By Ann Steiner Lantz
I had never planned to be a small town parish minister. I skipped most of those classes in seminary. And yet, here I was, holding the phone to my ear and listening to my District Superintendent (after what seemed interminable small talk) say, “I wanted to tell you that the Bishop and the Cabinet have made your appointment.” My heart was pounding as he continued. “We’ve appointed you to SmallTown United Methodist Church.” (That’s not the town’s real name, but it’s one very much like it. I’m not kidding.)
Stunned silence on my part. This was the phone call I had been waiting for, and it seemed forever before it came. Now, I was hearing totally unexpected news, and I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t prepared for ministry in a small town, and they were not prepared for me!
We all tried very hard to play nice.
They tried. Soon after I arrived, at the first meeting of the United Methodist Women, the women gave me a “pounding.” No, it’s not what it sounds like. A pounding is a quaint tradition where they each brought me a pound of various kitchen staples to stock my empty kitchen.
I tried, too. But it was hard to adjust to the small town life, and there was so much to learn and get used to. I dutifully went along with the ritual of going to the post office every morning to get my mail—I’d never heard of such of thing where they didn’t bring me my mail! As I said, it was difficult. I was the first female pastor in the entire county—ever. It was quite the experience for us all.
Show me the way
Even in such a small town, the church building was very difficult to find. This was a town of no more than 1,500—if one counted all the dogs and cats. It took me 15 minutes to find the church the first time I visited there. If I had had so much trouble finding it, surely others unfamiliar with the area would have the same problem. So as you can imagine, after moving into the office, I was thrilled to discover two of the lovely UMC directional signs in a closet!
At the first Trustees’ meeting after I moved there, I dragged the signs out and said, “These need to be put out along the highway so people can find us.”
Well, there was a very strange silence. Everyone started looking at their shoes. I had no idea what was going on. Finally, the chair of the committee spoke. “Well, Pastor, we keep them in the closet.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, Pastor,” he responded, “We don’t put them out because we don’t want anyone to steal them.” I think a part of my “just-out-of-seminary-pastoral-enthusiasm” died at that moment.
Three important things to remember
On another of my first few days of living in SmallTown USA, I was at the church office when a telephone call came from one of the pillars of the church. He said he wanted to meet with me as he had important information for me. When could we meet? I had nothing else going on, so I said I could meet with him immediately. He arrived at the church and pulled up a chair. I already had my legal pad and three freshly sharpened Number Two pencils ready to take notes.
He made no small talk. He simply stated, “There are three things that you need to know about being pastor of this church.”
“OK,” I responded, “What would those be?” Without a pause, he stated, “First, you’re 26 years old.” I dutifully wrote down, “26 y/o.”
He continued, “Second, you’re single.” I slowly wrote, “single.”
“And third,” he said, “You’re a woman.” I didn’t bother to write that down.
I responded, “And what about these three facts?”
“That’s all I’ve got,” he said, and stood up and left the building! Somehow this wasn’t what I had thought parish ministry would be about!
I’m not sure what the “three important things to remember” were intended to convey, but perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I was frequently invited to parishioners’ homes for dinner. It always seemed to be purely coincidental that they would have also invited their adult single son(s) to dinner as well. OK, that was awkward!
Monitoring the pastor’s life
In one of my first visits to the post office, I was warmly greeted by the postmaster. He said, “Hi! You must be the new lady preacher!” It was less of a question and more of a statement of fact. I said that I was. He then said, “Well, I hear you stay up pretty late at night.”
“I beg your pardon?” I responded.
He then said, “And I hear that you sleep in pretty late in the morning.”
I mumbled something about seminary habits being hard to break and then got out of there as quickly as possible! I then went to the parsonage, instead of the office. Someone was apparently watching the parsonage windows! I found several large safety pins and pinned the drapes in my bedroom closed! In the four years I was there I never opened those drapes!
Attempting to break the trend of short-term pastorates
Yes, I spent a total of four years at this church. Their past had been, with one or two exceptions, an on-going saga of 2-year pastorates. I was determined to break that trend. They were a very loving and caring group of folks who had a great deal of resistance to anything that would bring about the future they spoke of as “their dream.” They wanted new people to attend— but only as long as nothing had to change.
They were a group of folks who wanted to get out of the rut they were in— but their rut was where they were most comfortable.
At one point in my tenure there, a divisive racial issue had come up in the area. That next Sunday I preached what I thought was an outstanding sermon about the sins of racism. I naively thought I had nailed that sermon and that I had single handedly ended any racist tendencies that any of them had in their hearts.
All was well as we sang the closing hymn. “In Christ there is no East or West, In Him no South or North. . . . Join hands, then, members of the faith; Whatever your race may be!”
