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.

 

You

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(OctoWriMo Prompt:  Love)

people thought they knew
our story
even before it had begun

summed it up
analyzed
dismissed it

they had no idea

before anything else
you were my best friend
in an unsafe world
you were my refuge

you saw beautiful
when I felt ugly
you saw strength
where I saw only terror

your soft brown eyes
calmed me
centered me
held me still

storm after storm
mountain after mountain
deluge after deluge
you wouldn’t let go
of my hand

your calm patient
presence
is my rock
your smile
my sun

after all these years
it’s you I want to tell
when I see a gorgeous sunset
or when I meet an angel
it’s you I trust
when it all falls apart
to ride with me
through the turbulence

mama told me
i’d never find a partner
if I didn’t lower my expectations

she didn’t know

about you

#HerToo (Part I)

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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.

 

Finding Mother

Mary Plaster 09032003

“Awake, O Sleeper, and rise from the dead, for Christ will be your Light…”
–Ephesians 5:14

The spring of 2003 was another roller-coaster of emotion.  A season of extremes.  highs and lows.  Joy and sorrow.   It was the end of my fourth year in Lake Winola/Falls.  I loved them deeply.  They’d given me a place to heal.  They’d allowed me to be their pastor.  I got to do everything I imagined a pastor would do:  I visited them in the hospital, sat by the bed of the dying, led funerals, fed them communion, dreamed up new ideas for worship, endured 9/11 with them and grieved together, taught them in Bible Studies, and there were a few whom I felt that I had the privilege to disciple.  There were a couple of men and women who I watched grow spiritually, come alive in their faith, step out and take chances and become leaders in the church.  I felt like I’d been a part of that!
This was what I thought pastoral ministry was all along.  But something was also happening in me that seemed to disrupt everything I assumed.  I read The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.  I’d read Kidd’s books from my mother’s shelf as a teen, when she was very involved with Guideposts magazine.  I was in a small bookstore in Clarks Summit, PA when I saw she’d written her first novel.  I was intrigued.
It was like an earthquake.
I unexpectedly resonated with Lily immediately.  Her sense of longing for mothering.  Her serendipitous journey from her father’s abuse to the Pink House, where she was mothered, nurtured, cared for.  Where she saw the ugliness of prejudice and the power of standing up for what you believe– when you know you’re loved.
I fell in love with their faith community.  The Black Madonna.  The strength of mother-love, feminine strength, sisterhood, finding strength as a young woman.  Something ached in me, deep deep down.  I love my mother.  I always tried to be what I thought she wanted, but it never seemed to work.  My father came first.  My father was the center of our universe.  His needs came first, above all else.  The Church was wound up in there too.  We knew early on that us children were not as important as the Church, and certainly not as important as my father.  We had to make him look good.  We couldn’t embarrass them.
By the time I was in middle school and high school, I felt adrift.  My hunger for Mothering was met in my relationship with Sandie.  One poignant memory is of me, my mother and Sandie, sitting in the back seat of the Allens’ car, riding back to their house after a fun day of sledding.  I leaned my head on Sandie’s shoulder.  I felt safe, sheltered, loved for who I was.  I just always wanted to be in the same room with her.  I was enough.
Of course I felt guilty for loving her so much and wishing I could live at her house.  I felt guilty for feeling like a constant disappointment to my mother.  But the longing was real.
I cried when I read The Secret Life of Bees.  I so wanted to go to the Pink House and live among those women.  To feel the power of the Black Madonna, the Divine Feminine, Sophia-Wisdom as she is named in the Bible.  That book opened up something powerful in me.  I couldn’t relate to Father God at all– He was too perfectionistic.  He was never happy with me.  He always analyzed me and found me pitiful.  Weak.  Disappointing.  He was distant, heady, emotionless.  I could not imagine Father God delighting in me as His child, much less loving me for who I was.
I found comfort in Jesus, yes.  Jesus was more than a man.  He was open, “liberal” with his love, seeing the invisible ones like me, embracing those who others ignored.  I could relate to Jesus, but not “Father.”  Not the white-bearded old man in the sky– who looked oddly like my father in temperament.
That spring I spent  a lot of time at Border’s bookstore in Dickson City.  I read Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter.  That deepened my hunger for more learning about the image of Sophia-Wisdom in the Bible, the strong and nameless women in the Bible, the images of Mother and Divine Feminine scattered throughout.  God as mother eagle pushing her babies out of the nest to fly.  The God who goes through labor pains with God’s people, giving new birth.  God has the mother hen brooding over her chicks.  Wisdom at the beginning of time, co-creating with God.  Wisdom… Sophia in the Greek.  Feminine.  God as Comforter.  I read some of the Apocrypha, the “rejected” books of the Bible.  Rejected by whom?  Male bishops in the early church, of course.
