Trial of the Century

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When I was a naive college freshman at Messiah College in the hills of Central Pennsylvania, I was told on my very first day that United Methodists were all going to hell.  The reason–as it was explained to me by another college freshman– was that “United Methodists ordain women and are even considering ordaining homosexuals!!”

That was 1983.

In 2018, the subject of ordaining homosexuals is splitting the United Methodist Church and the official stance of the denomination per The United Methodist Book of Discipline is:  “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian Teaching.  Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. (Paragraph 304.3)

On August 11, 1998, the Judicial Council (modeled after the Supreme Court) of the United Methodist Church ruled that “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”  They warned that Clergy violating this prohibition can, according to the Judicial Council, be charged with violating the order and discipline of the church. They can be tried in a church court, and penalties upon conviction can include loss of ministerial credentials. 

I didn’t even know about this.  I didn’t keep up with all the stuff at the General Conference level at that time, I confess.  I was a young mother in a stressful associate pastor position, just trying to be in ministry without losing my soul.  So I also didn’t realize that before 1996, there was no specific admonition against performing same-sex ceremonies for homosexual couples.  The Book of Discipline said that homosexual conduct was “incompatible” with Christian teaching, but did not prohibit clergy from performing same-sex unions.

In 1996 they took care of that.  The General Conference added that admonition to the Discipline:  “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”  Clergy who were previously offering such ceremonies of blessing (since gay marriage was not legal) could now have “charges” brought against them.

Since I didn’t know about this, I was unprepared for the news that Tom and Ben were so excited to share.  They called me and Larry to have lunch with them at Carlos O’Kelly’s in Grand Island.  They said that they wanted to meet with us together.  But when we got there, we realized that they had an agenda.  From their inside sources in the Conference, they heard that a man named Jimmy–a pastor who had been brought into the Conference to serve First UMC in Omaha (which already irked a lot of pastors)– was going to perform a same-sex union ceremony.  In the Church.  Apparently he had called The Omaha World Herald to give them a heads up.  (The Omaha World Herald was always anxious to get some dirt on the UMC at that time)

Ok, I thought.  Big deal.  Tom and Ben were so excited about this news.  Tom especially, was always eager to include me, as if he were bringing me into his circle of People Who Heard Things First.  They emphasized the importance of this news.  This was big, they said.  Jimmy was protesting the General Conference’s action in 1996.  He was daring the Powers That Be to do something about his action.  There are guidelines for church trials in the Discipline, but no one had ever called for one.  If “charges” were brought against a pastor–say for sexual misconduct–Bishops usually dealt with it by simply defrocking them and moving on.  No need for a trial.  They didn’t want all that attention brought to the denomination.

But this was different.

Ben was practically salivating at the idea of being able to bring charges against Jimmy.  Ben was very conservative and always ready to damn anyone who didn’t agree with him, but THIS!  This would give Ben an opportunity to get some power and notoriety.  Unfortunately, as the news was shared on the “inside track”, many pastors were eager to be the ones to bring charges against Jimmy as soon as the union happened.

And they did.  Jimmy was open with the World Herald as to the date, time and location of the same-sex ceremony.  First United Methodist Church in Omaha.  Almost as soon as the ceremony happened, pastors eager to bring righteousness back to the denomination filed official charges.  The Bishop had to choose just one, however, and respond.

It was decided that there would be the first-ever Church Trial.

Thank God we didn’t have social media back then, but the Trial got a lot of news coverage, as was Jimmy’s intent.  It was all over the local papers on the front page. The Conference was in an uproar.  Pastors and laity alike calling for Jimmy’s head.  Others were supportive of Jimmy.  It quickly split the Conference.  Pastors like Tom and Ben were hoping to be called to be in the jury pool, to be in the center of the storm.

No such luck.

I received my letter from the Bishop at the Church telling me that (lucky me) I was to show up at First UMC in Kearney on a certain date to be part of the jury pool for the Trial.  I was not to tell anyone where I was going or why (with the exception of my senior pastor– as if I could keep it a secret from him!).  I was to go to Kearney, prepared to stay for the duration of the Trial.  I was not allowed to tell the church members where I was going.

Tom was clearly frustrated that he wasn’t “called.”  However, he assumed that I was called because I was “young and female,” which may be true.  Or maybe the Bishop knew that Tom was chomping at the bit to be at the center of it all.  I was not.  I had no desire to be a part of it at all.

It’s funny how when you’re immersed in something big, like the death of a loved one or a church trial, you think the whole world is also immersed in it as well.  How could they not be when it is consuming your whole world?  Larry and Sarah followed me to Kearney to support me and have dinner with me.  Sitting in Whiskey Creek in Kearney that first evening, I looked around, surprised that people were going on with their lives.  Didn’t they know what was going on down at First UMC in Kearney?  The storm that was brewing?

Jimmy’s defense “lawyer” was a United Methodist clergyman who then taught full-time at Nebraska Wesleyan University.  The “prosecutor,” appointed by the Bishop, was a full-time clergy who served a church in Lincoln..  The Trial was held in the gymnasium of First UMC in Kearney.  The process they went through to select the jury was very similar to secular trials.  We were all asked a variety of questions like, “Do you know or are you related to anyone who is homosexual?”  They wanted to make sure we weren’t biased either way, but I knew for a fact there were many that just lied outright in an attempt to be chosen.  Few people were unbiased on “the homosexual issue.”

I just wanted to go home.  I had no desire to be part of this circus.  I was certainly not raised to be in the center of controversy.  I was raised to play along, be nice, be invisible.  This was all against my nature, and my anxiety level was out of control.

