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The Next Faithful Step

Episode 10: The Dolman Dinner

Almond Springs (Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary)

Charlotte Robinson and her husband, Len, invited Brandi and Stuart Dolman to their home one December evening for dinner. Stuart was the treasurer at the First Church of Almond Springs, CA, where Charlotte was the pastor. Brandi did not, until recently, attend church. Charlotte wanted to thank the Dolmans for allowing her to use their cabin to write her sermons. Every Thursday throughout the fall, she would steal away to the cabin (set on a tiny lake in the hills) with her laptop computer. There in the majestic solitude of mountains she studied, wrote and prayed uninterrupted by ringing phones, quarreling children or beckoning housework.

Brandi Dolman

The only other person Charlotte saw on those days was Brandi, who made a habit of arriving at lunchtime. At first, Charlotte was annoyed that Brandi had intruded on her obvious attempts to get away. But after a while Charlotte saw that those lunches were having an effect on Brandi and were probably the reason that Brandi had begun attending church.

Brandi was a loose cannon, according to her reputation around town. But Charlotte discovered that Brandi was maturing in surprising ways. Indeed, she was—at fifty years old—finally grappling with issues that people normally addressed in their twenties. Charlotte's challenge was to know how much of her sermon-preparing time to give up to Brandi's detailed confessions, probing questions, and fledgling prayers.

Stuart Dolman

Charlotte rarely saw the Dolmans at the same time. She usually saw Brandi at the lake and Stuart at the church. In fact, Charlotte had invited them to dinner because it was sometimes hard to picture them together—even though Brandi had told her enough about their private life for her to understand their marriage.

Stuart was as solid as Brandi was impetuous. He was more than simply the church treasurer. He was the voice of reason on the Church Board. Whenever Louis Walsh's enthusiasm spun visions of some future congregational grandeur, Stuart asked the tough questions that brought him back to earth. He asked not only what and how questions, but the harder questions about how pursuing a new idea would derail important projects that had already begun. Charlotte had come to expect Stuart to force the congregation to count the cost.

When the Dolmans arrived at Charlotte's home, Brandi handed her a bottle of wine with a wink. Stuart was carrying one of the manila file folders that seemed to be permanently affixed to his hands. While the ladies put the wine in the refrigerator, Stuart whispered something to Charlotte's husband Len. As the women returned, the men looked up and laughed together. "Accountants' humor?" Charlotte asked, referring to the occupations the two men shared. "In a way, yes," Stuart said as Len blushed slightly.

Everyone but Charlotte was at ease during dinner, laughing and telling stories. Charlotte was, however, more uncomfortable than she expected to be. She realized that she knew a lot more than she could let on in this conversation. Brandi had told Charlotte intimate details about her marriage, details that could have embarrassed Stuart if he knew that she'd divulged them. Every conversation with Brandi seemed eventually to include frank talk about sexual liasons and marital infidelity. Charlotte worried that Brandi would assume that Charlotte had told Len about the Dolmans' past (which she had not) and make some embarrassing reference or tell an explicit tale. Charlotte became particularly uncomfortable when the couples became temporarily separated, with Len and Brandi clearing dishes while Stuart pulled out a manila folder.

Stuart placed the folder on dining room table and said seriously, "I think you should see this." Charlotte opened the folder wondering which of Stuart's over-produced graphs would be waiting for her. But there was only a simple list on a single sheet of paper. It did not even have a title. Charlotte scanned the names while worrying about what Brandi might be saying in the kitchen. She knew all of the people except Madeline-somebody. "Okay," she said, "what is this?" Stuart waited. He seemed either uncertain or overly-dramatic, "Those are the people who have funded your position here at the church. Each committed a specific amount for the next two years." He paused.

Charlotte immediately thought of the chair of the church board, Louis Walsh, who had once told Charlotte that a pastor should never know who gives how much. She was silent as Stuart continued, "You need to see this because the thing that holds it all together is the housing development. When this whole controversy broke about the development, I did a little checking around and found that Vic and Louis made their promises expecting the land deal to go through. And this Madeline Dorn, she is the developer's wife. She heard that Louis and Vic were going to bring in a minister and promised to match whatever Louis pledged. Don't you see? If the Town Council does not approve the housing development, I am not sure where we are going to find the money to pay you."

Charlotte stared at the list, wondering what to say. "Who is STD?" she temporized. "Those are my initials," Stuart said, "Laura Webber and I added the little bit necessary to cover pension and benefits. We came into the process at the end. As far as I know, neither of us has much of a stake in the housing development—but our paltry contributions could never sustain you."

"I'll have to talk to Len about this," Charlotte said weakly. "He knows," Stuart said to her surprise, "I told him before dinner in case you cut me off and did not let me finish. You've made too much headway around here—done too much for Brandi—for me to let you take the high moral road without knowing your own future was at stake."

Charlotte was too preoccupied the rest of the evening to notice that Brandi was a charming guest and Stuart a doting husband.