I was haunted by the women of the Pink House.  At Border’s I stumbled upon a book called “The Wisdom of Daughters: Two Decades of the Voice of  Christian Feminism.”  It was like water in the desert.  It was exactly the kind of thing I was looking for.  As I stood in Border’s reading the Introduction, I realized that one of the editors of this collaboration was a woman named Reta Finger;  who happened to be teaching at Messiah College.
I almost dropped the book right there.  A feminist theologian at Messiah College??  What were the chances?  I bought the book, went home and got on Messiah’s website.  I wrote Reta an email and told her what was going on in me;  about Kidd, about my spiritual search, about my experiences at Messiah, etc.  And the unlikely discovery of her, a feminist of all things, at Messiah College.
Almost immediately I got an email back from her that was lengthy and gracious.  She was so astonished and appreciative of my reaching out to her, and of my story.  She was also astonished that her book was at Border’s for me to discover! (Just one copy!)  We made an appointment to meet soon at Messiah.
Meanwhile, there was Holy Week, my favorite week of the Christian Year.  A time that was the most poignant, the most relevant and powerful time of year.  To me, it spoke of the relevance of the Christ Story;  dying and living, sorrow and joy, injustice and justice, despair and coming alive.  I always poured so much of my heart and soul into Holy Week.  I wanted others to “get” that significance of pouring all our sorrow into God’s hands to be redeemed into healing and joy.  To offer the world, in all its madness, to the God of New Beginnings.
That year, my parents came for Easter, as they often did.  My father was being more himself than usual that weekend, or maybe I’d just grown more intolerant.  He, as always, tried to keep me as his captive audience, spouting his esoteric psychology/theology that was unconnected to real life, but (he thought) made him sound so brilliant that he was smarter than anyone else.  He, as always, wanted to impress me with his lofty words.  So many times over the years, I sat, his captive audience, listening and growing tense and angry.  It was no use arguing with him, I learned.  He believed he was the Brilliant One and no one understood him because he was so above us all.
Something happened.  Maybe it was the earthquake in my soul that erupted that spring, uncovering years of pain, trying to deny my own experiences as a woman and mold myself into male theology and experiences.  Maybe it was that I felt like a hole in the ceiling opened and there was light shining in as I wrestled with and began healing the depression that was so much a part of me.  But I was Fed Up.
Something burst open in me.  I told him off.  I told him everything I kept pent up inside of me all those years of sitting at his feet, listening to him pour his Great Wisdom over me, enlightening me.  I was angry, finally, that I’d been so invisible to him all these years.  That I was “just a woman.”  “You’re just like your mother,” he often said when he was angry with me, as if it was an insult.  I was tired of him always taking whatever he wanted because he felt entitled.  He took and took and took.  He always came first.  Before me, before all three of my brothers.  Before my mother.  I was Fed Up.
I told him I was tired of his psychology.  I was tired of swallowing everything he shoved down my throat and never speaking up.  I told him I was tired of being analyzed like a specimen all my life, his special personal project.  I was tired of his arrogance, his refusal to ever listen to my “inferior” thoughts and ideas.
He lost it.  He exploded.  I’d never seen my father get angry before that night.  I heard stories of him throwing iced tea in Don’s face when Don was a teen, or Mom slapping Don’s face.  I’d heard of Rollo’s temper when it came to Don and Mark.  I’d never seen it.  Till then.  It was alarming.
“How dare you!  I am an important person!” He yelled.  “How dare you think you know anything!  How dare you think you know better than me!”  He didn’t know that the rage he felt in that moment was nothing compared to the rage building up in me all my life– rage I’d swallowed back like bile until Easter Eve 2003.
My mother sobbed and ran outside, locking herself in the car.  Dad went back to his bedroom and shut the door.  I felt like a scolded child.  Truth was always forbidden in my family.  You smile when you feel like screaming.  You laugh when you feel like crying.
I felt shaken to the core.  But also liberated.
Easter morning I went ahead with worship, and we all pretended the night before had never happened.  We never spoke of it.  But I was different.  It was a beginning for me– the first step in standing up, telling the truth, refusing to be ignored.
It was terrifying.
In May I drove down to Messiah College and met Reta.  We spoke for a few hours.  Talk was easy and good.  She felt the stirrings of something holy having brought us together too.  She suggested things for me to read.  She told me about the magazine that she’d been a part of for many years, the “greatest hits” of which was in the book that I’d discovered at Border’s.  She loaded me down with many, many issues which I would read hungrily.
I had no idea that a bigger explosion was about to happen.  I had no idea that a challenge that I could never have imagined was about to fall into our lives that would further disrupt our hearts and souls.  Everything felt brand new, liberating, exciting.  But I could not have realized that it was also the beginning of the end of my pastoral ministry.

 

 

Singing in the Dark

experiencing-gods-presence-in-the-midst-of-darkness

“You need help.”

Gene Lowry was on the phone.  My preaching professor from seminary.  And now my friend.  We were good friends, but we didn’t talk like that.  I didn’t think so, anyway.

