One night in the fall of 2003, I woke up struggling to get air. My head was pounding. I was sweating, but my teeth were chattering. Though I was laying down, the room was spinning. I rolled out of bed to my knees and crawled down the hallway to the bathroom, gulping air. I felt my way to the toilet and threw up violently, curling up next to the toilet, still shivering. I pulled a towel down from the rack and pulled it over me, trying to calm my breathing.
It was the worst panic attack I’d had before then or after.
Vicki met me at lunch during the Spring of 2003 with the latest gossip. “You are never going to believe what’s going on in Mountaintop…”
Mountaintop was a town at the southernmost edge of the Wyoming (Valley) Conference. It was a coveted appointment in the Conference. Other pastors ached to get it. But it had been held captive for 18 years by Bruce. 18 years in a United Methodist appointment was very rare. The Methodist bishops like to keep pastors moving. Literally. No one knew exactly how this happened. But the town was kind of isolated down south, off by itself.
Mountaintop was literally on top of a mountain. Perhaps before 2003 D.S.’s and Bishops even forgot about it. Word was that the Church was doing well, they were said to have over 1,000 members (considered large in that conference) and their pastor Bruce was a dynamic, charismatic preacher. Or so they said. I’d heard him once, when he came off the mountain to preach at our Lenten worship in Lake Winola. He struck me as a bit full of himself, but it really didn’t matter to me. I didn’t think I’d have to associate with him.
The gossip spread quickly around our tiny conference. Apparently Bruce had been abruptly removed from his congregation on allegations of sexual misconduct. The members of the congregation received a letter explaining this and on that Easter Sunday, The Bishop and D.S. led worship and faced a barrage of questions and blatant hostility.
Allegations were brought forth from a woman from the congregation. Bruce and she had had sexual relations over a long period of time; in the parsonage, in the church, and in local hotels. It turns out… it was true. Bruce didn’t deny it. But he didn’t know what the big deal was. That Easter Sunday, as the story goes, the Bishop and Dave the D.S. (so we’ll call him) met a lot of anger and confusion in the congregation. They were angry that Bruce had been removed, and so suddenly. They “didn’t care” about the allegations. Yes, they knew they were true, so what?
The way Vicki told it, the Bishop and Dave didn’t want to go anywhere near the congregation again. Dave told Vicki the story as if they were carrying billy clubs and were ready to lynch the two of them.
As the gossip spread among clergy, there was some sense of satisfaction. How the mighty fall, and all that. There was also the wonder, who will the Bishop send there? Poor guy, we all thought. (And I think we all assumed it would be a guy) Meanwhile, they brought in Pastor Sarah, a retired pastor who’d weathered some storms before, to be in interim pastor.
Meanwhile, at every clergy event that spring, whether it was a Lectionary study group or District meeting, we all greeted each other with, “So, you going to Mountaintop?” We were all curious as to who would win the Golden Ticket. Though it lost some of its shine, it was still golden. It was, after all, Mountaintop. Clergy pretended they didn’t really care, but they did.
I had been at Lake Winola for four years and loved it. But there was a part of me that yearned for more. I wanted to be in a church that had more resources, more possibilities to use my gifts. I was restless. I felt like I’d grown a lot in my gifts for ministry, and I believed those gifts could be used in a larger church. A single church, preferably. I didn’t like having to leave one church to go to another, therefore not being able to be a part of Sunday School, much less teach an Adult Sunday School.
Larry and I had turned down appointments offered to us already that spring. Dave offered us appointments that we felt sure we didn’t want. He offered Larry the “opportunity” to serve two smaller churches than the ones he was currently serving, and he offered me the chance to be an associate pastor at Elm Park in Scranton. Like Bruce, the current senior pastor had been at Elm Park for many years and planned to retire from there. He wasn’t doing much any more, just kind of coasting along. He was an older, white-haired man who was used to being in power.
No thank you. Been there, done that. Suffered enough. Not interested in a rerun.
So Larry and I were at peace with staying at Lake Winola and Center Moreland for at least another year.
Then Dave showed up at our door.
No one wants to hear from a District Superintendent in the Spring.
