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  It’s an outdated promise.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.

 

 

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