When I was in high school, I would often stay home because I was “tired.”  Numerous times my mother dragged me to the doctor to get a blood test for mono.  Dr. Holdcraft was a member of my father’s church and thought the world of my father.  As I sat on the paper covering on the exam table, he slapped me on the back.

“How’s Sue today?  You’re tired?  Ahhh, well.”  He’d look in my mouth with a tongue depressor, look in my ears, squeeze my arm encouragingly, all the while asking about the family, lauding my father and winking at me.

“Well, I don’t think anything’s wrong, but we’ll check your blood anyway, just to be sure.  It’s good to see ya!” and he’d pat me on the shoulder, ushering me out of the office, telling my Mom to please say hello to Rollo for him.

No one asked me the questions you might hear now.  Do you ever have thoughts of hurting yourself?  Have you lost interest in activities you used to enjoy?  Are you uninterested in being with people?  Do you ever feel helpless?  Hopeless?  

Dad was a deep believer in counseling as the cure-all for everything, so from the time I was in middle school, he tried to push me into counseling.  He’d done the same for my two oldest brothers.  They tried some, including primal scream therapy.  Mark used to suddenly stand in the middle of the house and let one rip with no warning.  It didn’t seem to help.

But I figured I was depressed.  I just wanted someone else to suggest it.

However, after 1984, I think what might have been something that might have gotten better eventually, took deep root in my heart and soul.

Sandie died.  She was a light in my life, who reflected so much love and grace onto me.  She was like an angel that entered my life at a key moment.  She made me laugh.  She read my ridiculously long letters and answered them eventually.  She hugged me a lot, played with my hair.  She saw me, when most of the time I felt like if I just closed my eyes, no one would know I was there.  There was a deep, emotional, life-giving connection.  It was unusual.  It was a peak on the lifeline of my life.

And then she disappeared.  Gone.  There was no comfort.  It was the first time that I would have begun answering all those questions in the affirmative.  Yes, in fact, I did think about turning my steering wheel sharply to the right when I went over the bridge.  Yes, in fact, I hoped that I would not wake up most days.  Yes, I thought of hurting myself, but knew deep down I’d never do it.  Yes, I lost all interest in activities I once enjoyed.  Yes, I slept a lot.

The grief took root in what was already fertile soil for depression, and entwined itself throughout my insides.  It became a part of my personality.  I was the one who Lost That Friend.  Over the years, I learned to live with the darkness.  I wrote a lot of poetry.  I answered the call to ministry, and did a lot of things that I would not have dreamed of having the courage to do.  I preached, I led worship, I moved across the country, I married a wonderful man, I had a child.  My life was good, but underneath was always that anxiety that it would all disappear in a moment.  I smiled, I laughed.  I wasn’t fake– but I could hide the terror.  I could counsel others, encourage and inspire others, and I believed everything I said and did.  I wouldn’t preach anything I didn’t believe.  But the darkness was never far away, and it always threatened everything that made me happy.

“I think you need help,” Gene said on the phone.  I got defensive.  What?  I laughed– which is what my mother has always done when confronted with things too close to the heart.

Then I got serious.  I tried to explain, I can’t do counseling. I was counseled all my life.  I was picked apart, splayed open like a frog on a mat, the subject of lifelong analysis at the mercy of my father’s probing mind. NO.

I’d been at a retreat at Kirkridge, near the Delaware Water Gap.  A retreat led by Flora Slosson Wuellner, a writer of books my mother collected over the years on guided imagery and prayer.  It was soothing, like a weighted blanket.  The retreat house was deep in the woods, and I had a therapeutic time just walking the woods, walking the labyrinth, rowing a boat in a small pond.  Praying. Journaling.  Stacking rocks in the middle of a cathedral of trees.

Wuellner also spoke of 9/11 which had occurred about six weeks before.  She guided us in meditations.  In one meditation, I saw Christ, guiding me along the seashore (one of my favorite places in the world).  As the wave washed ashore, it left behind a mess.  Broken pieces.  Images of what was hurting me, draining my spirit.  Images of pain. Brokenness.

Christ said to me, “Let’s clean this up together.”

I was floating in a ethereal state of peace and calm,  during which I wrote Gene and Sarah a letter.  When I found myself in a holy place, I always wanted to share it with someone I loved. I thought it was positive.

“Peggy,” Gene sounded so serious, “you need help.  I can’t help you, I’m much too far away.  I want you to go talk to someone.”

I began to cry, trying to explain why I couldn’t.  He said he didn’t see my reasoning.  Finally, he said, “I have to go.  Think about it, please.”  He paused.

“We love you.”

After we hung up, I sat on the floor in the kitchen with my knees up to my chin, thinking that I must be in trouble if Gene said that.  

The next day I consulted the list of counselors that my insurance would cover in the area.  One was a female, one was a male.  My history with male counselors, including my father, was a bit nightmarish.  I made an appointment with the female for the following day.

