The Other Side of the Mountain

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I held the bowl of water in front of me reverently, waiting for the service to begin.  Beneath the surface I saw a myriad of small seashells, their patterns blurring under the movement of the water.  I wore my familiar exhaustion like a weighted blanket.

We were at a Pastor’s Convocation in New York State, put on by the Wyoming Valley Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  The mandatory convocation was a pastor’s training on conflict management.  In our previous 7 months of serving the Mountaintop UMC, Larry and I had read every book we could find on conflict management, healing after sexual misconduct, and clergy abuse.  The common thread in all of them was that needed support from the church institution–in our case– the Annual Conference.  It was unthinkable that we could do it by ourselves.

I was soul-weary.  It was February, 2004.  Our months at Mountaintop drained both of us.  We were angry, exhausted, and depressed.  We wondered, sometimes– often– what we’d done to receive this punishment.  From God?  Maybe, sometimes.  But mostly from the United Methodist Church.  I believed that the UMC just didn’t want me.  Lake Winola had been my only crisis-free ministry, and I still didn’t make above the minimum required salary– which wasn’t much.  In the shadow of my father, I was a failure.

I was understandably cynical about the mandatory convocation.  An exercise in futility.  A check mark in the Conference’s report card.  Did that.  Moving on.

One bright spot was the fact that I was a member of the Conference Worship Committee, led by my on-again-off-again friend Vicki.  I loved planning worship, and we were given a lot of creative freedom.

The opening worship service for that event was a service of Remembering Our Baptism.  I was one of two clergy holding a bowl full of shells.  The clergy in the group were to line up and approach us, take a shell out of the water and touch it to their face as we said, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.”

Since it was a small Conference, I knew everybody, or at least could recognize faces of all the clergy present.  Except for one.  There was a man in the back of the room whom I did not know.  He was an older man, perhaps in his 60s, and sat alone.  He slipped into line near the beginning and as I faced each worshiper I was hyper-aware of his approaching presence.

As the stranger stepped in front of me, I looked directly into his eyes and said, “Remember your baptism, and be thankful.”  His eyes were warm. Brown.  His hands were clasped in front of him in a reverent stance as he returned my gaze.  He paused.   Without breaking eye contact, he reached into the bowl and picked up a small shell from the water.  As his dripping hand rose from the bowl, I expected him to touch his face.  However, instead, he deliberately and ever so lightly touched my lips with the dripping shell.  In a kind of priestly blessing, he ran the shell across my lips, and still looking directly into my eyes, returned the shell to the water.

Woe to me, for I am ruined… For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips…

I’m not one to memorize Bible verses, but in that moment I was hushed.  Isaiah’s words flowed gently across my awareness.  My lips felt tingly, my body relaxed.  I had been blessed.  By a stranger.  As if to say,  You are ok.  Be faithful to the call.  You are not alone.  

Tears came to my eyes as the next person came to the bowl.  I repeated the words, but my heart was still connected to the stranger as he found his way back to his seat.  I looked at Larry, who was sitting in the front, and he gently smiled.  He was tuned into The Moment.  I smiled back.

I later discovered that the stranger was the Rev. Tim Savage, the leader of our Conflict Management convocation.  He was the founder of L.E.A.D. Conflict Management Consultants, held several postgraduate degrees, and specialized in church conflict. He was a licensed psychotherapist, ordained minister and spiritual director.

Of course he was.

There was a spirit about him, a presence.  As he spoke and shared stories of churches he’d dealt with, he exuded a spiritual connection that was genuine and calming.  Over the next several days, he laid out his strategies for addressing conflict in churches.  It involved bringing in an outside team from L.E.A.D and getting to know the congregation and training them to be a part of their own healing.  I thought he was an answer to prayer.  I approached two D.S.’s during a break and told them I felt that Dr. Savage could really help Mountaintop.

One of them got angry.  “What?  Are you kidding?  We don’t have that kind of money to bring them in!”  (This D.S. was on the Board of Directors of L.E.A.D)

“What are we here for, then?” I challenged him.

“To handle our own conflicts ourselves,” he said condescendingly.  He brushed me off and moved to talk to someone else.  My own D.S., Tom, shrugged helplessly.  He was impotent and incompetent as a leader.  No help at all.