All was well as I processed out behind the acolyte who was wearing flip flops and chewing gum. All was well as the parishioners shook my hand at the back of the church
All was well, that is, until one of the more erudite members of the congregation came out and greeted me. I will never forget her words. She said, “I so agree with your sermon! You know, we had a district UMW (United Methodist Women) meeting just last week and there were several of those “blacks” there. They didn’t smell bad or anything.” I immediately went into my office, put my head on my desk, rocked back and thought, “All preaching is futile.”
Constant patronization and its tragic effects
One overriding issue that I faced as a female pastor of this church was what I perceived as almost constant patronization. The best example was one that could have been even more tragic than it was. In my fourth year at the church they replaced a small wall heater in the one bathroom of the parsonage. When I turned on the heater for the first time, flames shot out of it a good 6-8 inches! I was able to turn it off, but was shocked that the breaker didn’t shut off the electricity.
I called the chair of the Trustees immediately, but his response was typical when I had concerns about issues. He simply said, “I’m sure it is fine. You don’t need to worry about it.” Even through the phone, I could feel him patting me on the head and saying, “There, there little girl.”
One week later the parsonage burned to the ground. The cause of the fire was electrical. Fortunately, no one was home when the fire started. Unfortunately, I lost most of my personal possessions. What little was left of the house was so damaged that it had to be demolished.
But the nightmare didn’t end there.
The Trustees encouraged me to go away for a few days when the house was scheduled to be bulldozed. They assured me that no one would be allowed to scavenge my property. I did go away, but when I came home the house had not been taken down. I went over to look for something in the garage—which hadn’t burned—and immediately noticed something wrong inside the house. Walls had been cut open to strip pipes and wiring. It was if anything that was left of the house had been brutally attacked.
I would soon find out that before the demolition was to take place, a man from the church had gone into what was left of the parsonage and stripped it of anything he considered valuable. He took my personal possessions that I was not allowed to keep per the insurance company instructions—anything electrical. He took all the appliances, my dishes, furniture, and anything else he could salvage. These items had not burned but were in areas where I was not allowed to enter because the house was structurally unsound.
I was devastated. I felt terribly violated. I called the Trustee chair and the chair of the Pastor-Parish Committee and asked them to come to the church immediately. When they arrived, we talked in the church kitchen. I told them what I had found. The Pastor-Parish Chair was utterly stunned.
The Trustee chair just looked at his feet. He then admitted that he had given permission to the man to strip the house even though he had promised me he would not allow it. My anger, based in disappointment, a sense of violation, and disillusionment, nearly overwhelmed me. To add insult to injury, the man who took my property then offered to give me $100 to reimburse me for “my trouble.”
I left the church and parish ministry a few months later.
Several years later, I was asked to guest preach at this same church. I thought about it for a while and then decided that I needed to go back and face my unresolved issues. The man who had stolen my belongings did not attend, but his wife did. As I saw her approaching me in the greeting line after the service I began to tense up. I wasn’t sure what I should or would say to her.
When it was her turn, she shook my hand and pulled me toward her. I went along with it and found myself in a position where she was able to whisper in my ear. “Please come by our house before you leave town,” she said. “It is very important.”
I was shocked. My immediate response in my head was “NO!” Why would I go to their house? This man had caused me a great deal of pain. No way was I going to their house!
As I left the church building a while later, I sat in my car and debated what to do. They lived just down the street from the church. What did she want? By going to their house, was I just going to be hurt all over again?
After contemplating this for at least 15 minutes, I felt that I was being led to go see her. So I slowly drove toward their house. I wasn’t sure why I was doing it, but I got out of my car and walked slowly up the sidewalk to the door. Before I could even ring the bell, the door opened. The woman invited me inside. She said, “He’s not here.” I nodded my understanding and prayed a silent prayer of thanks that I didn’t have to see her husband face-to-face.
She said, “I have something that belongs to you. I want you to have it back.” She walked into the other room while I stood just inside the door. She was gone for what seemed like forever and came back carrying a large wooden frame. Tears came to my eyes as I realized what she had. She was carrying a beautiful antique oak frame that I had received as a seminary graduation present from some of my dearest friends. The frame is quite ornate and frames a mirror. It had been in my house at the time of the fire. It was untouched by the flames, but a small piece of the mirror was cracked in one corner from the heat of the fire.
We both were still. She finally broke the silence and said to me, “I really want you to have this again. I remember how important it was to you when you lived here.” I couldn’t speak. I simply nodded with tears running down my face. Before I took the frame I managed to croak out a very soft, but heartfelt, “Thank you.” Our eyes met for what seemed an eternity, but actually just a few seconds.
My healing was complete, as I believe was her own healing. I nodded my goodbye, and she did the same. I drove home that day with a peace and contentment I hadn’t felt for years. The frame and mirror now hang in my home—with the small crack in the one corner.
It is a constant reminder that although “tried by fire,” the mirror came through unbroken, with only a small “scar.”
And so did I.
© 2014 by EEWC-Christian Feminism Today