I didn’t know the name.  She was a nun, a pastoral counselor in Pittston, PA.  I was nervous, but I kept thinking of Gene; “we love you.”  Ok.

I sat in the waiting room of Sister Maureen’s office, flipping through magazines, nervously fidgeting.  What if this was a disaster?  I didn’t have the energy to try again if this failed.  I was so tired.

I heard a door open, and looked up to see Maureen descending the stairs.  Oh my God.  She smiled as she made her way down the stairs, and I immediately recognized her as the pastoral counselor who’d led our clergy session just two days after 9/11.  She’d filled the room with calm, a kind of maternal care and peace.  When we’d left that day, I told Larry, “Boy, if I ever went back into counseling, I would go to her!”  He agreed she was effective.

And here she was.  As we shook hands and introduced ourselves, I had a surge of hope, a quiet reassurance that this was significant.

Within the hour, she stated quite confidently that she believed I was deeply depressed, and not only that, that I was chronically depressed;  meaning that she felt this was a condition that may not be temporary.

I felt instant relief.  Someone saw it.  Someone named it.  So many times over the years I’d been told to “get over it.” My own father had said to me about a month after Sandie’s death, “clearly you’ve never gotten over her death,” as if it was an accusation, something at which I failed.  My parents had sometimes intimated I was just lazy.  I needed to get out more.  What would I possibly have to be depressed about?

I would eventually start on some meds for the depression, prescribed by a psychiatrist that Maureen sent me to.  I was actually grateful for the diagnosis.  Not that I could now settle into it and be a sad Sally, but that someone believed me.  That there was a reason I felt the way I did.  Chemicals in my brain working against me.  After I’d been on the meds for a while, I told someone it felt like I could start each day on the ground floor instead of starting in the basement and having to work my way up to just the first floor.  I felt hope for the first time that I could be better.  That even though this was something I would continue to struggle with for the rest of my life, I could also get treatment and therefore live a fuller life.

It wasn’t my fault.  I wasn’t lazy.  I wasn’t just being dramatic.

Maureen and I were in a counseling relationship for 4 1/2 years.  It was the most helpful relationship I’d been in, she was the first one to truly be helpful, and I’d been to countless counselors over the years.  After all, that was my father’s answer to everything.  But this time it truly helped.

Over the years since, as I’ve learned more and more about both sides of my family, it seems like a no-brainer.  There is a lot of depression and mental illness on both sides of my family; most of it untreated.  My brothers and I have had different paths to healing, but I truly believe that at least three of us have broken the pattern and started new stories.  That’s not to say that none of us still struggle with it, or that no one in the next generation wrestle with it.  It is, after all, in our blood, our DNA.  But those of us willing to admit it, name it, I believe, are finding help and hope instead of simply denying its presence.

I still miss Sandie.  There are times that I miss her as if she died yesterday.  It was a unique relationship in my life, an enormous gift of grace and life and love.  I’ve lost many friends to cancer since her death, and every one always brought her back to mind.  But none has affected me has deeply as her death.  It was like losing a parent.  She was the central most important person in my life.  I think if she had never died, the depression would have manifested itself some other way, as I believe the “chemicals” were always there, as I remember from high school.  But her death was what ignited it, deepened it, called it to the front.

It is something that you can learn to live with, like any chronic illness.  Sometimes it made me a better pastor, sometimes it fed my creativity and allowed me to be a comfort to those who lost loved ones, especially suddenly.  But it’s no longer a bottomless pit.  It no longer controls me.

I will always cherish Maureen as the one who named my demon, brought it out into the light to show me it didn’t have to be so scary and dreaded.  That we could face it together and make it less threatening.  She was yet another angel from God.

 

 

Mountaintop Experience

LW

“Peggy, I  want to make sure that you’re not leaving the Conference just because of Tom,”  my District Superintendent said, leaning forward, putting on his “very concerned” face.

“I wouldn’t do that,” I lied.  Or not.  I didn’t know for sure.  Emotions among clergy and laity were running so high.  I felt  I didn’t want go to a new church and be interrogated about my stance on homosexuality and Jimmy, which in my mind were two different things.  I was weary of the anger and hostility that seemed to be in the air we breathed after the trial.  I was exhausted by Tom’s bullying.  After two years of not being heard by the D.S.  as to the level of emotional abuse the secretary and I experienced with Tom, I didn’t trust them at all.  But I didn’t have the nerve to say that.

I wanted to get as far away from Nebraska as I could in 1999.  I honestly thought I’d never step foot in Nebraska again.

Silly me.

I watch a lot of crime shows, both American and British.  On more than one occasion, a victim has been impaled or stabbed with a sharp object and survived.  They were even conscious.  However, the attending doctor advises that they just not simply pull out the object, because that would cause certain death.  It would seem that you’d want to get that metal pole out of the person’s middle right away.  But the pole was now holding that person together and by pulling it out without some medical expertise, the person could most certainly die.