I was incensed.  They dragged us up here in the middle of winter to attend a conflict management course, introduced us to a resource they were unwilling to use on one of their largest churches and pat themselves on the back for doing a good thing.

During a Question and Answer time later with Dr. Savage, my anger was boiling over already.  With heart racing and my blood pounding, I stood up.

“Yes?” the innocent leader pointed to me.

“Tell me please, how can we as pastors teach our congregations to resolve conflict when we don’t know how to resolve conflict among ourselves?”  My jaw was set.  I heard several people respond, “Yeah!”  There was whispering and murmuring.  Some uncomfortable shifting in their seats.

Dr. Savage was used to angry people.  He said something benign– and went on, but didn’t do so condescendingly.  He understood, and he said so later.  He understood that some conferences weren’t willing to go the extra mile.  They brought him in to speak at us, but they weren’t willing to get involved in the dirty work of mediation in their own churches.

He said it kindly.  Of course.

Anger was a part of my everyday mood those days.  I was exhausted and resentful.  I was angry on our own behalf but also on behalf of the victim of our predecessor’s sexual misconduct and her abandonment by the Conference– and also on behalf of Mountaintop.  They were victims, too, but most of them didn’t even realize that.  They’d been viciously and spiritually betrayed by Pastor Bruce.  Their covenant between pastor and congregation horribly shredded.  And now abandoned by the very Conference that made a deal with the perpetrator so he could keep his ordination.

I was livid.

During lunch one day, they had cute little activities for us, related to conflict.  It felt like we were in Vacation Bible School.  One activity was for each table to come up with songs related to conflict and sing them to the rest of the group.  When it came to be our turn, I’d recruited my table mates to sing with me.  I stood up, looked right at the Bishop at her table, and angrily sang, Take this job and shove it!  I ain’t-a workin’ here no more!”

People laughed.  Clever choice.  But the passion behind my choice increased my fury.  I could hardly see straight.  I felt so helpless.  Irrelevant.  Discarded. Sacrificed. I meant every word.

We spoke with Dr. Savage and requested to meet with him during one of the free afternoons.  He was more than willing.  We laid out our story to him.  We described what happened at Mountaintop, the deal Bruce made with the Bishop (a female, liberal Bishop) to keep his ordination, and the Conference’s refusal to get involved with the congregation’s healing.  He listened… as was his forte.  He affirmed us.  He agreed, too, that the Church needed outside help.  We weren’t trained for such a degree of congregational abuse and clergy misconduct.  He told us what he would recommend for us, but regretfully sympathized that we weren’t going to get the help we needed.

It felt good to at least have someone hear us, to affirm that we were in way over our heads, and that yes, we’d been abandoned by the System.

During one of his talks, Savage shared a story that has stayed with me since.  He described a clergyman who was in the midst of a complicated web of conflict in a large congregation that he served.  He tried everything.  He was a kind, devoted, faithful pastor, and hoped that offering them his gracious ministry of caring would help.  But they were an angry community, broken by an abusive history.  Finally, one day, the pastor sat on a chair in the middle of the church chancel, pinned a note to his chest that simply said, “NOW is it enough?”–

and shot himself.

It was a powerful story that sucked the air out of the room.  No one seemed to breathe.  I knew that many of us had often felt that way.  Though I would never go through with it, I understood that man’s desperation.

And that alarmed me.

NOW is it enough?  It was a common question on any clergyperson’s mind and heart.  Is it ever enough?  For some congregations, it just isn’t.

As we returned to Mountaintop, both Larry and I were haunted by that image and also angry that once again, the D.S.’s seemed indignant at our request for help and resources.  They were willing to spend all that money on getting all the clergy together for several days in a hotel for a conflict mediation educational event and pay a nationally-known speaker to come– but they weren’t willing to spend that money on one of their own churches.

My relationship with the United Methodist Church system was severely breaking down.

As we stumbled through Lent and got closer to Easter, we were all aware of the approaching anniversary of Bruce’s abrupt departure.  Larry and I shared preaching, taking turns every other week, and my turn fell on Palm Sunday.  I honestly don’t remember what I preached that Sunday–the anniversary of Bruce’s last–but I remember the intensity.  It was palpable, the sense of grief in the air.