The Trial had already gained national attention, though the press was prohibited from being in the gym during any of the proceedings.  They were allowed in before and after.  CNN was present, along with a variety of other news agencies.

I was selected as an Alternate to the jury, which meant I had neither voice nor vote, but I had to stay for the duration of the Trial.  Tom was in the “audience” every day, unwilling to miss a thing.  The jury had a special parking area.  We had a room where we were supposed to hang out during recesses, and we were escorted in and out of the gymnasium each day so we couldn’t interact with the press or anybody else.  We weren’t supposed to interact with the “defense team”– which was anybody testifying for Jimmy, including pastors who were normally our friends.  I was too scared to step over any lines, but I know my jury mates ignored the rules and sought out their friends.

We were put up in a hotel in Kearney, and again instructed to not watch any news or read any papers that covered the event.  Mary kept me informed via text (on my flip phone) as to the climate in Aurora.  People had seen my face on the news and realized where I was.  Some were angry that I was there (as if I had a choice).  Some were concerned for me.  Mary wanted the daily scoop.  I was glad to have the outside contact and support, in addition to my nightly calls to Larry.

We were given lunch each day in a room off by ourselves in First UMC, but I could see the “others” across the way.  The proceedings were ridiculous.  Everyone was acting like we were in a real courtroom.  Jimmy’s defense person was actually a professor in law, so he knew what he was doing, but the rest was a bit silly– if I’d been sane enough to be amused.  There were people in the audience with T-shirts in support of Jimmy, signs and placards, and of course others on the “other side.”  CNN and all other news stations present were hovering outside.  I saw all the trucks outside with their satellites every morning when I pulled into my space.

It was an event that divided people and made the other side the enemy.  Anger and tension was very high and palpable in the air.  I was anxious and often scared.  People assumed that if you were Against Jimmy, you were Against Homosexuals.  If you were For Jimmy, you were for Homosexuals.  But there was another camp that was silent.  There were those of us who were supportive of equality in the Church for gays, but not so enamored with Jimmy.  He came across– to me– as arrogant and self-focused.  He said in his testimony, “you can’t prove it was a homosexual union ceremony.  It could have been a blessing on friends.  You don’t know they were lesbians and I’m not going to tell you because that is pastor-member confidentiality.”

The charge was simply that he performed a same-sex union.  It was clear that he did.  He bragged to the papers that he did.  I didn’t understand why that was a question.  The other charge was that this act was a violation of the Discipline.  

He was compared to Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King, Jr.  But he didn’t seem willing to face the consequences of his actions toward justice, as his heroes did.  He was saying it could have simply been a friends’ blessing.  His defense was simply that no could even prove he did it.  Huh?

The back and forth of the testimony and the “lawyers” was a headache, right out of a crime show.  It was ridiculous.  Both sides played with words and twisted meanings.  Back in our recess room, we had Tylenol and Antacids in bulk, along with lots of unhealthy snack food.  We all had sick headaches at the end of the days.

One evening after another long day of proceedings, I came back to my car and there was a note on my windshield that read, “With pestilence and with blood I will enter into judgment with him; and I will rain on him and on his troops, and on the many peoples who are with him, a torrential rain, with hailstones, fire and brimstone….. Jesus.”  It was written in red.  20 years later this would not have freaked me out as it did then, but at the time, I was terrified.  I looked around, afraid that someone was watching me.  I ran back into the building and caught a security guard and showed them the note.

“Oh, sorry, we knew about those.  We sent the youth out there this morning to remove them.  I guess they missed your car.”  Uh, yeah.  I hurried to my car and unlocked it quickly, jumping inside.  Kearney is not normally a high crime town, but I was terrified.  At the time I wasn’t familiar at all with Kearney.  I went to the hotel and went straight to my room and called Larry.  I was trembling.

My friend Don Bredthauer testified on Jimmy’s behalf, as his associate.  I didn’t get a chance to talk to Don, and I didn’t feel confident to cross the lines at the church to speak with him.  I felt ill, wishing I could apologize to him for even being a part of this circus.  But I couldn’t.

As the jury deliberated, the other Alternate and I literally had assigned chairs in the corner of the room where we had to stay as the others talked.  We were told that if someone should suddenly collapse with a heart attack, say, that we had to be ready to step in and be up to date on the proceedings.  So I sat in my chair, frustrated and angry.

I could feel it.  I knew this was a significant moment for the UMC.  I knew that whatever happened would continue to deepen the rift in the denomination.  We jury members were angry that we’d been saddled with this responsibility.  The whole denomination was “watching.”  We didn’t feel we deserved this pressure.  Those who could speak expressed that rage and sense of injustice at the position we were in.  Nobody in this situation was trained or prepared in any way for any of this nonsense.

To the question, did Jimmy conduct a homosexual union ceremony, the verdict was 11,  yes; 2 no.

To the second question, did he violate the order and discipline of the church, the verdict was 8  yes, 5 no.

Thus he was “acquitted.”  After the vote, the room was silent.  I could feel the storm coming.  I knew this was going to blow up.  There was no easy way for this to go forward.  The entire jury, even the ones who voted “no” felt the huge weight of the coming days.  As we were ushered out of the room toward the gym to share the vote, I stopped a security guard.  I told him I was an Alternate, I didn’t have any vote or voice, so technically I wasn’t an active member of the jury.  Could I please leave?  He asked someone and they gave me permission to leave.