It’s true, too, that sometimes being in a constant state of stress can hold you together.  The energy needed to respond to the daily onslaught of stress can keep you going.  You’re little held in tension.  If that stress is removed, and the person is actually put in a stress-free environment, well, a person could feel like suddenly their insides are bleeding out.  That they are falling apart.

In June of 1999, we headed East to Northeast Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, from which the Wyoming Annual Conference got its name.  Larry was to serve the CenterMoreland/East Dallas/Dymond Hollow parish and I was appointed to the Lake Winola/Falls parish.  All of these small churches were nestled in the Endless Mountains region of NE PA.  Our new parsonage, next to the Lake Winola Church, was on the side of a mountain, overlooking other mountains.  The scene from our front yard was breathtaking.  I couldn’t help but think of the image of a “city on a hill” as we drove toward our new home and could see the church across the valley, looking out majestically across the way.

I stopped keeping my fists clenched.  I relaxed into my new setting.  It felt like we’d fallen into grace again.  Everything about it felt right and good and hopeful.  However, at the same time, when I opened my arms, it felt like a legion of demons that accumulated over the years so far– showed up to say hi.

There were other things going on in me that I didn’t even realize at the time.  Or couldn’t name.  But I was bogged down in a deep mire of pain and emotional exhaustion.  There was no outside tension to hold me up.

We arrived a week before our first Sunday, so I had the chance to sit in the congregations at both churches that Sunday before.  Larry and Sarah came with me.  What Larry didn’t tell me was that at Falls, he overheard a young man lean toward his wife and say, “She’s so young!  She looks terrified.  I give her two weeks…”

No worries.  I won them over quickly, despite being a Husker fan in Penn State territory.

What I lacked in assertiveness and confidence, I made up for in worship and preaching.  Preaching was always my strong suit, and helped me gain their trust.  People in the village of Lake Winola and Falls were very kind.  Falls was mostly made up of one family, the Gearys, who kept the tiny church going.  Bill and Kitty were the the patriarch and matriarch of the Church, as well as the owners and operators of Geary Concrete.  Their grown sons and daughter and their spouses and children filled up most of the pews.  In addition there were a few other couples and elderly widows.  But the Gearys swore to keep the church going and had the means to do it.

Nobody was aware of how much pain I was in as I arrived.  It was a well-learned family trait to keep all negative emotions tamped down, smile when you’re dying inside and laugh when you’re stressed.  I wasn’t even always aware that I was doing it–it had become second nature.  It was a learned survival tactic.

In the meantime, all three of us soaked up the grace of our new mountain home.  Sarah started kindergarten at Mill City Elementary and her teachers were all wonderful.  We felt safe.  We felt loved.  Larry and I felt that we were in churches that matched our gifts and graces for ministry.  Even on stressful days, driving the snaky, winding mountain roads through tunnels of trees was good for my soul.  The scenery was breathtaking.

If all that beauty and grace were not enough, I fell appropriately in love with my new D.S. and his wife.  Jim and Yvonne Baker.  Jim was a very tall, white-haired, kind person.  He was very down-to-earth.  He grew up on a farm.  Yvonne was the ultimate host, welcoming us into her home and making us feel cherished.  When each of them took turns getting down on the floor to play with my 5 year-old, I adored these people.  They quickly felt like family.  Even after Jim announced that he was retiring after our first year in PA, we stayed close.  They babysat Sarah, sometimes overnight, and were surrogate grandparents to her.  We took turns hosting each other for dinner at our houses.  Time spent with the Bakers was gentle, fun, and easy.  I often joked with Jim that I wanted them to adopt me.

Grace upon grace.  I was grateful every day for being in that beatific setting.  During thunderstorms, I stood out on the front stoop and watching the lightening in the valleys, and listened to the thunder reverberate off of the mountains.  People responded enthusiastically to my ministry.  There were the usual stresses of ministry, of course, but never a huge crisis.  I came to love these people deeply, and their confidence in me gave me freedom to try new things in worship.

I started my first worship committee.  We had a mixed group of individuals who were excited to brainstorm about worship.  My favorite thing we did was Pentecost.  We decorated the sanctuary all in red.  Someone hung a paper dove in the center aisle.  We had fans with red and orange crepe paper to represent the fire and the wind.  We told everyone to wear red on that Sunday, and the first time we did it, I looked out on my congregation of red and said to them, “You all look like Nebraska Husker fans!”  They groaned good-naturedly.

For All Saints Sunday, we built a little shelf to attach to the chancel rail, and invited everybody to bring a candle to put on the shelf.  During the service, people came up and lit the candle, speaking the name of the person who died, sometimes sharing a memory.  It was a very moving service.

Lake Winola was the one church where leading worship and preaching fed my own spiritual journey.  I felt like I was able to receive even as I gave.  The energy was high and reciprocal.  The Holy Spirit felt very much present among us.  It was delicious.

