Church ministry started off for me with a bang. Looking back, perhaps I should have sensed then, that ministry would be a wild mix of intense highs and plummeting lows, precious people and very ill people, moments of great holiness and intense dark nights of the soul.
Larry Rush became my best friend in every way. No one before him “got me” so completely. But in the spring of 1990 he was graduating and going back to Nebraska. I didn’t even know where Nebraska was!
During the spring semester, to everyone’s shock, Larry filed for divorce from his first wife. There’d been a lot more going on under his cool, calm facade than any of us knew. Even me. His divorce was upsetting enough, but it also scared the crap out of me. I knew I loved him. But beforehand, he was going away and he wasn’t available. In May of 1990, he was still going away to this mysterious land of Nebraska, but he was single.
I didn’t want to mess with that. I didn’t want to get tangled up with a divorcee. In my own black and white thinking, just my love for him was bad enough, but to acknowledge it at that point would have been “really bad.” I wanted him to go to Nebraska, out of my life, and let me cry.
He didn’t leave quietly.
In his post-filing days that remained in the semester, I was one of the few friends he had left. Many of his friends judged him harshly; many of whom were having extra-marital affairs or were divorced themselves. They couldn’t explain their hypocrisy. So I listened as the “real Larry” came out. He was the same guy, but wasn’t the one who had it all together as I’d thought. It only made me love him more. I was pathetic. In the meantime, he recruited me to replace him at the Echelon Hills UMC (not the real name) as the student assistant pastor. We all had to have a student appointment to fulfill our second and third year class requirements.
I interviewed at Echelon Hills and the people were very gracious. The interview was the day after the David Meece concert, so I was a mess. But I sucked it up and gave an awesome interview, as if my heart weren’t breaking into a million pieces. I met Robert (not his name), the senior pastor, earlier on campus at Drew. I had to pass his inspection before I’d be granted an interview.
Robert was a tall, thin, older man with a pencil-thin mustache. He carried himself with an air of sophistication. He looked older than he was, most likely due to his drinking and smoking. He wore an expensive trench coat. He always had a cigarette in his hand, gesturing frequently, as if he were in a black and white movie. When Robert walked through the room, he left a cloud of Aramis cologne and cigarette smoke.
I was easily intimidated by people–especially men–in authority, and Robert carried an air of power. He was very well-respected in what was then the Northern New Jersey Conference, being a member of many several important committees. Echelon Hills was a respectable appointment. I learned early in my church career that appointments were not so much about where God was leading you, but where the Bishop appointed you and how it could become a big step to something higher. The power appointment. I learned quickly that clergy kept track of who was appointed where, what kind of salaries they made and how many members were in their church. It was a competition. One of many disillusionments.
Robert sat through my interview, smoking a cigarette, his smile evident through the cloud. I’d impressed him. The best thing I had going for me was my call story. It carried me through all the necessary steps toward ordination (of which there were many). It assured me continually, and others, that I was indeed called. I would begin my duties on June 1, 1990, as the new student assistant pastor at Echelon Hills.
Another feather in my cap going into my first role as a pastor, was at the end of the spring semester I was awarded the Carl Michalson Scholarship for “strong scholarship and great promise for ministry.” I hadn’t even known that was a thing! It was a full-tuition scholarship for my second year. I was blown away. Each of these steps seemed like affirmation, like a dove out of heaven, of my being where I was supposed to be. I needed all the “signs” I could get!
Larry stayed in New Jersey for a few more weeks after graduation, to attend Robert’s celebration of his 25 years in ministry in mid-June. I tried to tell him to just go to Nebraska, go, go, go! Get healed. Get counseling. Get “fixed up.” But he insisted that he loved me too. I didn’t want him to love me back. That complicated my life! I made a deal with him, that he’d go back to Nebraska and get counseling, deal with his first marriage, and we’d keep in touch. Emotions, I had learned so well, were so complicated. Counseling was the answer I’d always been given. The answer to everything.
Meanwhile, I moved in with a parishioner (bad idea), who had a room to rent. Ruth was a seemingly benign elderly woman with a big house. I rented a room upstairs and had the privacy of the upstairs. The house was very musty and old. The downstairs was filled with stacks and stacks of old newspapers, magazines, and various decorations from a multitude of holidays. The term “hoarder” had not become a thing yet. There were literally pathways through her living room to the other downstairs rooms, amid walls of … garbage. She didn’t throw out anything.
When I met with Robert for the first time since my acceptance as student assistant, in all of my naivete, I told him I was in love with Larry. His face twitched every so slightly. I felt I should be honest. It was then that I realized that Robert had instructed Larry and his wife to keep their divorce a secret from the congregation of Echelon Hills and just leave quietly. They kept up the facade for the last few months.