I’d wavered in my feelings about Dave. He became D.S. after Jim, who was the best D.S. I had and would ever have. I tried to like Dave, really, even though he completely renovated Jim’s former District parsonage (with his own vast resources) into an unrecognizable, somewhat flamboyant dwelling. Dave had two PhD’s and liked to remind people of that. He was an art collector and his very expensive art was displayed throughout the very large house. Dave always came across as superior, narcissistic, and condescending. But being single, when he was under stress, he melted into a very needy, anxious child. And there were people who came to stroke him and nurture him.
I don’t react well to people who deem themselves superior.
Dave was visibly nervous as he sat in our living room. “I do have an offer for you,” he said, visibly hesitant. We waited.
“The Bishop wants to send you to Mountaintop.”
I think my stomach dropped to my knees. I felt a little sick. “But that’s a single appointment,” I reminded him.
“Yes,” he said, wringing his hands. “The Bishop wants to send you both there, at minimum salary, and the Conference will pay the extra salary.”
So. No raise. In fact we would be losing money. And we were being sent into the den of lions. The stories that Dave had shared about that Fateful Sunday had everyone imagining the Bishop and Dave just barely escaping with their lives. Shredded clothing. Bloodstains. A mob.
We were not the current pastor at Elm Park. Or Binghamton. We were much further down the ladder. We’d already said “no” to the Bishop. We weren’t sure if we were “allowed” to say “no” again. In fact, we were pretty sure we couldn’t. At ordination, we’d agreed to go “wherever” the Bishop sent us, “without reserve.”
We had reservations. Big ones. Everybody with any sense did. But we knew our “place.”
Oh, and we would still have to wait. The Church Conference at Mountaintop would have to approve the appointment, since it was going from one pastor to two. That meant we went to Annual Conference not knowing what our future held. It was in the hands of a (so we heard) hostile congregation. We couldn’t tell anyone– though I told Vicki, who was on the Conference staff. All through Annual Conference, people were murmuring about the fate of Mountaintop and the poor pastor who would end up there. We smiled nervously.
I think clergy felt a little pleasure that the appointment had fallen in stature and value. That way, pastors didn’t have to feel bad if they didn’t get it. But beneath the surface, I knew that it was still seen as the prize. Over the years, Bruce had built it up as a growing, thriving congregation, ready to build a new sanctuary.
I was scared. We listened to the gossip and the wondering with pasted-on smiles. Nervous smiles. A bit nauseous smiles.
Sometime after Conference, we heard it was approved. We’d have to tell our congregations on June 22 (which happened to be my birthday–happy birthday) that June 29th would be our last Sunday. Surprise!
Our congregations were shocked. Sad. And angry that Mountaintop got such priority that we had to be rushed off with no time to say goodbye. But being the gracious people that they are, they wished us well. And Congratulations. We smiled weakly. Something just didn’t feel right.
Sarah, the interim pastor, showed us around at the church and introduced us to staff before we met with the Staff Parish Relations Committee. People were saying farewell to Sarah and thanking her for being there for them during a difficult time.
The secretary said to Sarah, “Be sure and come back and see us!”
Sarah smiled politely and touched her arm. “Don’t count on it.”
My journal entries from October, 2003, say things like “Sheer madness. Pure insanity.” People were gracious, for the most part, and were nice to us. There were some who were openly hostile, not least of which was Ellen, the Choir Director, who clearly thought Bruce walked on water. Her face, her mannerisms, her whole body exuded hostility and violence. She made it clear from the beginning that she would not be our friend. She was particularly hostile toward me and had more moments of kindness toward Larry.
We got along well with the secretary, (also named Peggy), thank God, as she would be a daily contact. She was very open about the stories and what went on, though not offering any strong opinions on the subject either way. She was rather nonchalant about it, but filled us in on a lot of what went on behind the scenes. Literally.
Jack was the organist, and he, too, tried to be neutral on the subject of Bruce. He was kind to us and very funny. His organ playing was powerful, uplifting and was a balm for my fractured soul every week. I think I told him that many, many times.
The first week we arrived in Mountaintop, a young husband and father shot himself in the head. I had the funeral and met with the widow and with his friends. A couple of months later, another young husband associated with our congregation shot himself in the head. I didn’t have the funeral but I attended it, as his family was Catholic. There seemed to be so much pain, as if it was in the water. So much brokenness, conflict, sorrow. Some days I felt like I was wading in blood.