I do remember talking about that grief, naming it for what it was, which was something many people were afraid of.  Talking about it.  In that sermon I affirmed their sense of loss, their confusion, their pain.  I affirmed their anger.  I encouraged them, though, to think of it as something we all had to face together, and therefore begin to accept healing.  Never in my ministry did I do an altar call per se, but at the end of the sermon, I invited people to join me at the chancel rail in prayer.  To pray for our congregation.  To pour out our pain before God, acknowledge it, but also open ourselves and the community to healing.

I instructed Jack to keep playing as long as people were at the rail, and sensing the trembling in my legs, I made my way down to the chancel rail to pray.  It wasn’t long before I could feel the presence of other bodies all around me– beside me and behind me.  I heard weeping and sniffling.  I didn’t open my eyes but tried to concentrate on my own prayers, my own letting go, surrendering my rage and pain.  The sense of physical community growing around me was a balm on my heart.  For that moment, I felt connected to them.  I loved them.  I forgave them their rage toward us and began to forgive their love of Bruce.  I could have curled up on the chancel kneelers and just gone to sleep right there with Jack’s organ music playing, the congregants still singing behind me, and the sense of release.

I was so tired.

As I sensed people finally moving away back to their pews, I stood up.  The last few soon followed, and Jack ended the hymn.

As I always did in any church since the beginning of my ministry, I sang the benediction.  That Sunday it was a verse of “There Is a Balm in Gilead.”  My legs felt like lead as I ended the song and moved toward the door.  I was spent.  I felt peace… strength from the sense of a job well done.

Many people came through the line, shaking our hands on their way out.  Some came with tears still in their eyes, noses red, and took our hands in both of their’s and simply squeezed our hands.  Some said, “Thank you.”  A couple of people hugged us.

When all had come through the line, we started to move toward the office, unsnapping our robes, ready to go home and take a nap.

“What the hell was THAT??” Ellen burst into our personal space like a needle across a vinyl album.  Startled, I turned to her.  She went on. “You didn’t give me any warning you were going to do that!” She got into my face, his eyes wide and seemingly possessed.  “I can’t believe you did that without telling me!”  Her anger always hit me like a baseball bat to the side of the head.

Stunned, I stammered something about it being a spontaneous thing, which wasn’t entirely true, but she scared me.  It was like being 9 years old again being accosted by my own personal fourth grade bully who wanted my lunch or else she was going to “kick my butt.”

She ranted on and on, but I finally walked away from her.  I doubt I got my nap because I was too churned up by Ellen’s attack.

It was soon after Easter that the Church Finance Committee announced at a meeting that they were $35,000 behind budget.  It was no surprise to us, but no one was going to question the many months of paying Bruce severance pay in addition to our salaries.  There was also the issue of angry church members no longer financially supporting the church in the wake of Bruce’s removal.

It didn’t matter.  The writing was on the wall.  They could not afford two pastors.  It was a relief, really.  Neither of us felt like we could spiritually afford another year of pushing a rock up Sisyphus’ mountain.

The Sunday we announced our departure, the Church Treasurer–who knew all the figures– said to us, “So, you’re giving up.”  I couldn’t speak to her.  I don’t know what Larry said.

The truth is, we felt like failures.  Thank God for Jim and Yvonne who listened to us, let me cry, and gave us a place to feel safe and loved.

We got no compassion from our own D.S., just a “doubt” that there was “much available” in regards to where we could move.  I didn’t sense that he was making much effort.  He simply didn’t care about us.  He didn’t seem to care about anyone but himself.  He was independently wealthy, he consistently reminded us of his two PhD’s and he was condescending.  I didn’t know the term narcissist at the time, but his picture could have been by the word in the dictionary.

We were informed late in the spring that Larry would be the associate pastor at Elm Park in Scranton (the appointment I’d turned down a year before) and I would serve Waverly UMC and Factoryville UMC, two very small churches outside of Scranton.  When we left the D.S.’s office I collapsed in tears.

I didn’t want to be a pastor anymore.

 

2 thoughts on “The Other Side of the Mountain

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