I didn’t want to be in the room.  People would cheer and celebrate and I didn’t feel like there was anything to celebrate.  It was a mess.  It would have been either way.  The damage had already been done.  I could feel the tension building.  I didn’t want to be there amongst the cheering.

I snuck past the crowds and the press waiting outside.  There was no one in the parking lot as I got in and drove away in the pouring rain.  Larry and Sarah were waiting for me in my hotel room and planned to spend the night with me.  I knew that no matter what happened I wasn’t ready to go back to Aurora.

I burst into the room and turned on the T.V.  The verdict was shared and the room erupted in a mixture of cheers and boos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Out of the Frying Pan

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“You know, I think God must be a man after all.  Why else would he make it so men enjoy sex more than women?”  Tom laughed loudly, slapping the desk in front of him.

The door to his office was closed. I sat in front of Tom’s desk, trying to appear relaxed while every muscle in my body tensed.  Tom (not his real name) leaned back, laughing as he usually did as if he were constantly amusing himself.

This was my new senior pastor.

When we left Tilden, Larry and I were both exhausted emotionally and spiritually.  Looking back, it’s never a good thing to be desperate when seeking an appointment from the Bishop.  The ordination promise to “go wherever the Bishop sent (us)” proved to be absurd.  It’s an outdated promise. Bishops are not God.  I learned the hard way that the Bishop or DS’s don’t always have your best interests in mind, much less what would be good for you and/or the churches.  They just had to fill pulpits.  We were constantly told that appointing clergy couples was a “problem.”

We were sent to Aurora and York as associates.  I was to be an associate at Aurora and Larry at York.  I felt battle-weary leaving Tilden. I had to hope for something better.  More positive.  The very name Aurora means “dawn.”  I hoped and prayed that this would be a healing, empowering experience for both me and the church.

I got a call from my future senior pastor in my last days at Tilden.

“Heeeey!” came the enthusiastic, energized voice on the phone.  “I hear we’re going to be working together!  I’m looking forward to it, how about you?”

I winced.  Tom was a well-known pastor in the Conference.  He was hard to miss.  He’d come to Guide Rock once as my mentor for that year, but we only met the once.  He came across as a used car salesmen, the kind you see on TV commercials within a TV show.  He laughed when nothing was funny, slapped you on the back like you were old friends, and had an inflated image of himself.  After our encounter in Guide Rock, I felt like I’d been run over by a truck.

“Hi! Yeah! Great!  Looking forward to it, too!” I said with a forced and fake enthusiasm.

I just prayed I was wrong in my first impressions of him.  He was one that was always trying to be visible at Annual Conference.  He always wore a suit, sat near the front, greeted people, slapping them on the backs, working the crowd.  Everyone knew he aspired to become a D.S. some day, which was seen as some kind of success, or high rung on the corporate ladder of the Church System.

“God must be a man…”  I couldn’t believe he just said that.  I looked over my shoulder at the closed door.  I felt trapped.  He had a way of making me feel cornered.  He called me into his office almost every day and shut the door.

He leaned in and pointed at me.  “I’m going to break you yet,” he said.  “I’m going to get you to share with me…” he narrowed his eyes and laughed.  He proceeded to tell me about his first wife, the divorce, his kids from that marriage and how rough it was.  I wasn’t sure why he wanted so badly for me to share deep, personal things about myself, but I decided early on that I would share very little with him.  I didn’t trust him.  Sometimes I was actually scared of him.

That first summer at Aurora we managed to avoid each other, as he went on vacation right away for a month, leaving me in charge.  I enjoyed getting to know people, preaching and leading worship on Sundays, visiting with people who came into the office to sit and chat.  People were very kind to me and very supportive.  I was impressed with the people of the congregation.

Mary, the secretary, had been there for 34 years and was very sweet.  I enjoyed sitting and talking with her.  She faithfully wrote out directions for me to people’s houses (this is before GPSs) when I went to visit them, and filled me on things I needed to know.

When Tom returned from his vacation, we left for ours.  So we didn’t really work together until late August.  I tried to keep a positive attitude and give him the benefit of the doubt.  Until the closed door meetings.

He never did anything inappropriate, just said very inappropriate things that made me very uncomfortable and nervous.  He made fun of parishioners behind their backs.   He put down Mary.  He was overwhelming.  Overpowering.

“I like to think I can teach you a few things,” he said one day.  “I know people, you know, so I can get you ahead in the Conference,” he said, winking at me.  I smiled tensely and nodded.  When we were standing, I usually backed up a step, as he tended to lean into my personal space.

I’d been preaching and leading worship for four years.  I’d taught confirmation, done a lot of pastoral care in traumatic circumstances, dealt with difficult people and led many administrative meetings.  It was clear from the beginning that Tom and my approaches to ministry were entirely different.  I didn’t want to learn anything from him.  Except how not to do things.

As the associate, I preached once a month at first, and assisted on the other Sundays.  One day after the first service, an elderly gentlemen engaged us both.

“Isn’t Peggy an awesome preacher?” the old man said to Tom.  Tom laughed uncomfortably.

“Yes she is,” he said through his artificial smile.

“Seems to me you could learn a thing or two from her, Dr. Tom!” the elderly man slapped Tom on the arm and laughed.

Oops.  I saw Tom’s eyes narrow, but he kept his smile.  About a half hour later, he called me into his office.

As he angrily took off his robe, nearly ripping the sleeves, he said to me, “Don’t you forget who the senior pastor is here!  And I am the better preacher!  Don’t you forget it, do you hear me??” he said, getting into my face.

