Starting Off on the Wrong Foot



I was in love.  With Larry.  With God.
I felt I belonged.  With the church.  I was called to preach.  I’d had a rollercoaster, exciting, voices-in-the-cornfield (or movie theater), life-changing year that landed me in the middle of the country.  Missouri?  Nebraska?  I couldn’t have pointed to a U.S. map to tell my New Jersey friends where I lived.

How the burningbushblazes did I get there?

DearSweetJesus, if I could go back to 1991 I would hold that girl named Peggy Michael and hold her tight.  I would tell her to take deep breaths.  I would tell her that just because God seems to lead, that doesn’t mean God won’t lead you through hell a time or two.  And that if God calls, it doesn’t mean that that particular call lasts for 40-some years.  It may just be… let’s say 19.  And that’s ok.

I was breath-less in 1991.  I was engaged to be married.  I was entering my first appointment as a part-time student assistant to the Conestoga Parish in Nebraska.  Larry and I visited Raymond, Malcolm, Pleasant Dale and Denton United Methodist Churches that spring, with our District Superintendent Warren, who was counting down the days till he could retire.  We met Doug, my “senior” pastor, who served the four churches full-time after having been trained during a week-long pastor’s school.  He would start the alternate route toward ministry, Course of Study, during the summer of 1992.  I’d been in seminary for two years.

But he still looked down on me.

Maybe because I was a woman.  I don’t know.  I never got the sense that he liked me.  At all.

I would be a student, first and foremost, Warren reminded me, and my ministry would be on the weekends.  I was to preach at two of the churches in the Parish, as would Doug, and then we’d alternate week to week.

I was appointed as of July 1.  I lasted till October.

Larry was serving the Ceresco/Valparaiso Churches, just north of Lincoln.  I would move into his parsonage in August, after our honeymoon.  Meanwhile, when school let out for the summer, I stayed with Verna, an elderly widow from Larry’s church. She loved me.  When we lay in bed, she’d call out to me across the hall and keep a conversation going till she literally fell asleep mid-sentence.

Larry and I just purchased a 1989 F150 pick-up truck, after my Dodge Colt bit the dust.  We co-signed the loan, but my name was on the title.  It was the first vehicle I’d driven that didn’t have my father’s name on it.  I’d driven three of Dad’s hand-me-down cars till that summer.  In the truck, I towered over everybody else on the road.  I felt… invincible.

Driving to the four churches through the summer Sundays was an adventure.  Each church was a little different, but all welcomed me warmly.  They responded to my preaching and worship services.  I didn’t do much else, as I would be in school during the week come fall, so my main responsibility was to cover half the preaching and worship.  That was the arrangement via my DS.

Malcolm and Raymond were both more rural, in small towns.  Without a GPS I still managed to find my way, getting hopelessly lost a time or two.  Pleasant Dale was a small town where Doug and his family lived in the parish’s parsonage.  Denton was a tiny white church in a small town of the same name that was well-endowed by a rich member who’d passed away and left a fortune to the church.  Therefore they never had to worry about paying the bills and they had plenty of money to refurbish the small white building.  They were very proud of their church.

I learned to drive gravel roads, dodge families of turtles or large snakes sunning in my path.  (“Toto, I don’t think we’re in New Jersey anymore.”)  When farmers in the churches would say, “Well, you have a mighty nice fiancee who lets you drive his truck!”, I grinned broadly and patted the side of the truck’s bed and bragged, “Oh, but it’s my truck!”

I Am Woman.  Hear Me Roar.

I wrote letters back to New Jersey to tell of my rural adventures as a circuit-riding preacher.  I loved the little towns, the small congregations that were so kind to me.  I loved preaching, drawing on images from our shared lives and the broader world.  They liked me.  They liked my preaching and worship.  They said things like, “Wow, everything in the service flows!  It’s all related!– the scripture, the liturgy, the hymns and the sermon!”  Well, … yeah.

That’s simply how I thought it was supposed to be.  That’s what I learned from Robert back in Echelon Hills.  Didn’t everyone do it that way?

Doug and I didn’t see a lot of each other, except for the meetings of the Administrative Councils and the Pastor-Parish Relations Committees that I was able to attend during the summer.  We were polite and respectful, but we had very little in common.  He did mention once that he heard that St. Paul School of Theology was… (gasp) liberal.  

And Doug was not.

As we headed into the fall, Doug would drop hints about me getting a youth group going for the parish.  That hadn’t come up with Warren, and I often had to leave on Sunday nights for Kansas City.  We didn’t really talk in-depth about it, and he didn’t push it.  But there simply wasn’t time.

Then one Sunday, instead of following Doug to the churches where he preached that Sunday, his family stayed in Pleasant Dale to hear me.  That made me nervous.  What would they say?  What would they tell Doug?  Were they genuinely curious or were they spying for him?  I’d already gotten a bit paranoid around Doug, that he was measuring me somehow, taking notes, and even talking to Warren.  I didn’t trust him.

Doug’s wife and girls both responded very positively to my worship service.  They talked to me afterward and told me what they liked, and laughed at the stories that I’d shared.  When I saw Doug at the next meeting, he told me more of what they said.  How they’d told him “how good” I was, and gave him bits and pieces from my sermon that day.