From 2000-2001, I spent much of my free time planning my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary party, which would take place in their town of Absecon, New Jersey.  It was four hours away, giving us the chance to visit them more often.  Don and Cindy and Stan helped a lot when the actual day came, helping to decorate and clean up, but I did the bulk of the planning.  I gathered pictures and stories.  I put together a scrapbook for them.  I put together a program, which I MC’d.  I invited everybody from all of the churches my father served.  Mark was put off because the event (which was the actual anniversary) occurred during his family vacation, and he let me know this was very convenient.

That year was a mixed blessing.  I was immersed in family history and stories.  I don’t know what exactly did it, but that whole experience wore down my cherished ability to keep it all together.  To push aside any pain, depression or anxiety.  I threw myself into the planning as well as my continued ministry at the churches.  Holy Week services were even more of a blessing as people responded so energetically and enthusiastically.

The day of the anniversary party was wonderful.  It was certainly a high point.  My Uncle Denver, my mother’s brother, showed up as a surprise from Mississippi with his wife and daughter.  Many many people from all five of the churches attended.  My parents’ best friends from college, Aunt Betty and Uncle Ray spoke, as well as others from their past and present.  Stan spoke.  My nephew Ben, Mark’s son, played the piano.  George and her new husband Vince sang a Nat King Cole song from the year my parents dated.  I led the whole thing, speaking in between things, and finally, led my parents in a renewal of their vows.

The party was a huge hit.  People who knew me when I was a child were impressed at the grown up I’d become.  A preacher.  We awkwardly posed for family pictures, with Mark still exuding the tension of having to take time out of his vacation.  After the party, the family members, minus Mark, gathered at my parent’s house.  We visited, shared stories, and laughed.  It felt like a rare and good thing.  Uncle Denver set the tone for a relaxing evening, basking in the goodness of the day.

I don’t know if it was the year of immersing myself in the Family Story, looking at all the pictures, or dealing with the tensions between my siblings.  I don’t know if it was trying to truly celebrate the 50 years of my parents’ marriage while still struggling with a lot of painful memories.  Whatever.  Somehow, the final straw that held up my reserve was worn down by that year– and snapped.  In August I plunged into a deep depression.  I couldn’t articulate what I felt, but just felt emptied out.  I was angry, I cried a lot, I was anxious.  Despite all this going on, I kept up a front successfully at church.  I still managed to preach and do my pastoral duties while inside everything was crumbling.

Then on September 11, 2001, I was blow-drying my hair in the bathroom when the news came on the radio that one of the Towers had been hit.  They didn’t know what it was.  I found Larry in the kitchen and we went downstairs to turn on CNN.  We stayed there for the next four hours, watching it all unfold.

As I watched, everything in me started panicking.  First I thought, “What am I going to say on Sunday??”  How could I make sense of this?  Larry got a call and was in the other room as each tower fell.  I didn’t even comprehend in that moment that there were people in those crumbling buildings– that would have been too much for me to take in.  I stared in horror and with increasing panic.

I didn’t know anyone in New York City.  I didn’t know anyone who worked in the Towers.  But as I listened to the commentators back and forth, talking about two other planes, one at the Pentagon, one crashing in Western PA, I started hyperventilating.  It felt like the world was ending.  I wanted to run down the hill to Sarah’s school and get her, bring her inside, just in case the sky started falling.

Two days later, the pastors were called to a special District meeting to debrief and to check in with how we were doing.  They brought in Sister Maureen, a local pastoral counselor, to lead the discussion and sharing.  She was older, white-haired, in a blue pantsuit.  She was very calm and engaging.  I immediately trusted her.  Sharing with each other was a rare moment of intimacy among us clergy.  It felt good to share our own fears and anxiety.  I was able to think, that day, that what I was feeling wasn’t unusual.  To deny that it went any deeper than this shared tragedy.

After much agonizing, prayer and crying, I was able to put together a comforting service for Sunday.  I preached on the passage about Peter wanting to walk on water like Jesus, and Jesus inviting him out of the boat.  Of course he sunk.  But I compared the coming days to that feeling of stepping out on water that we knew couldn’t hold us.  But being invited forward nonetheless.  I spoke to our fears, our anger, our disbelief, our wanting to blame someone.  I spoke of grief, as many among the congregation knew someone in New York City.  I spoke from the heart.  I played the guitar and led singing of a song from the Hymnal Supplement that beautifully touched on worshiping in the midst of pain.

The sanctuary was jammed full that day.  We had to open the back doors into the fellowship hall and set up chairs.  People were openly weeping and holding their children.  People thanked me for the service.  One of my favorite parshioners, Jon, hugged me and said, “So you comfort us.  Who comforts you?”  I laughed self-consciously.  Maybe I said something about the District gathering.

