The other day I was raking in front of the house, getting all the leaves and various branches that have piled up against the house over the winter. As I raked back a particularly large pile of leaves, I exposed a tangle of garter snakes.
“Hello,” I greeted them cheerfully.
I didn’t scream like a little girl, I wasn’t even astonished. I took some pictures of them and put them on Facebook and Instagram.
“Ew!” “Yuck!” “OMG!” were some of the responses.
Gibbon and the Kearney area is known to have quite a large garter snake presence. I’m amused that people who have lived here all their lives are so grossed out by them. I’m not. Because they are in the grass. Or the leaves. Or sunning on the sidewalk.
They are not in the house.
My final church appointment was here in Gibbon. The church has about 300 people, and when I was there we averaged about 100 on Sundays. I’ve heard that people have speculated as to why I left the ministry and some think they know. The stories vary, and maybe I didn’t make myself clear when I left. Maybe I didn’t fully know why myself at the time.
Gibbon is a wonderful little community– if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have chosen to buy a house here. I have no resentment toward the Gibbon Faith UMC. They didn’t drive me out of pastoral ministry. When I arrived at Gibbon, I was already full of holes. In my heart, my soul, my spirit. Several years of various crisis-filled churches and situations had built up. The people of Gibbon received me very graciously. For the first couple of years, I loved it there. I felt like I could do good ministry and begin again. To truly heal.
But there were snakes in the house.
I mean that literally AND figuratively. There were, in fact, snakes in the parsonage. People joked about it when we arrived. Wasn’t it funny! You better watch out for them! Ha ha. The first time I saw a snake, it was in the finished basement. Ok, the basement is the kind of place where little critters might get in. Larry beat the crap out of it and carried its devastated body up the stairs and out the door, like my knight in shining armor.
Then we found them in the living room. The cats were curious about them and poked at them, pushed them around, but they didn’t kill them. Thanks for your help, guys.
Occasionally I’d walk out of the kitchen and literally step on one in the dining room. And scream. Larry would come and beat the crap out of it and carry its devastated body out the front door. He had zero tolerance for snakes in the house!
After he’d left the ministry and gone into nursing, Sarah and I were at Annual Conference when I get a call from Larry. He was clearly agitated.
“I just about had a heart attack!” he said, still a little breathless. “I was opening the freezer door and a snake dropped off the top of the refrigerator! It was huge!” He admitted to screaming like a little girl and then beating the crap out of it and carrying its devastated body out the front door. He was still shaken up when he called.
This was getting ridiculous.
We complained, half-heartedly, because really, no one seemed interested in doing anything about it. We went to the Trustees. We went to the store and got stuff that was supposed to keep them away. (The snakes, not the Trustees) We sprayed around the perimeters of the entire house.
They still got in.
One Christmas Eve morning, I swung my legs out of bed onto the floor and felt something cold and slimy between my toes. I screamed like a little girl. It was a snake! On the second floor. In winter. I was not amused. I admit to laughing a bit picturing Larry having a snake fall on his head and his screaming like a little girl. But this wasn’t funny.
So Larry got out of bed, beat the crap out the snake with a broom, and carried his devastated body out the door downstairs.
That wasn’t the reason I left the ministry either, of course. But I admit it put me on edge in the spring and summers, not knowing when I’d be stepping on another cold slimy reptile in my own house. Well, of course it wasn’t my house. I just lived there.
I don’t know exactly when things changed. When the honeymoon was over and the snakes came out. I served only small churches in my 19 years of ministry, simply because that’s about all there is in Nebraska. The big churches in Lincoln and Omaha are reserved for pastors who know how to climb ladders. That was one thing they didn’t teach in seminary.
And for the most part I liked the small church. But in a small church, if there is one or two bad apples who get too much power, then it’s really bad news for the church and especially for the pastor. It might be someone who is willing to do all the work that no one else wants to do, and so they figure it’s their right to control things. Or it may be someone–and this happens in all size churches–who has a lot of money. The church is forever in need of money, so they become beholden to such people. If those families leave, then the church, some think, will close. That was a common fear of all small churches, especially in rural towns. That the Big Conference would come in and shut their doors.
If you’re a United Methodist, you know that churches have to pay apportionments to the Conference, and those bills get quite large. Besides the pastor’s salary and benefits, the apportionments are one of the largest items on the budget. The Nebraska Conference tried to make them sound less like a meaningless obligation by calling them “Ministry Shares.” Some of the money went to international missions, but a good portion of it went to the denomination’s upkeep: D.S.’ salaries/benefits/company cars, Conference expenses, etc.