Since it had been 18 years, the congregation wasn’t up to date on the Conference requirements for the parsonage. There had been minimal contact, we learned, between the church and the conference. The conference had kind of left them alone all these years. Everything happened so fast, too, that the Conference didn’t do any parsonage inspection. This was a situation that most people in Mountaintop had not been through before.
In normal circumstances, there was a parsonage committee who went in after the pastor moved out and fixed things that needed to be fixed. Often they’d paint rooms, make sure there was the required amount of furnishings, replace curtains, etc. Bruce and his wife had been so private they didn’t let anyone into the parsonage. (Except the lover) It had been their private domain, so very few people knew what the inside looked like, much less what their responsibility was to the parsonage.
When we moved in, there was not one scrap of furniture. It was supposed to be partially furnished. Thank goodness we had some furniture, though not enough to furnish every room. No one had come in to clean, touch up or make sure things were up to snuff. There was evidence that Bruce’s wife had run the vacuum cleaner, but that was it.
There was torn carpet in the entryway, a fist-sized hole in the bedroom closet door, a broken window covered in duct tape in the parsonage office off the bedroom, and a relentless and pervasive odor of urine throughout the house.
Never until that year did I believe that a house could be filled with evil spirits. But I did. The house felt possessed. The air we breathed seemed filled with hostility, jagged brokenness, and deep sorrow.
We shampooed the carpets and painted the room where the urine smell seemed to be most prevalent. Still, the odor hit us every time we came home.
Vicki had mentioned that the Bishop did house blessings that involved candle lighting, prayer and blessings through each room. Previously, I might have thought that was a big New-Ageish, but I deeply felt that the parsonage needed healing. We called to ask the Bishop if she would be willing to do it.
No. She didn’t feel it was wise for her to step foot in Mountaintop again any time soon. Right. She was the Bishop!
We asked Vicki. She was too busy, she wouldn’t have time. Through the year, the more desperately I needed a friend, the more distant our friendship got.
Dave didn’t want to come to Mountaintop either. And he was the District Superintendent.
We felt completely abandoned.
One night early in the fall I awoke to the phone ringing. I answered it and noticed the clock said about 3:00 a.m. It was a young woman, asking for Bruce. When I explained that he was no longer the pastor, she began to sob. She said that she often called him in the middle of the night and he would come pick her up wherever she was. She was distraught that he was no longer available. I was beginning to suspect that Beth was not Bruce’s only conquest.
By October, about three months of living with the powerful smell of urine, the Trustees Chairman pulled up a corner of the carpet in the back bedroom. The floor underneath was visibly saturated. With urine. Thankfully, the Trustees came and pulled up the carpet, treated the floor, and put down new carpeting. The smell was gone.
We’d been told that Bruce and his wife were “furious” that they were being treated so unjustly. They also had a dog and a cat. It seemed likely to us that they’d locked the animals in that room long enough to give it a good soaking. How else would the entire floor underneath the carpet be saturated?
Over the weeks and months, people told us bits and pieces of what went on. People knew that Bruce was having sex with Beth (not her name). She was a single mom, Hispanic, with very little resources, who came to Bruce for counseling. The quilting ladies could see Beth through the church window, go to the parsonage and disappear inside. Or they saw her throw a pebble up to Bruce’s office window.
“He’s only human,” woman after woman told us. “What’s the big deal?”
We also heard that Bruce stated in Sunday School class one day that “If a man isn’t get his sexual needs met at home, then he is perfectly welcome to go seek it elsewhere.” The woman who told this story said that no one dared question Bruce. He was larger than life, he was charming, he was “nice.”
I wrote in my journals that I had to believe that we were sent there for a reason. What did God want from us? They obviously needed healing, but most of the congregation didn’t know what they needed. They felt victimized by the Conference, and rightly so. But Larry and I believed, too, that they had been victimized by Bruce. He’d manipulated them to build up his kingdom and throne where he could do anything that he wanted. They wouldn’t question him. He was Bruce! He was their pastor. He could do no wrong.