It was a tender and powerful time.  The UMW brought in an Muslim Imam to speak about Islam and I was pleasantly surprised at their openness and interest.  My preaching felt even more important those weeks that fall as we stumbled forward together.  I had already scheduled a much-needed retreat that fall at Kirkridge Retreat Center for October, with Flora Slosson Wuellner, a pastoral counselor whose books I read as a teenager.

I didn’t know that retreating into the woods with another kind, gentle soul would unclench my fists even more, and utterly destroy any defenses I had left.

 

 

 

 

 

The Days After

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I was not raised to be a rebel.  In my family, I tended to be shoved into the role of peacemaker.  If someone was angry, I felt it was my job to appease them.  If people in the family were fighting, I needed to get them to love each other again.  When my parents would fight or when my brothers fought with my parents,  I got bad stomachaches.

It’s hard to completely shed those experiences.

After I got back to Aurora in the aftermath of Jimmy’s first church trial, I braced myself.  Mary had warned me that people were very, very angry.  They were also confused as to how I came to be a part of it.  I spent most of my office hours that following week explaining the way it was set up, how the jury pool was appointed, and the secrecy that was demanded of us all.  The rest of the time I spent listening to people rant and rave about the lunacy of Jimmy’s acquittal, and how they didn’t want to be a part of a denomination that didn’t punish “wrongdoers.”

Tom was more than happy to step aside and let the flow of angry people find their way into my office.

Many people told me they were leaving.  There were a plethora of more conservative churches in town for them to go to, and I didn’t have the energy or even the desire to beg them to stay.  I tried to explain to them that really the trial didn’t change anything.  The Discipline still forbade pastors to perform same-sex blessings.  But people had the idea that now the Conference was going to bring in busloads of homosexuals into the church for us to bless.  That they as congregations would be “forced” to accept the unions of gays.  Or that the Conference was going to “force” pastors to bless gay couples.  I tried to explain that it meant no such thing.

The others on the jury went home to the same fury, but their congregations wanted to know how they voted.  I didn’t blame them either way for not sharing their vote, but that refusal also intensified people’s anger.  It stopped everything.  It was the main thing on everybody’s mind.  It was everything they talked about.  It was hard to imagine that the rest of the world was still going about its business as usual.

The question that remained in a lot of peoples’ minds was, “Does the Discipline have no authority then?”  That actually was a huge fear, I think, of the administrative parts of the Conference.  They didn’t want to lose any authority.  If Jimmy was acquitted after admitting he did the thing he was forbidden by the Discipline to do, then why should anyone give authority to any of the rest of the book?  This was dangerous territory, as the Discipline has guidelines for all aspects of the Church and denomination and how it was to be run, how pastors were supposed to be in ministry and parts of it contained the covenantal promises we made at ordination.  Was it all null and void now?

At the time I was angry at Jimmy.  I supported the fact that as a pastor he felt called to minister to his congregants and bless their union.  I supported that.  I supported him standing up for what he believed was right and good.  What I was angry about was that he denied they were even lesbians– after he’d called the paper to alert them to what he was doing.  He seemed offended that he would face any consequences at all.  By comparing himself to Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. I would have thought he’d be willing to face the consequences of breaking the “rules” of the United Methodist Discipline.  Certainly MLK Jr. didn’t say, “you can’t arrest me!”

I was also angry that nothing else could get done.  The Church was paralyzed by this.  Pastors facing moves that spring had to face Staff-Parish Relations Committees who didn’t want to get to know them, didn’t ask them what their hopes and goals for ministry were among their new congregations, they had one question that burned on their minds.  Do you support Jimmy?  Do you support homosexuals?  

Larry’s senior pastor Ben called together some people at his church soon after the trial, to give them a place to vent.  Larry felt he had to go as the associate pastor, so I went with him.  People were yelling at each other, interrupting each other, and finally, one pastor who was a friend of Ben’s got up, threw his fist in the air and said, “I think we need to LYNCH Jimmy!”  Several people yelled out in agreement.

Larry and I were appalled and quickly found the back door.  I was horrified at the level of anger in that room, the level of hate that was being stoked and encouraged.

I got very depressed in the weeks and months after the trial.  I didn’t feel like there were a lot of colleagues that I could trust to have a reasonable discussion.  Longtime friends became estranged, father and son pastors, brother and brother pastors– many relationships were broken in the furor.  Families were split on the issue–and it affected family gatherings, we heard.  It was like a precursor to the 2016 election.

It was the only time I knew Tom to willingly take a back seat and let me drive.  Sometimes I actually thought he was enjoying watching me take so much heat just for being a part of the trial.

Not long after the trial, Larry, Sarah Gene and I had the gift of grace to be invited to Gene Lowry’s retirement celebration in Kansas City.  In fact, I was asked to be one of the three speakers at the worship service part of the celebration.  It was no secret among anyone who knew him that I had transferred to St. Paul specifically because of Gene.