He wasn’t smiling.

Larry and I went back to New Jersey in August of that year to be married at my father’s church in Absecon.  Well, that’s a long story too, but we can address that later.  There was a lot of stress surrounding our wedding for a variety of reasons.  For each of us, we agreed, it was just a formality.  We knew who we were together and that we were devoted and committed to this marriage.  The rest was just details. We’d get through it.

But the stress of my appointment with Doug was wearing me down.  I loved the people of the parish, and they seemed to like me.  I felt my worship ministry there was effective and well-received.  But I felt the deep conflict and tension with Doug.  He never confronted me, never spoke anything negative to me directly.  But I heard from Warren frequently about the things Doug complained about.  I heard he was talking to parishioners behind my back, sowing seeds of conflict.  He’d tell them that I was “supposed to be leading a youth group and I wasn’t working hard enough,” etc.

I had many talks with Warren over the summer and he listened.  He seemed supportive.

By the time I got to my wedding, I’d lost 15 pounds.  I couldn’t eat at the reception. I nearly fainted during the pictures as it was so hot and I hadn’t eaten anything.  I could hardly enjoy the event,  with the stress with certain family members and the added weight of what awaited me back in Nebraska.  My anxiety was constant and exhausting.

It came to a head when I had to attend meetings regarding our pastoral salaries.  In the UMC, the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee sets the salaries under the advisement of the UM Conference, approves it, and sends it on to the annual Church Conference for approval.  Every year it felt like the whole congregation was deciding if you were worth your salary, and that it wasn’t up to just one or two people.  But about 300.

I learned, as I faced this meeting, that Doug had been talking to different members of the Pastor Parish Relations Committee as well as others in the congregation.  He was telling them I wasn’t working very hard.  That I hadn’t started a youth group, which was my main responsibility according to him, and that I didn’t deserve the part-time salary I was getting.  He told them, I learned, that they should cut my salary and give the difference to him.  

That was the last straw.  I was exhausted.  I was stressed out.  It was affecting my school work and not doing a lot for my marriage.  I was living in Kansas City four days a week as it was, and had to do homework on the weekends as well as the preaching and worship.  This was true for a lot of other students, as well, but they didn’t have Doug as their “senior” pastor.  It was making me literally sick.

I talked to Warren yet again.  He was getting tired of listening, I think, or maybe he was looking forward to retirement, but he wouldn’t intervene.  He was very condescending.  I didn’t feel like I could go to the committees as I was afraid Doug had them convinced that he was right or that his full-time status gave him more authority in their eyes.

I didn’t know what to do.  Warren didn’t tell me what I could do.  So I resigned.

Well, gosh, it turns out you can’t resign in the UMC.  Nobody mentioned that one.

I requested a special Pastor Parish Relations Committee meeting with the DS present, and Doug absent (I was allowed to do that).  I read my letter of resignation, stating all of my reasons, detailing the pressure I’d been under, the talking-behind-my-back that I had learned about, and that my schooling was too important to sacrifice.  I did know that I should have warned Warren.  But I also knew Warren.  If he’d known, he wouldn’t have “let” me do it.

As soon as I finished reading the letter, Warren got ticked off.  Very.  He dismissed me from the meeting.  When we got home, he called to tell me that he was furious with me for doing it the way I did it and that for my information, I couldn’t, in fact resign an appointment.  He seemed very agitated and afraid then, as he explained that the current bishop had a very bad temper and he would  not stand for this.  I had to write a letter stating why I wanted out of the appointment and the bishop would decide if my reasons were legitimate.

I was trembling.  I threw up after the phone call.  I was terrified.  I felt like a failure. I felt defeated.  I’d failed even before I’d begun.

Back at school, however, my classmates were much more supportive, saying I did the right thing.  My professors mostly agreed that school came first and that I needed a different ministry setting.  That that one was toxic.  That Doug had some issues with my place as a woman and as a seminary student and that came through.

I wrote the letter.  I got out of the appointment.  But Warren pointed a finger at me and said, “Don’t you ever do anything like that to me again.”

I was assigned a temporary mentor;  a kind, older pastor in Lincoln who was very supportive and pastoral to me.  He was assigned to “counsel” me.  I was also assigned a woman mentor, Carol, who was a very political presence in the conference.  She was more removed emotionally, less warm, and and her role was to simply tell me how the United Methodist Church works.  She told me that this could reflect badly on me as I came up for the first level of ordination, the interviews being that coming January.

18 years later, in a cold room at the Conference office in Lincoln, Carol was the D.S. sitting next to the Bishop who admonished me as I made my exit from pastoral ministry.  Carol was the one who exchanged glances with the Bishop when the Bishop said, “I heard that you never really were committed to ministry…oh, maybe I shouldn’t have said that.”

And I knew where she heard that from.

In 1993, when Bishop Martinez visited the Nebraska students at St. Paul School of Theology as we were anticipating graduation, he told us he truly hoped to give us all strong first appointments after graduation.  He noted that our first appointment could either cast a shadow over or be a building block for our future ministries.

He was right.

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