We wanted to meet with Beth, to reach out to her, but she’d left Mountaintop and had no interest in meeting with us. Her daughter had been bullied and harassed at school. Beth had been blamed for Bruce’s demise and was clearly not welcome. There were a few in the congregation who had been kind to her, but not the majority. It was her fault, according to many people. They didn’t understand that Bruce had the power and he had used it and abused it.
We tried to do little things each day, to offer little graces. Small things like bringing in cake for a staff member’s birthday proved to be something that hadn’t been done. Inviting people to the parsonage for an open house. We went to Jack’s programs that he directed at the school where he taught during the week, to support him. We attended concerts at the local college that Ellen performed.
I initiated a women’s Bible Study group and I had 22 women sign up. I used a book that I’d used in several previous churches that had gone very well. The book was Do What You Have the Power to Do. It was about women in the Bible who had no names. The study was about these women doing what they had the power to do in a male-dominated culture where they were so invisible that the writers of the canon didn’t remember their names. It discussed global, cultural and theological issues. The study discussed women who were silenced by men who had power.
The second week I was down to 8 women who finished out the 8 week study with me. The others were clearly offended that I seemed to insinuate that these issues applied to them or their circumstances, much less what happened in their church. A few left the first night before the end, telling me off angrily.
That night I curled up on the bathroom floor was one of many such nights of waking up with severe panic attacks, usually after intense nightmares.
Larry was exhausted and depressed. I worried about him. We were both so angry at having to fight this battle all alone, with no help from the Conference, and no support. I met regularly with Jim for lunch for support and prayer, but no other clergy reached out to us.
We did discover that there was a seminar being held at Princeton Theological Seminary that fall on “AfterPastors.” It was specifically about pastors serving churches that had been through sexual misconduct. After a lot of convincing and cajoling, we convinced Dave to get us funding to attend this seminar.
It was a huge relief to be there among other clergy in the same boat– well, mostly. They all spoke of supportive D.S.’s and Bishops who gave them what they needed. Very quickly, we reluctantly became the center of attention as we shared our story. The leaders essentially said that the Conference had handled our situation very badly, and we were suddenly the case study of the week. They told us how things should be done and what should happen. They affirmed our feeling that the congregation was also a victim of the misconduct and needed special ministry from the Conference. They asserted that mediators should be brought in from outside to aid the Afterpastors in that situation. We were like parched people in a desert, stumbling on an oasis. They shook their heads a lot, wishing they could help us more.
We left the seminar, somewhat vindicated that we were correct that things had been very poorly managed by the Conference, but nonetheless we were still stuck in the middle.
You don’t go through hell with people without developing strong attachments. We came to love many people at Mountaintop. Many did respond to our ministry, but individually. No one had the nerve to stand up for us in the congregation, to address the leaders and rally them to face what Bruce had done.
Larry and I took turns preaching from Sunday to Sunday. Preaching was my balm, and a place where I felt that I could actually do something. Worship was my arena, the place I felt strongest. And people responded. We tried to allow worship to be a place of grace and blessing, healing and prayer. It was a start.
But I always felt that Ellen was nipping at my heels like a rapid dog; finding fault with everything I did, telling me off in the church entry way or attacking me for seemingly no reason. She hated me. She didn’t really know me, but she let it be known that she despised me. And that hurt. I didn’t want to be hated by anyone. She just wouldn’t let up.
On another Sunday, when I preached about another strong woman in the Bible, I was accosted by yet another woman, a severe fundamentalist who adored Bruce. She got right in my face, screaming something about “raging liberal feminist”, “ungodly”, and something about me burning in hell. I held it in until I got home and had a good sob.
We continually felt like tiny shepherds facing Philistine giants, armed only with a pebble and a slingshot. And the giant wouldn’t fall.
As finances in the church became bleaker and bleaker at every finance meeting, we discovered that the treasurer was sending “severance pay” to Bruce at the approval of the congregation, unbeknownst to the D.S. and Bishop. They were essentially paying two of the three salaries, while the financial resources of the Church sunk deeper and deeper.
My daughter Sarah, as usual, was my bright ray of sunshine in the midst of insanity. She gave me reason to keep getting out of bed in the morning, though most days it was an effort. But the nightmares got more frequent, the panic attacks more severe.
I wrote in my journal, “I cannot imagine being in ministry until I’m 67. ” That was 29 more years. I knew then that I wouldn’t make it.