Small churches spend a good portion of their time trying to figure out how to pay those apportionments. To me, I thought our time could have been better served figuring out how to fund mission work or outreach ministry to the community. But there was little time and almost no resources for such things. Bishops and D.S.’s spend a lot of time figuring out how to get churches to pay full apportionments. Sometimes they were manipulative. They’d threaten to put our churches on the Shame List that goes around the Conference if we didn’t pay all of what we owed. Pastors were considered responsible for that failure. Churches were afraid of getting closed. Pastors were afraid of getting moved to another parish. Somewhere in Timbuktu.
Money was a constant anxiety in the small church.
At Gibbon, I had at least two people who made my ministry difficult those last two years. We’ll call them Barb and Fran. Barb was very involved at the Conference level, was a certified lay speaker, and essentially I came to believe that she really wanted to be a pastor but couldn’t for various reasons. She was the ultimate Church Lady. She was one of the first to greet me when I first moved into the parsonage, the first to try to give me run-down of people in the congregation in her opinion. I’d encountered many like her over the years.
For the first couple of years, Barb and I got along great. She was helpful, but I didn’t fully trust her. Her husband was a grumpy, judgmental, racist, redneck-sort of guy, but for some reason, he liked me. People just said, “Oh, that’s just Fred,” when he made inflammatory, even violent remarks about Arabs, Muslims or Hispanics. But he had a soft spot for me, and I often wondered if that really ticked off his wife.
Barb would volunteer for everything. People were so grateful that she was willing to do so much. She was always smiling, always cheery, and yet I came to realize that underneath that smile was a lot of rage and hate. A lot of venom. I didn’t want to turn my back on her.
She knew I was more liberal than herself– probably more liberal than the majority of people in the congregation by far. Her husband Fred knew this too. I preached from my heart and my sense of what God wanted me to say. I told stories that challenged perspectives. People told me I made them think.
I think it was Obama’s fault that Barb turned vehemently against me.
I didn’t preach politics. I did challenge what I understood to be injustices or things that were against my understanding of Jesus’ teachings. I prayed for George W. Bush when he was president, though I didn’t vote for him. I prayed for all our country’s and world leaders every Sunday. But when Obama became president and I prayed for him, I think Barb started gathering her weapons.
You think I’m paranoid.
She told me she was “very unhappy” that I prayed for Obama. Excuse me? She could be vicious. All with a cheery, Praise-the-Lord smile on her face. I tried to kill her with kindness. I tried to be gracious with her. I prayed for her, about her.
I began hearing that she was talking about me behind my back and trying to get people to turn against me. To my face, she acted like an ideal Christian lady, her smile forever glued to her sunshiney face.
She started to actively work against me. She’d openly argue with things I proposed in meetings. She’d volunteer to do the pastoral prayer in meetings (but the chairperson reminded her I was the pastor). She’d tell people in the congregation that I didn’t deserve my salary. Fran, my other challenge, told the Trustees I didn’t deserve new carpeting in the parsonage. I didn’t work hard enough.
In a UMW meeting one day, another conservative parishioner was going on and on and on about how much she hated Obama and how “un-Christian” Democrats were and how they are leading our country into godlessness. I stayed quiet.
“No one here is Democrat, are they?” she asked suddenly. I didn’t have the energy to admit it.
“Pastor Peggy is a democrat!” Barb loudly volunteered.
Many of the women looked at me, shocked, as if I’d admitted having an abortion. As the other woman continued her anti-Democrat tirade, I slipped out quietly. Some battles weren’t worth it.
Then in 2007, I had the year from hell. It is true that after you’ve lost one or more people to premature death, every loss after that stirs up those old griefs. Especially if you never really got to grieve honestly.
Every single month of 2007 I had a funeral. Sometimes more than one. And they were all sudden and tragic. A sudden heart attack. A blood clot moved. A construction accident. A suicide. Cancer. Cancer. Cancer. All of it was hitting me like arrows that cut below the skin. Brought up other losses in my life that I never fully grieved. Hadn’t been “allowed to” at the time.
Then the final one-two punch of 2007. My dear friend Karen and Lee, the nicest guy in Gibbon, were both struck with cancer. Karen’s was in her pancreas. I knew that was a fatal diagnosis. Lee’s was multiple myeloma. Lee had been in the hospital for heart surgery when they discovered the cancer. His body just wasn’t strong enough to fight it.
