your good standing in the Conference.”

I couldn’t breathe.  I was still shaking with a mixture of rage and shame.  No one at the table knew anything about me as a pastor; what gifts I had, what lives I’d touched.  What was worse is I still felt the pain of serving a church in Pennsylvania that had had their pastor of 18 years removed for having sex repeatedly with a parishioner.  He’d made a deal with that Bishop and kept his ordination.  The stress of that year nearly tore my husband and me apart, largely because we were paid a salary and a half.

     You will still be under my authority.  For the rest of my life.  That suddenly seemed like eternity.

“One other thing,” she continued.  “I want you to be very, very careful as to how you speak to other clergy about this meeting.”  I could feel my lips part in shock.

We all got up out of our chairs, and I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.  The Bishop shook my hand.  “We’ll be awaiting your letter.”

I made it back to my car, unlocked the door and got in.  I didn’t look up at the glass front of the building, imagining the three of them lined up there watching me.  I drove the car to the nearby Quick Stop, parked the car at the back of the building and sobbed.

 

De-Churched

leaving-the-church

Welcome to my new blog!  On this blog I will tell stories of my life as a pastor’s kid, pastor’s wife and pastor.  There will be stories of both pain and grace.  In 2009 I left the ordained ministry, and after searching for over a year, decided to not go back to any form of worship.  I still love and believe in God, but being in Church only distances my sense of God’s presence.  I still have friends who are able to find grace and community in church and I celebrate that.  I still believe and try to follow the teachings of Jesus, but I believe that God reaches people in the ways that they can receive and commune with God.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism–the tradition in which I was raised and ministered–wrote about “plundering the Egyptians.”  What I think he meant was finding truth and God’s wisdom in things other than Scripture, believing that God can speak through many avenues;  ie. music, literature, poetry, nature, etc.  It is not my intent to draw people out of the church.  I truly celebrate my friends’ experiences of grace and community within the Christian church.  My goal here is simply to tell my stories, part of which will be about why I left, but also about the grace I experienced within the church and since I left.

I’ve read brilliant memoirs of people who left church or their religious traditions and no longer “believe.”  Reading their stories, I can understand.  However, I am not one of those people.  I am still seeking, learning and discovering in my spiritual life, and leaving church was part of that journey. I hope you will join me.