I was silent.  What could I say?  It became a pattern.  Every time someone complimented me or praised my gifts for ministry, I ended up getting yelled out in Tom’s office.  Punished.  Put in my place.  I started to dread getting compliments from the members.

One day Larry and I were shopping in the local grocery store.  Would Rev. Peggy please come to the customer service desk? we heard over the intercom.  There was a phone call for me.  Jim, the local mortician, told me that an elderly gentlemen had died while out in his pick-up.  The police needed to go tell his wife back at their home and requested a clergy to accompany him.

“What about Tom?  He’s going to be mad if he finds out,” I said to Jim.  (Jim and I became fast friends).

“Peggy, to be honest, Tom has no compassion.  I know this woman and I don’t want her to be hurt.  You’re better at comforting people,” he said tactfully.

It wasn’t the only time Jim called me instead of Tom.  Others started doing it as well.

One day I got a call from St. Francis Hospital telling me that there was a fatal car accident involving a mother, her two children and one foster child.  The mother was killed, and the son was life-flighted to Omaha.  They wanted me to come and be with the two girls who were being treated and didn’t yet know their mother was dead.

“Did you try the senior pastor’s number?” I said, always trying to protect myself.

“Yes,” said the nurse, “but a family friend said it would be better to call you.”  

I kept waiting for Tom to bring it up, to unleash his wrath on me, but so far it seemed people managed to go around him without him finding out.

Then one day Jim called me to do a funeral for an elderly woman who just died that afternoon.  I knew Tom had been at the bedside all day since I’d been in the office.

“Jim, don’t they want Tom to do it since he was there?”

I heard him sigh heavily.  “It’s because he was there that they don’t want him,” he said.  He told me the story.

While the family gathered around their mother’s bedside, Tom sat with them, talking too much as he usually did.  The family was telling stories about their mother.  At one point, Tom said to everybody, “Well, my mother’s not been doing too well and we have this trip to Australia coming up this summer.  But if she dies while I’m away, I’m not coming back till the trip is done! We’ve planned this for a long time!”

They didn’t feel that was appropriate and they were somewhat horrified.  The final straw, however, was when it was clear that the dying woman took her last breath.  The nurse came in and confirmed that she was gone.  Tom slapped his knee, stood up and said, “Great!  I’m hungry!  Who wants to get something to eat?”

A few days later, I nervously put on my robe in my office, preparing for the funeral.  Jim was sympathetic to my fears of repercussions from Tom, and kept checking in.  Finally Tom came into my office, just a few minutes before the service was to begin.  He closed the door.

“Hey, I was wondering, do you know anything?  You know I was the one at the bedside when Edith passed away, so of course I figured I’d have the funeral.  Did you hear anything?  Do you know why?” He asked me this trying to appear casual, but I had become sensitive to his broiling anger beneath the surface.

I shrugged and feigned ignorance as I usually did.  “I have no idea, I thought it was weird too.”

Tom stared at me for what seemed forever as if trying to read my face, to see if I was indeed lying.  I held his stare.  Finally, he shrugged and left my office.

Some days I closed the door to my office and cried.  Other times I was calming Mary down because Tom had gone into a rage about some mistake that she’d made.  I learned to keep my guard up.  Among parishioners, Tom was friendly and joking, feigning a good relationship between the two of us.

I was afraid to say “no” to him.  He invited Larry and I to join his friend Ben (not his real name), Larry’s senior pastor, and our District Superintendent Justin (not real name) in a supper club.  The idea of the club was that the host family would have a theme for food and pass out the recipes for the others to bring.  Neither Larry or I wanted to do it because we didn’t want to spend extra time with these people, but again, we were a bit afraid to say “no.”  I always felt I would be punished somehow by Tom.

The first night was awkward, everyone pretending to be friends.  The food was excellent.  Larry and I were both uncomfortable and tense as Tom and Ben discussed the news of the Conference and all their insider information.

The next morning, Tom called me into his office.  “Hey,” he said casually, “Did you two have a  good time?”

I shrugged just as casually and said, “Yeah, the food was great!”

Tom smiled that Grinch-like smile that I’d come to detest and said, “Yeah, you seemed ok.  Ben and I were concerned that you might be intimidated being in the room with all those powerful people.”

He wasn’t kidding.

We made an excuse that we just didn’t want to take another evening away from Sarah and we begged off the “Powerful People Supper Club.”

I did get an opportunity to get some independence.  Tom was not consistent.  He ended up giving me the 11:00 a.m. service on Sunday to “play with.”  It was the lower-attended service, and he thought I could experiment with it.  It was just the beginning of the church trend to try “contemporary services,” so we decided to introduce some contemporary elements into it.  I would preach three times out of four at 11, allowing Tom to preach one.

I formed a praise team to sing songs out of the new Hymnal Supplement, which were more like praise songs.  I used my guitar to accompany them. I do love planning worship, so I enjoyed trying new things, and I found some younger folks who were willing to help.  We did increase the attendance, which is always a church goal, and I felt like I got a chance to do what I am best at.

My friendship with Jim the funeral director and Mary the church secretary helped me stay sane.  Jim didn’t care at all for Tom, but was civil to his face.  He didn’t have the nerve, either, to tell Tom that some parishioners would prefer me in a crisis, as I was more compassionate.  We all tiptoed around him, trying not to set him off.  His rages were a more than a bit frightening.  I also became good friends with Peggy, another young adult with young children who helped with the children’s ministry.  She couldn’t stand Tom and so was a quick ally and support for me.  She made me laugh a lot, and I relied heavily on her.

