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.
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.