The fact of my love for Larry and his love for me presented a problem for Robert. If the congregation knew that I was in a relationship (very early stages) with Larry, then it would look like I was having an affair with a married man. That wouldn’t go over well with either them or me. So Robert instructed me to keep my relationship with Larry a secret from the congregation. He advised me to get a post office box so my mail didn’t go to Ruth’s house, and to install my own phone line in my rented room, so Larry’s calls wouldn’t go to Ruth’s phone.
I did wonder why he knew so much about keeping secrets.
However, I was so enamored with my first role as pastor, I put all suspicions aside. Robert was well-liked and respected. Who was I to find the chinks in his armor? He must be ok if he was so “successful” in the Conference. Plus I liked him. He was kind to me, he was enthusiastic about my gifts for ministry and my ministry at Echelon Hills. We talked easily and comfortably.
My mother made me my first white alb out of a kit. Since it was traditional wear in the Northern New Jersey Conference, I bought clergy shirts with the plastic insert in the collar. The first time I put on that shirt, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror. I was to stand in for Robert at a local parade and give the invocation. I looked ridiculous to myself in the mirror, like a little girl playing dress-up. I thought for sure everyone was going to see right through me and cry, “imposter!”
That first Sunday that I assisted Robert in worship, I was alone in the church office when I put on my alb. I could have sworn there was music playing around me and a bit of a brighter light focused on me as I donned the alb. It felt… significant. I stood there for a moment in the office, looking down at myself, all dressed in white. Who was I now? How did this fit my own perception of myself? It was like I was officially welcomed as a member in some Club. I felt taller. I stood straighter.
As Robert and I prepared to walk into the sanctuary, we stood at the back, waiting for the beginning of the music. A huge cross on the front wall of the sanctuary loomed over us as we walked the aisle toward the front chancel. I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, staring up at that cross that seemed to welcome me, embrace me and affirm me. We parted ways in the middle and I went to my seat on the lectern side. I sat and looked out at the congregation as they sang. Here we go.
My first sermon was the following Sunday, June 10, during the early service. I was absolutely terrified. Public speaking had never been my forte, I was a writer! I communicated best with the written word. I could barely breathe. The passage I preached on was 2 Corinthians 13:5; “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?”
My sermon title was “This is Only A Test,” and I used the image of the test sound of the Emergency Broadcast System. I must say, it was rather clever. Back then, we’d often hear that sound on TV or on the radio, so it was a very common part of our lives. I urged people to remember when they hear it next that “this is only a test!” This too, shall pass, whatever it is. We are beloved by God, and God will get us through and give us strength.
Though I barely breathed throughout the somewhat short sermon and my mouth was so dry that my lips kept sticking together, it went well. I’ll never forget one man who shook my hand later and said, “That was your first sermon ever? I can’t wait to hear more!” I could practically hear the angels singing and feel the dove on my head.
Robert, too, was very proud, and as we “disrobed” in the office. “You’re called to preach, for sure,” he said. A couple of elderly women walked by the glass front of the office. He touched my shoulder and turned me toward them as they talked. “You see that woman right there?”
“Yeah,” I said, “She was very enthusiastic when she shook my hand! She was very sweet.”
He smiled. “Well, she was the one who threatened to leave if you were hired, because she said that women ministers are ‘unbiblical.’ You won her over with one sermon, that’s no small feat!” He playfully punched me in the arm.
I learned a lot from Robert. I learned a lot of the things that I didn’t learn at Drew, such as how to put together a worship service that flowed. Or how to have all the elements of the service connect in a theme. How to do a funeral, put together a newsletter. When he was gone for four weeks on vacation that next month, I depended on the books of Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopalian preacher, whose books I’d discovered in the seminary bookstore. She was my example. She could be described as a narrative preacher, in the same camp, I would later discover, as Gene Lowry– the man whose preaching catapulted me into this adventure.
I depended on the church secretary to write out directions to the various hospitals. I wondered why so many people stared at me while I tried to figure out the colored lines on the hospital floors that were meant to guide me. It was only later that I realized I was wearing a priestly collar in a Catholic hospital.
I fell in love with the all aspects of the ministry at Echelon Hills. I enjoyed hospital visits, and was surprised to often discover tears in the parishioner’s eyes when I was done praying. Connection. Holy connection was a surprise gift of my early days of ministry.
I enjoyed putting together sermons. It called on a skill that was intrinsic to who I’ve always been– a writer. Narrative preaching felt like the style that I easily fell into. Worship was a high; walking into that sanctuary, with the various stained glass windows above me of Jesus looking down at me. It was as if he were smiling on me.