When I was growing up, the District Superintendent was considered to be the pastor’s pastor.  They supported their pastors.  They pushed for raises with the SPRC.  They listened during times of crisis.  Things changed in my generation.  D.S.’s, with two exceptions during my entire ministry, were more like politicians.

I did call Justin for help and support.  I was a nervous wreck.  Mary didn’t want to talk to him because she was afraid there would be repercussions from Tom.  We both knew the Tom and Justin went golfing together, and I knew how Tom worked.  He sidled up to Justin to make sure Justin would be on his side.  Tom also made connections in the Conference with the goal of calling in favors later.  He’d be the “campaign manager” for friends who wanted to be voted in as General Conference delegates.  General Conference meets every four years and is the main governing body of the United Methodist Church.  It’s where the “action” is at.  It’s prestigious–or it was– to be elected to General Conference.  I didn’t know that people like Tom made deals, called in favors, campaigned, etc. to get elected.  The more time I spent working with Tom, the more I saw of the underbelly of the denomination and it disgusted me.

So much for Jesus.

It got so bad, however, that I finally called Justin and told him I was a nervous wreck.  That the secretary was a nervous wreck.  We needed help.  He offered a mediation meeting with me and Tom.  Mary wanted nothing to do with it.  She felt overpowered by and scared of Tom.

Justin, Tom and I met in the library.  Justin introduced the reason we were there and got me to speak my “concerns.”  I was trembling with anxiety, sick to my stomach.  But I spoke honestly about my interactions with Tom, his bullying, his closed-door scoldings, his inappropriate jokes with me, etc.  Every so often Justin would interrupt me and say,

“Yeah, but you just said this and then you said that.  That’s not consistent.”  He would chuckle, act as if he were seriously confused.  He started to question my feelings, my reactions to Tom.  I started to feel humiliated as he twisted my words to make me look ridiculous.  Meanwhile, Tom had a file with him full of notes.  He had an answer to each of my concerns.

They teamed up on me to make me look ridiculous.  I was sobbing by the end of the meeting, after which Justin said a prayer and suggested we all go to Pizza Hut for lunch.

I was defeated.  This is how the game works, I realized.  The people in power, the ones who know how to play the game, are the ones who run the show.  My image of the Church was seriously breaking down.  My trust in the institution was becoming severely damaged.  I walked through the office to get my jacket, my face swollen and red from tears, and Mary gave me a sad and loving look.

At Pizza Hut when Tom went to get his salad, Justin leaded over and squeezed my shoulder,  “If you ever need to talk, please give me a call, ok?”

I stared at him.  He was serious.  I didn’t respond.  I didn’t trust myself to respond, but took a sip of iced tea.  I knew my “place” in the hierarchy of the Church now.  There was no justice.  I hated them both.  I hated their act, their deal-making, their facades and their role-playing of “pastor.”  I hated what they represented in the Church and that they got away with it.

We all laughed and joked and made small talk as we ate our pizza.

 

 

Baseball and Scientology

When we lived and served in Tilden, despite a lot of crises–or maybe because of so much crisis– I grew up in ministry.  I was plunged into so many raw and tragic moments of people’s lives that I felt completely unprepared for, but by the grace of God was able to offer comfort and support.  I learned a lot from Larry in those situations.  It never ceased to amaze me how much tragedy filled the lives of the people in these three small towns.  I realized that while I was growing up, I was shielded from a lot of real life and real pain in other people.  Somehow my father seemed to ride above real life and avoid the messiness of it all.

I relied a lot on Susan’s friendship those first two years at Tilden.  She was a warm, kind, motherly presence and sometimes I just went to her house to have a good cry over coffee.  Larry and I had many sleepless nights during those days.  I dreaded calls from Ginger, our Staff-Parish Relations Chair, because she seemed to think it was her job to find all the things we did wrong in each church and report to us regularly.  Between her, individuals in the churches who were just mad about something, and the constant calls from bill collectors, we felt constantly harassed and broken down.

But there was comfort in real ministry.  Many people losing their fights with cancer.  Teaching confirmation.  Doing funerals for people who were turned away from another church because they hadn’t paid their “dues.”

During the spring of 1996 as I approached ordination as Elder, Larry and I wrestled with whether we could stay at the Parish for a third year.  Our finances were a shambles, we were in debt seemingly beyond repair.  We couldn’t pay the bills on 1 1/2 salaries.  But I also struggled with the shame of leaving after only two years, when I left Guide Rock after only one year.  We went back and forth, and finally decided to ride it out one more year.  It was a difficult decision.

Those three years were the hardest years of our marriage, and there were days I thought we would be broken apart by the stress.  I was chronically depressed and struggled each day to get out of bed.  Sarah was the reason I could.  I kept trying for her.  I pressed on for her.  She was the light amid so much darkness, the joy that teased us and invited us to continue to hope.

Larry presented an idea at the very beginning of our time in Tilden.  He wanted to take a group of youth from the parish across country, stopping at several significant “spiritual sites” like the Amana Colonies, etc., and end up in New York City.  There they would see the historical churches and tour NYC.  Most of those kids had never been out of Nebraska, much less the East Coast.  They would learn about different religious groups that were a part of our nation’s church history.

He thought it was a good idea.

For some reason, there were individuals in a couple of the churches that got angry.  They thought some kids from one church would get more money than other kids, or that somehow the kids of their church would lose out.  Or that the kids who didn’t want to go on the trip would feel left out as the other kids were working on fundraisers.

