In one of those annoying middle of the night brain attack sessions I woke up thinking about a situation that I experienced 21 years ago now. At that point in time I had been ordained for almost four years, I was pregnant with my first child and I was working for two different congregations as “music minister”. One of the congregations had Sunday morning pretty traditional services and I was their organist and music director as well as parish associate. The other church I was serving also had a morning traditional service, but I was hired to lead their evening praise service, so I played piano, directed their praise team and the music we sang and played was mostly Christian rock. This evening service had been pretty successful, a service for younger adults, in their 20s and 30s, lead by a young charismatic preacher who had been a seminary colleague of mine. But after I had been there about three years, 21 years ago, the charismatic young pastor had decided to resign and to begin his own congregation. There were a number of reasons for this, but I think a lot of it had to do with conflict in the congregation.
Without that pastor there, then, the conflict changed focus and took the form of deciding that they no longer wanted to have two services anymore, but wanted us to all join in for one service. Two men from session met with myself and the organist/music director who played for the more traditional service with a plan of action. They told us that their plan was that their organist would continue to be the organist and music director, but that they wanted to hire me as the assistant music director, which meant that I could come and “help” their regular music director, maybe bringing some of the praise music from the evening service to the morning services. I explained that I had a job Sunday mornings as an organist/music director for another church. It would not be possible for me to be at their church Sunday mornings. But these two men (and the male organist) would not listen to me. “Oh, it’s fine! You can just come to choir rehearsals and you can have Sunday’s off from your other job to play for us occasionally!”
“No, I can’t. I get two Sundays a year off from my other job. I cannot come over and play for you occasionally.”
“Oh, it’s fine! We’ll just switch and our organist can go play for them while you play for us!”
“No. I have a contract with that other church that does not include bringing in substitutes on Sunday mornings. They have hired ME, not this other person and you cannot assume they will be okay with me sending someone else to lead them.”
“Oh it’s fine! You will just be helping our organist anyway! It’s not a problem at all!”
I finally just sat there quietly, saying nothing. They weren’t listening. And several things were very, very obvious to me:
1. Their current organist/music director had absolutely no need for an assistant.
2. The only reason they were pushing this agenda is that they knew that if they fired me in order to unite the two services, probably all the young people they were hoping to have leave the evening service to join in the morning service would also leave the church.
I could see the manipulation, but I didn’t know what to do about it. They had no intention of listening to me at all.
But about a week later, a young, female member of session who attended the evening services approached me and asked for my opinion on it. I explained to her exactly what I had tried to explain to these three men: I have a Sunday morning job where I am the music director/organist. I am also parish associate there which means I get to preach on occasion and am recognized for being an ordained pastor. I cannot give up a job where I am valued and have meaningful work, a job I have had as long as this one, for a new job as an “assistant” to a man who doesn’t need an assistant simply because it feels politically expedient to the session to retain me as an employee.
Two weeks later at a public meeting discussing the future of the church, the congregation was told that any division in the church was my fault. The woman speaking explained that I had told the three men (the two session members and the music director) one thing, while going behind their back to talk to another session member with another story all together. It was MY fault if all the young people left the church because I was not willing to work with them. I was an evil, destructive person for not doing their bidding, and staying on as assistant to the music director.
I was shocked. So shocked that I became speechless. I was never good in confrontive situations with being able to speak my truth. I never was. And in this case, the shock of what they were saying left me absolutely speechless.
Afterwards a special session meeting was called and I was “invited” to share my story. I went to the meeting and tried to explain again that I had a Sunday morning job already, at which I was organist and parish associate. I explained once again that I only got two weeks off from that job and that it was clear to me that I was not actually needed to be the assistant to the music director at this church.
But my “persecutors” (as I came to think of them) were masters at turning the questions around and making it appear, once again, that I was the bad guy in this situation. “So, you are unwilling to be an ‘assistant'” one said. “You feel you are too good to work under anyone else.”
“No!” I said. “At the church where I work in the mornings, I am just parish associate. That means I work under the pastors of the church. At my last church I was an Associate Pastor. I had no trouble working under someone else. But you are asking me to quit a job I love where I am the music director, organist, and parish associate to start what is basically a new job as an unneeded assistant.”
“Yep! She thinks she is too good for us!” the response came back.
I was dumbfounded. If I had been a man, no one would ever have questioned the choice to stay in a job where I had more responsibility, more consistency, was needed, was valued, to take a new position as an unneeded, unnecessary assistant to someone else! No one would have questioned that. But once again, their comments and attacks left me inarticulate, unable to speak my truth, unable to defend myself. All I could do was say, “I’m sorry. I cannot take this job.”
As I woke in the middle of the night this morning I found myself moving, though, from anger to compassion. This little group of folk had just lost their pastor. They were about to also lose most of the young people that that pastor had nurtured: a whole congregation of younger folk that had been brought together into a thriving community. Without those young people, eventually the church would close, as it did a few years later. They did not have the vision to make different choices. And they needed someone to blame. It no longer served them to blame the pastor who had left. The decisions they were making now were their own to make. I was an easy scape-goat. I didn’t know most of them and they didn’t know me because none of these folk except the one female session member who had talked to me, had ever attended the evening service that I had played and directed the music for. Self-reflection in this situation would simply have been too painful. Thinking of solutions outside of the box was too much a stretch for them when they were stressed and grieving. And they couldn’t do these things.
But it also led me to think about all the ways in which people manipulate truth. As we’ve watched over the years, but especially in the fairly recent past, people believe what will most validate their already held beliefs. They will even deny their senses, proclaiming things didn’t happen that they saw with their own eyes if doing so will help them to uphold their old beliefs and values. I was stunned to hear that some people are now denying the attack on the capitol that happened in January. But I shouldn’t have been. Despite the video coverage, despite the fact that it was caught live and we all saw it, when threatened with a truth that will make people have to re-evaluate their stance, many will choose to ignore their own senses and own experiences. And again, it comes back to the reality that self-reflection for many folk is simply too painful. It’s just too hard for many people to have to change their ideas, their understandings, their beliefs. They’d rather deny their senses than have to change ideas that have grounded them for so long.
None the less, I think the pursuit of truth is a valuable endeavor, even if it is painful, even if it is hard. I don’t want to live a lie, personally. I don’t believe it ultimately serves me to hang on to things that are not real, just so I can tell myself I was right in my former opinions. Why are we here if not to grow? And that growth requires looking deep, being willing to change, being open to learning that we were wrong and may have to evaluate situations differently.
I still strive for compassion for those who cannot see, who choose not to see. I would wish for them something better. But that is each person’s decision to make. For myself, I will take the reminder of what I experienced 21 years ago as a call to listen and a call to look with honesty. I will take it as a gentle push to be willing to self-reflect and to not scape-goat others when I have fault in a situation. I will use it to remind myself that not one of us has the whole story, the whole truth. There is always more to learn, more ways to grow, and more hope for bridging.