I was absolutely terrified.  I was very worn down by the whole trial and aftermath, but in addition to that, people were coming from all over the country to celebrate Gene and I was so scared.  Kresge Chapel was packed on campus that day.  Thankfully, I found my place up front in the chapel, right next to Tex Sample.  He had a way of instantly putting me at ease.

“Hey, you doin’ alright?” He said, leaning in.  He knew I’d been on the jury and this was the first chance we had to talk.  We talked a bit about it, and he was very kind as always, and supportive.

Gene had always given me a hard time about using a manuscript when I preached, and pressured me a lot to get away from using it.  If I wasn’t nervous enough about the whole thing, I did decide not to use notes for that day.  I just had one small card with a few phrases to jog my memory.

That pulpit at St. Paul’s seemed very high that day.  My legs could hardly balance me I was so nervous.

But as I started to speak, people were engaged and when they burst out laughing, I was caught off guard.  What I said was amusing, thankfully, but I didn’t expect that response!  Immediately I gained confidence and spoke from the heart about the influence of this man on my ministry, yes, but more so on my life.  By the end, I must say I was heartened to see that Gene’s eyes were red and teary.

I slid into the pew next to Tex and let out a deep breath.  He bumped me with his shoulder and winked at me.  “You did real good.”

There was a party that night at Gene and Sarah’s house.  I’d purposely gotten a T-shirt made for Sarah Gene with her name on it for that occasion.  She was just four years old and wandered through the rooms as if this was her home.  People there were also talking about the trial, but I tried to steer away from those conversations.

While I was sitting with Larry in the living room, someone called for Gene to play the piano.  He sat down and played some of his jazz pieces, and then a very large and tall man with shockingly white hair approached the piano.  He had a deep, booming voice.  He requested a hymn, and as Gene obliged, this man started singing the first verse of “Amazing Grace.”  I instinctively moved toward the piano to be a part of this, and as he finished the first verse, this stranger looked at me and gestured to me to sing the next verse.

I did.

I belted it out.  I put heart and soul into it.  And it was all I could do not to break down and weep with a sense of gratitude and joy.  I was singing with Gene playing the piano.  It just seemed so familiar, so intimate.  He was no longer my professor.  I sensed then that now we were friends.  If I’d known how deep and how long that friendship would continue over the next couple of decades, I really would have wept.

As I finished my verse, Gene looked up at me and grinned.  I think he knew.

Tex came up to me later before he left the party and gave me a hug.  “I don’t know if he’ll say it, but I wanted to let you know that it meant a lot to Gene for you to be here.”

Grace.

Most everybody else had left when it was just me, Larry, Sarah Gene, Sarah L., Gene and this stranger with the floor-shaking bass voice.  His name was Judd.

“I absolutely LOVED your words today,” he said to me in that deep, authoritative voice.

I grinned.  “Thank you!”

He laughed heartily.  “When you said that the first time you heard Gene preach you wanted to throw up….!  That was priceless.”

I might have blushed.

“Was the letter really 10 pages single spaced?” he asked.

I laughed.  “Oh yeah, I reduced the font, too…”

Gene caught my eye.  “I still have that letter.”  He smiled.

I know I blushed.

“Hey listen,” Judd said. “I’m the pastor of a church in Arizona, just outside of Phoenix.  We need someone to lead a new Gen-X ministry.  Would you be interested in coming to interview for that?”

I laughed.  Yeah.  Right.  I shrugged.

“Here, let me get your number.  I’ll give you a call in a few days and we can set up a time for you to come down.  I think you’d be great!”

A couple of weeks later Larry and I flew down to Phoenix, Arizona.  We’d talked and talked and talked about the implications of me getting this job.  I’d have had to give up my ordination in the UMC and have it recognized by the UCC down there.  We’d have to buy a house, which, financially, we were unprepared to do.  Larry would have to apply to the UMC conference down there, which was known to be full.  There was a lot going against it, but the idea of being invited was overwhelming.

For three days we were literally wined and dined in Phoenix.  We stayed at a country club across from Judd’s church that was luxurious.  Judd drove us around town in his convertible and showed us the sights.  The interview itself was easy but disappointing.  The salary offered would in no way be enough for me to move and be able to get a house.  When they realized the salary and benefit package we had as UMs, they realized they couldn’t match it.  We had too many school debts as well.  It was not to be.

In the end, it was fine.  I didn’t feel like it was within my gifts to be charismatic leader in developing a ministry for young adults.  Also, in talking with Gene, Judd might have been a bit domineering.  He loved Judd, but Gene wasn’t convinced it would be a healthy match.

In the end, we enjoyed our three days in Phoenix and I enjoyed being wanted and appreciated for my gifts.  The experience clinched the idea, though, that our experiences in Nebraska had worn us down and we felt more than a little broken by all the chaos of the battle since the trial.

We decided we’d spend the coming year looking to move back East.  To go home.

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…