There was a tradition at Echelon Hills during the second hymn of the service. People were invited during that hymn to come to the chancel rail for prayer. The pastors met them there and they whispered their concern and we then prayed for them. It was a tender, precious moment for me. Or giving communion, offering the bread and the juice in the cupped hands of the people, felt like a holy gift. Everything felt so enlivened in me. As if I had been touched alive again in a way I could never have imagined. This was me. This was who I was preparing to be all my life.
Over the coming weeks, Robert and I had lunch meetings and he always paid. They were always at classy, upscale places. Very expensive. They usually lasted a few hours, during which he nursed several double shots of Cutty Sark whiskey. That concerned me, but who was I to question him?
Other things began to concern me. Sometimes he’d casually make suggestive remarks about my looks and my body. When I saw him in the parking lot, he’d catcall. Before Larry left for Nebraska, he’d advised him to leave me alone. To not mess up the good thing we had at Echelon Hills. His exact words were, “Go back to Nebraska and find a nice barefoot farm girl.”
Meanwhile, church members eventually found out about the divorce. Some of the more catty ones started rumors about him having a nervous breakdown, a midlife crisis, etc. A mentally challenged woman in the congregation was pregnant and claimed Larry was the father. Some believed her and spread the rumor. Robert did nothing to address those rumors. He feigned ignorance.
I did hear things about Robert from my Southern New Jersey colleagues. There was knowledge of him having extra marital affairs. I was increasingly concerned about his drinking, and uncomfortable with his flirtatious remarks.
One day when his father was out of town, Robert’s son, Bob was hanging around my office. He didn’t hide the fact that he had a crush on me. He was a rough character with greasy long hair, black heavy metal T-shirts, some piercings, heavy drinking and he bragged about doing drugs. That day, he told me to follow him. He had a key to his father’s office, and he let us in. I wasn’t quite comfortable with this at all, but I felt that I had his trust, that maybe I could help him. He went over to his father’s desk and opened a bottom drawer. He held up a flask.
“This is my father’s Sunday morning communion,” he said, laughing. There’d been times that I thought I smelled alcohol on Robert on Sunday morning, but he also bathed in Aramis. Bob opened another drawer of his father’s desk. “And this,” he said, holding up a Playboy magazine, “is his office reading material.”
Bob reveled in the horrified look on my face. He’d revealed his father’s secrets to me and successfully shocked me. I always wanted to believe the best about people, often despite the evidence. Especially people in authority. I so wanted to believe they were good.
Of course I never mentioned the revelation to Robert, but lost a bit of my respect for him.
In our Supervised Ministry class back at Drew, we were to keep an ongoing journal of our ministries and our reflections. I shared freely about what I discovered about Robert and my disappointments. The pastor that was head of our class was furious over my journal, writing things in the margins such as, “Robert is a highly respected and gifted pastor! How dare you share such lies about him!” It was my first taste of the hypocrisy and power plays of the church institution, and my first realization, too, that I had to play the games if I wanted to be a part of it.
Robert was a gifted pastor and highly intelligent human being. He did teach me a lot about ministry in the months that I worked with him. He was a perfectionist, I soon discovered, to the point of being anal. His sermons were very educational and informative, but lacked passion. All of his sentences were complete, full of sophisticated language, and his thoughts were organized. He didn’t allow anyone else to put together the newsletter, but wrote the whole thing, organized and edited it, only allowing others to photocopy it and assemble it. I discovered he was very controlling, as I should have known in his handling of my relationship with Larry.
As my relationship with Larry eventually progressed into a real relationship, he denied to parshioners any previous knowledge. He clearly struggled. I could see right through him. He was a good person underneath all that, that sincerely wanted to live a good life, but managed to mess up quite a bit. I noticed more and more the odor of alcohol on Sunday mornings, the shaking hands when he picked up his drink or lit his cigarette.
It was many years later that we heard from Robert that he’d been confronted, finally, by a District Superintendent and church committee in another church about his drinking. It had gotten so out of hand, he couldn’t cover or control things any more. He admitted, finally, that he was an alcoholic, and entered A.A. He finally overcame his addiction, but not before doing a lot of damage to his body and many friendships, such as ours.
I entered my second year of seminary with a mixed bag of intense emotions. I was high on the wonder of how I was using my gifts and they were being received. But I was deeply disillusioned by the power plays that I experienced at Drew, from the pastors who knew Robert and warned me to respect him, by the sexual adventures of some of my classmates who would go on to be pastors, and the cruelty of parishioners and classmates in spreading vicious and hurtful rumors. What happened to the Body of Christ?
And so I kept searching.