None of this made any sense to us, but Larry pressed on under incredible pressure and frequent angry phone calls from one church member in particular.  She accused him of stealing money from their church’s youth group, or favoring the kids of the other churches.  She would call him and literally scream into the phone.  She did this for the entire three years we were there.

But Larry was committed to the kids who were already excited about traveling cross-country, and to the adults who already committed to chaperone.

Nebraska is the birthplace of several well-known celebrities such as Dick Cavett, Marlon Brando, Johnny Carson, Henry Fonda, Nicholas Sparks, Hilary Swank, and even Gerald Ford, just to name a  few.  When we arrived in Tilden, we discovered that this town of about 1,000 people was the birthplace and childhood home of Richie Ashburn of the Philadelphia Phillies.  The small local pharmacy had Phillies memorabilia in the window, as the pharmacist was a school buddy of Ashburn.  Everyone in town was proud of their hometown boy, and the baseball field was named after him.  Ashburn’s Mom, “Toots” Ashburn, was a member of the Tilden United Methodist Church, and still active.  When Richie was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he came to Tilden for a celebration and we got to meet him.  We had Sarah dressed up in a tiny Phillies uniform and cap.

At the beginning of 1997, however, we learned about another well-known celebrity who was born in Tilden.  This one would have a greater impact on our ministry that year.

We were invited to a community meeting one day, along with all the other leaders of the town, only to discover that a lot of planning and negotiations had been going on  that we were unaware of.  That was one down side of ministering in three communities– we couldn’t always keep up with what was going on in one town.

At this meeting, there were a lot of people in expensive suits who looked very much out of place in this small rural farming community.  It was clear they weren’t from around here.  They had tables set up with shiny brochures, videos, posters and books about the Church of Scientology.

All I knew about the Church of Scientology was that some people thought it was suspect but that it was something that Tom Cruise and John Travolta espoused as their religion.  I knew nothing else.  I vaguely remember advertisements on TV for the book Dianetics, written by Hubbard, that was supposed to have all the answers to life.  We were curious as to what was going on and what all this had to do with Tilden.  That’s when we learned that L. Ron Hubbard was born in Tilden and moved away at the age of 6 months.

These leaders in the Church had been talking with town leaders about donating a half a million dollars to Tilden to build a park in honor of L. Ron Hubbard.  $500,000 was a lot of money to a community that size!  The town had very modest sports fields and a walking path was being developed that would go all the way to Norfolk and beyond.  The prospect of a much nicer community park was huge to this small rural community.

The Church wanted to build this park and have the various precepts of Scientology carved in stone along the new walking path.  I think a statue of Hubbard was mentioned.

That day neither of us had any idea of the major storm that was brewing right under our noses.  We didn’t know a lot about Scientology, but learned that day that there was a lot of controversy surrounding the Church.  We had no idea why.  We were surprised that a lot of preliminary negotiations had already been underway that involved some of our church members in both the UCC and the United Methodist Church in Tilden.  We were trying to get up to speed with what seemed to be already in process.  They saw this as a huge gift of grace for the community.

Other members started showing up at our door at all hours of the day to express their fears and misgivings about the project.  The local library–which at that time was just a storefront downtown–stocked up on everything they could find on the Church of Scientology.  There were many, many articles from Newsweek and Time.  Church members generously photocopied all of this to have us read.  The more we read about it, the more we were concerned.

Larry and I are pretty open-minded people.  We tend to fall on the liberal end of the theological spectrum.  We like to be fair.  But we were concerned about the reputation the Church of Scientology had, and that was addressed by reputable news sources.  We were concerned that such a big organization with an enormous amount of power and resources could swallow up this little town and perhaps hurt the community.  We weren’t sure how, but our guts told us this wasn’t a good idea.

We didn’t feel passionate enough to forbid anyone from being involved in this endeavor.  Not in any way did we feel like we had the right to make that decision for the community.  We didn’t take the action of the Church of Christ pastor who damned them and warned people of burning in hell if this went through.  He had a reputation of sending anyone he didn’t like to hell, and that’s how we ended up with a lot of funerals of people from his church.  People didn’t take him very seriously.

The whole thing grew into a maelstrom that gained momentum from both “sides” and divided the town.  Families were divided over it.  Siblings stopped speaking to each other, lifelong friendships were broken.  It was always in the air that winter and spring.  Us and Them.

Our own members kept asking us for our thoughts. We wrote a letter to our congregation and passed out copies.  We did not condemn the Church, but we voiced our concerns about its size, power and reputation.  We weren’t going to tell people what to do, but they wanted to know where we stood.  We thought honesty was our best bet.

Well.  It grew from there.  The members who were involved in the negotiations were furious with us.  They called us, showed up at our door and confronted us after church; yelling, cursing, and getting in our faces.  On Valentine’s Day 1997, some of the local church members and community leaders asked to meet with us to discuss it as a group.  They presented this as just an opportunity to talk rationally with us and express their concerns.

They didn’t tell us that leaders of the Church of Scientology would also be present.

We remember it not so fondly as the Valentine’s Day Massacre.  I didn’t get a sitter, it was a day we normally didn’t get a sitter and I figured I could hold Sarah in the meeting.  Fortunately, our secretary, who was in the church office, came out to take Sarah out of the line of fire.  The level of noise was getting out of hand.

People we’d known and worked with for two years already called us names, accused us of being part of a witch hunt, and not “being very Christian.”  We tried to reason with them, but we were quickly overwhelmed.  Leaders of the Church of S appeared calm but said things to stoke the fire of rage and condescension.

