There are sad days. One of mine was in a Chinese restaurant in Louisville Kentucky on Bardstown Road many years ago. I was working in a Baptist Center\Chapel living in semi communal style with homeless, mental health folks in crises, seminary students and other staff. I was the homeless minister for the Center and the associate pastor for the church. My boss was a charismatic woman who was becoming a liberated woman minister.
With much fear and trembling the church had told the Association, which helped pay for salaries and programs in the Center\Chapel, that they wanted her as their minister. This was a bold action as the District Director did not want this at all and it would force the splitting district to address a controversial issue such as the dreaded “women in ministry” conundrum. The end result of this could mean defunding and being thrown out of the building that the congregation and some of us literally called home.
Cindy, the woman minister, had at first not seen herself as the replacement for the Minister\Director who was leaving. Many of us encouraged her to think of herself this way because she had the gift and even the call as they say in Baptist life. But at first she was reluctant. But on a fateful night in the basement of the building we called home some staff and church leadership were talking about what we wanted in a minister. The conversation kept turning back to Cindy. But that could not happen and how would we even start to make it happen. When, in one of my rare moments of insight, I said we need to write a letter to the district saying we felt called to call Cindy as our minister. Thus the struggle began.
She was constantly under fire. The Director of the District, who was everyone’s boss, played mental games, promoting every male on staff. Pastors decried her to her face, and from the pulpit, and at Associational Meetings. And there was always the congregation and the center’s ministry being held in the balance. Homeless, Mentally Challenged, Senior Citizens, children, youth, and the poverty stricken would all suffer if she persisted in her need to be the Minister. The stress on the congregation and the staff was enormous. She was constantly under the microscope with everyone waiting for the false move that would justify her being fired. The Associational Director floated the idea that the youth minister or me would be good replacements for her and a solution for the woman problem.
Regretfully, I was becoming radicalized in my thinking about community and other issues. I was accused of promoting consensus decision-making as a power move. I was deliberately bringing gay people into the church to create a power position. I was allowing a gay seminary group to meet in the building, I was marching in Gay Rights protests. I pushed for us to be more gay-friendly. I was accused of advocating for the homeless ministry to ensure my prominence (this at least made sense since I was pushing for the security of the homeless programs as I was the Minister for the Homeless which by default was my job and by default promoted me). Even though, as I told them, they could recruit a certain person and he might do my job better. When I left, they did hire the certain person and there was no drop in the programming. Cindy was still feeling her way on many of the issues that I could afford to explore because I was not the Jezebel who was wrecking the Association. Although eventually when I was not willing to help the Director, he pointed his finger in my face twice and said, “After I get rid of her you are next.” He was a nice Christian guy.
The stress had been hard on our relationship. She was not trusting any of her staff who challenged her. We were all positioning ourselves. She was more conservative than me and we ended on opposite sides of consensus, gay rights, forcing the homeless to attend church services, and so on. I had started an annual Chester Fawbush Day in honor of a homeless man who had sobered up and became a leader in our church but right before he died, he had fallen off the wagon and she did not think we should honor him. Yet another issue we disagreed on. She was a good preacher and minister. But her sermons were not my style. I liked my sermons more hard edged and cynical J. But her sermons were probably the sustenance the church needed at the time.
But all these things had led to this Chinese restaurant. I thought somewhere removed from the Church might allow us room to breathe without the stress that lingered over us. I tried to assure her I was with the program of her being the minister especially since the Church wanted it. But no way and no words I could say would make her a believer. I realized in pushing my new radical agenda I had lost a relationship I cherished. I was deeply hurt because I never had anyone question my integrity before; disagree with me yes but my sincerity had always been respected. I realized her agenda was to see me gone or to force me to align myself totally with her agenda. She would not believe I did not want her job. Every act she saw as an effort to displace her. Every effort to advocate for my beliefs was a carefully designed plot against her. She complained that my brother, who was now on staff, voted my way on all issues, something I warned her would happen if she hired him. She complained about another staff who she did not think much of sided with me all the time. We parted the restaurant and I knew eventually I would have to leave. I had failed. My dreams of a community of love and service to the poor would not have me in it.
The battle was coming to an end and the church were planning the different scenarios of what they would look like after we left. The church saw no way to include my salary and all the homeless ministries. I would have to stay at the Center and work for the Associational Director. I knew this was an impossibility. I had hoped, or some would say had magical thinking, the Church would be bolder and try to hold to most of what the Center was doing. But the primary goal was to have Cindy as minister and keep some of the more standard programs of the Church; the other programming seemed financially prohibitive and any new space would be too small for the homeless ministries.
I left my state of denial and gave my resignation at a meeting. It was taken as a slap to Cindy and some kind of last ditch power move. My heart was broken. It was indeed time to leave.
These many years later the Church thrives in a new building and Cindy is their minister. They are recognized as a small peacemaking church. Gay marriages are performed there. They have a monthly coffee house for the homeless and their advocacy for the oppressed is alive and well. Many of the seminarians who were members back then have stayed these many years later. They stood by the woman minister so many years ago and now they reap the harvest of good things.
As for me I am an old religious anarchist who writes books and blogs. I have lived in a commune, worked with Persons Impacted by AIDS and the homeless, practiced consensus, worked as a chaplain for the homeless, pastored a small Unitarian Universalist church, and started a non-profit called Joined In Giving. Life has been good. We all have sad days that linger in the back of our mind and soul and hopefully we learn and grow from them.