Karen was my buddy. She was the local liberal; she didn’t grow up in Gibbon but she and her husband retired here. She was the most popular person in the congregation, I think, despite her unapologetic views. She was kind, hilarious, and joyful. She was very active in the congregation, and started the Sew ‘n Sews, a sewing group that made prayer blankets and worked on quilts to give away. She was the smiling face I always looked for in the congregation when I preached, especially if I was addressing something controversial. She loved me and I loved her. She called me her best friend.
She was diagnosed in June. Lee was diagnosed in April, in the midst of all those funerals. By November, Lee was in Omaha pursuing aggressive treatment and Karen was on hospice. Time stopped for me. There was no question where my energy was going to go. I loved both of those people, and so did my congregation.
I spent October visiting Karen every day in the hospital. We cried, we laughed, we held hands and hugged, and I sat with her until she fell asleep. I cried every time I left her in that hospital bed. Then I went home and took a nap.
I managed to preach every Sunday, but much of my week was focused on Karen for two months. Barbara used this as a weapon against me. She criticized me behind my back for spending so much time focused on Karen. People told me what she said. They never said that they defended me though. Few people stood up to Barb. They didn’t want to criticize her!
During Karen’s and Lee’s last week of life, I asked Barb to cover for me at the nursing home for the worship service there. She often covered for me, she was my lay speaker. But she was furious.
“My sister is dying too! Karen’s not the only one dying! You’re spending way too much time with her!” was her response.
I was emptied out. I felt like my skin was full of open cuts and everybody around me was walking around with open bottles of alcohol. I had nothing left. As I visited Karen every day, I couldn’t help but think of my dear Sandie, who was like a mother to me, who loved me for who I was when I was growing up. Sandie’s cancer took her in 4-5 months in 1984 and I thought I’d never recover. We weren’t to talk about it at home. I was supposed to just walk on.
That grief kept flaring up at unexpected moments since 1984, but in 2007, it flared its ugly head with a vengeance. I found some comfort in the fact that I could be there for Karen in a way that I couldn’t for Sandie who had lived too faraway. But I felt like I was losing Sandie all over again. I was an emotional dishrag.
Barb and I were finished then. That was the last straw. I called the nursing home and explained that I had two parishioners on the brink of death and I couldn’t get away. They understood. Barb never forgave me. I still don’t know why.
(By the way, her sister was not dying. She had a chronic illness that was a constant burden, but she didn’t die for several more years. Barb’s husband Fred was dying from the moment I arrived until ten years later when he actually died. She was always embellishing the illnesses of those close to her, seeking sympathy.)
I went to visit Lee that day in Omaha, and I could tell he was just days from death. I’d been very nervous leaving Karen that day (Omaha is three hours away), because she, too, was close to death. She was then unconscious and incommunicable.
The next night I sat with her and her husband until Karen took her last breath. The next morning, I had a text from Lee’s wife that he, too, had died. I was crushed. Devastated.
I think that’s when it was finally over for me. 2007 was one death after another of really good people. They were all too young. I stumbled through that year, emotionally exhausted and grief-stricken, but Lee and Karen’s deaths were the final blow. Barb’s abuse in the midst of that was the last straw.
In the midst of death and grief, things get really real. You realize what really matters in this life and what you waste so much time on. I wasted a lot of time in my ministry worrying about the Barbs in the congregations, trying to please them, trying to defend myself against them. I couldn’t do it anymore. Nor did I want to.
I never made above minimum salary in my ministry, which was a hardship when it came to paying off all my student loans. After that year, it just wasn’t worth it. I was spent. I was used up. I had no more tolerance for the snakes that I kept stumbling over again and again.
For the next year and a half, I desperately looked for a way out. I ended up working as a chaplain in hospice. I knew a lot about death and grief, and I found that made me more able to help people who were facing it. It was real. No more meetings arguing about how many bags of potato chips we need for the Sunday School dinner or whether 40 year old carpet needed replacing in the parsonage or whether I, the pastor, deserved the salary they were so gracious to pay me. No more driving to Kearney to pick up my check from the treasurer after not getting it for several days because “there wasn’t enough money to pay you.” No more slimy reptiles on my carpet. I. Was. Done.
It’s been almost 9 years now, and despite being a person who doubts most big decisions I make, I never doubted that one. I am less anxious, less depressed, more energetic, more interested in hobbies and learning, and broadening my interests. My relationship with Larry– which was always very good– got much better after I left church ministry.
And I’m proud to be a damn Democrat.