Nothing was accomplished.  One man from the Methodist Church threw up his hands and left the room.  At the end, we were shaken and very wounded.  The Scientologists shook our hands, smiled as if they hadn’t been stabbing us repeatedly with verbal knives and said, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

We didn’t sleep that night or for many nights.

A couple of times, a minister from the Church of Scientology showed up at our door from Hollywood, unannounced, requesting a meeting to try to convince us we were all “on the same side.”  To convince us of the merits of his organization.

Everything we did and said that spring was consumed by this community fight.  There was so much hostility in the air it made us physically ill.  My anxiety level was at its peak.  I cried a lot.  I got very paranoid as to what people would do next.   Relationships with some members were distanced because they were “disappointed” in us.

People talked about the Church of Scientology as being like the persecuted Christians of the early church.  Or even like the Jews during the Holocaust.

We were completely on our own, as we often were.  We called our District Superintendent, Marvin, and he kind of shrugged.  He didn’t know what to do.  He suggested we call the United Methodist agency on Christian Unity and Inter-religious Concerns.  We called and left a message for the Chairperson of CUIC in Nashville.  We gave a summary of what we were facing in Tilden with the Church of Scientology and asked for their advice.

A couple of days later, we got a call back.  Neither Larry or I were in the office at the time, but he told the secretary that it was “absolutely imperative” that he talk to us.  She gave us the message and Larry called the man right back.

“Don’t do anything,” he said.  What?  “Don’t engage them, don’t challenge them, and for God’s sake, don’t put anything in writing.”  Oops.  Too late.  We didn’t mention that.  “Back off, you don’t want to mess with them.”  His tone was anxious and adamant.

We were on our own.

Meanwhile, we’d made it very clear to Marvin that we really had to get out of Tilden that year.  We were afraid that if we didn’t, if we continued on a salary and a half, that we would have to file for bankruptcy.  We were stretched beyond our limit financially, but also spiritually, emotionally and mentally.  There were so many people across the churches that we came to love deeply, but we were exhausted.  Was this ministry? I wondered.  Would it always be like this?

Meanwhile, Nebraska Public Radio called and asked to interview us.  We weren’t sure that was a good idea, after what the CUIC had advised us, but at that point, we weren’t sure we had anything else to lose.  And it was NPR, after all.

The day the woman came to the church to interview us, I hadn’t wanted to get a babysitter–again, to save money– so she ended up interviewing Larry as I chased after my toddler.  They were doing an entire program on the Church of Scientology and had heard about the battle at Tilden.  Larry felt good about the interview, though nervous also, and the interviewer was very kind and professional.  We had no idea that the interview would be included on National Public Radio until many months later when my friend Phil heard it in Pennsylvania!

We got the news that we were definitely leaving in June, but we didn’t know until late May where we would be going from there.  In the meantime, we decided that with all the furor over the parish and all the resentment that the UMC had set this up without the church’s input– that it was only fair to put it to a vote.  Let the people of the parish decide if they wanted to continue.  This really wasn’t how United Methodists do things, of course, but we thought it only fair, especially to the UCC Church to either decide to pull out of the parish our claim it themselves.  I have no doubt the idea made our D.S. very nervous!  But we were tired.  We were leaving.  We didn’t want our successors to inherit the rage we’d been working under.

Much to our surprise, the parish voted in favor of continuing as a four-church parish and adopted the official name of The Elkhorn River Parish.  After everything we’d been through, we felt that was a huge accomplishment.

As I packed for the move, Larry went on the trip back East with a large group of youth from across the parish.  My parents came to help me pack, and Larry called from the road every night.  For three years, he’d been very tempted to ditch the whole thing, convinced he’d gotten in way over his head.  But his nightly calls from the road were a treat.  He was so excited and energized by the kids and their enthusiasm.  Of course the highlight of it all was the trip into New York City, where they visited several churches and took pictures on the top of the World Trade Center. Larry said he had to remind his adult chaperones to watch their assigned kids because the adults were so in awe of the city, they forgot about the kids!

On our very last Sunday, we decided to have all four churches worship together in the community center in Tilden for one service.  The youth were just back from their trip and had a part in the service, sharing pictures and stories of what they learned and encountered.  More than one kid jokingly related how they were “abandoned in New York City by their chaperones who were too busy looking up!  I preached that day and planned the whole worship service that was focused on celebrating the “new” parish that they had all now claimed, and the ministry they would continue to do together.

It was a day of great joy, celebration, hugs, tears, and profound worship.  It was a beautiful way to end our time there, on a note of grace and healing.  Forgiveness for the hurts and a way for all of us to move on into a more hopeful future.

Again, as I often was and have been since, I am amazed at the profound grace that can come despite and often through much darkness and pain.

But I still get a little tightness in my chest when I see anything regarding the Church of Scientology…

 

 

 

 

Pain and Grace

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I often wrote to people that living in Tilden was like living in a mine field.  We never knew what we’d step on next that would blow up in our faces.  There were many good people there who were kind and supportive.  But they were no match for those who stoked the hostility and resentment that didn’t have just a single source.

Motherhood taught me how to focus.  There was so much stress and tension in the air when we lived in Tilden, but being a mother to a baby focused me.  Having a daughter to love and raise was a dream come true for me, the ultimate gift of grace, an oasis of joy.  We were very fortunate and blessed with good babysitters, both teenagers and older women.  During the day Sarah went to a house about two blocks away, and was cared for by a mother who had a daughter Sarah’s age.

During Sarah’s first Christmas, I had a solo in the annual UCC Church’s cantata.  I was to sing as Mary to the baby Jesus.  We dressed Sarah Gene up in a blue union suit and laid her on a Nebraska Cornhusker’s beanbag chair, covered with her favorite Lion King blanket.  We placed the beanbag chair up front in the aisle during my solo.  As I sang my song, Sarah recognized my voice and made noises, calling out but not crying all through the song.  It was all I could do to get through the song!  But I was told later that the congregation was in tears.  Sarah’s acting debut was at 6 months as the baby Jesus.

The Elkhorn River Parish, as it was informally called, was made up of the United Methodist Church of Tilden, the UCC of Tilden, Meadow Grove United Methodist Church and Battle Creek United Methodist Church.  The United Methodists grieved Brian’s departure for that first year, being used to constant and focused attention and not having to share that attention with any other church.  The UCC Church was very concerned that we were going to “try to turn them into Methodists.”  We worked hard to convince them that that was not our intention at all.  We read a lot about the UCC and got them to tell us their stories, their traditions.  It was a difficult journey winning their trust, but we mostly won the trust of the leaders, so that helped.

That first year turned out to be a particularly difficult year for the Battle Creek Church.  Several members had cancer and later died.  There were other illnesses and struggles among the members.  Battle Creek is a primarily Missouri Synod Lutheran town, the Lutherans dominating the population.  At the end of that first year, members in our congregation told us that their Missouri Synod friends told them why there was so much cancer and death in their congregation.  It was because they had a “divorced and remarried pastor and a woman pastor” in their pulpit.  Some of them believed that God was punishing them by killing off members of their congregation.

Nothing prepared me for such accusations.  I was introduced to women’s issues in seminary, of course, but still, I was very naive about how women pastors were often treated in the Church.  I truly thought that I would be accepted like any other pastor if I simply showed them I cared, was real, and preached the Gospel.  I was horrified that people actually believed that God would kill people because of me.  I couldn’t make any sense of that, but it hurt deeply.

I was overwhelmed from the beginning by the amount of hostility in the air.  Thank God for Sarah!  Having a baby diffused some of that, especially with the women, but there were enough people in each church who wouldn’t be deterred in their anger.  It ate at me.  Why didn’t they just like me?  I tried so hard to get them to like me.  I got good feedback on my preaching, knowing that was my strongest gift.  They liked my worship services.  But many of them simply could not let go of their anger– not knowing always, what made them so angry.  They were just mad.

Larry and I began a tradition in Ceresco of doing a Tenebrae Service on Good Friday together.  I used the basic skeleton of the service that my father had used, but we added a lot to it.  During the sermon time, one of us would do a first-person drama.  When Larry did it, he was a crippled man who’d been skeptical of Jesus but whose heart was softened there at the foot of the Cross.  I always did mine as either as Mary the mother of Jesus or Mary Magdalene.  We did our roles extemporaneously, after much practice.  I found that when I entered the role of either Mary at the foot of the Cross, I could pour out all my anger and pain into the role, and it was very cleansing.  I didn’t hold back as I essentially yelled at God in the presence of the Cross.  Every year, too, we ended the service with Larry reading the final passages of the narrative of Jesus’ death, interspersed with me singing, kneeling, a verse of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”  Acapella.   The sanctuary grew progressively dark throughout the service, and by the time I knelt beneath the Cross singing, there was one lonely candle that I blew out at the end of my song.  Then I ran down the aisle, stopped, turned around and sang  one verse of “Were You There?”  By then, the sanctuary was dark except for one candle hidden behind the cross on the altar.  I was barefoot and dressed in a sheet.  Again, I poured as much pain as I could into the singing, and ran out.  The sanctuary was deathly quiet and still.  Then one by one, the congregation had been instructed to come to one of us with their candle.  We said to them, “The Master is no longer here.”  They were to reply “I will take his Spirit with me” as we lit their candle and they went forth into the darkness of the evening.

That service was always very moving for people.  It was profoundly moving for me personally.  At the end of the night I felt spent, silenced, cleansed.  Which always made the sunrise and resurrection of Easter all the more joyous and healing.  Even now, many years later, when people remember anything from our ministries, they remember Good Friday.

In 1996 I went through my ordination interviews for Ordination as Elder and Full Membership in the Conference.  My interviews were again very positive and affirming of my gifts and my call.  The congregations were all very supportive and encouraging as I faced the interviews and they prayed for me.  They celebrated joyfully when I got the news that I’d “passed.”  I’d made it.

I knew an older pastor in the Conference who was a big “fan” of Gene Lowry and had also been his student.  I reached out to him and suggested that Gene be asked to be the preacher at the ordination service that year as several of his students were being ordained.  Usually the Bishop of the Conference preached or had one of their bishop friends from another conference preach– and bishops were rarely good preachers.   I never heard back from the pastor, but a month ahead of Conference, I received the Conference newspaper.  Not only would Gene be preaching the ordination service, but Tex Sample would be the preacher for morning worship through the week.   If that wasn’t exciting enough, Ed Hann had agreed to fly out and be one of my mentors, laying his hand on my head with the bishop.  Gene had agreed to be the other, long before he was asked to be the preacher.  The only thing that could have made the event more profound was a dove touching down on my head and the voice of God saying, “This is my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.”

Several people from the churches made the trip to Lincoln for the event, and my parents flew out as well.  All the pain and struggle to that point seemed worth it.  All my self doubts about my ability to be a pastor were silenced.  My spiritual “heroes” stood with me, laid their hands on my head, and celebrated me.  I was on a mountain top, feeling like I’d finished a marathon and celebrated a triumph.

Then we stepped on our biggest land mine.