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The Next Faithful Step

Episode 12: Stinging Criticism

Almond Springs (Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary)

"Advent is no time to schedule a committee meeting," thought Rev. Charlotte Robinson. "But if Jo wants me to meet with her Worker Bees, I will," she sighed as she entered a Sunday School room at the First Church of Almond Springs, CA.

Jo Walsh

Charlotte did not yet have a read on Jo Walsh, the undisputed queen of the Worker Bees. Jo had a quick laugh and a congregational reputation for caring hospitality. But she ran a meeting of the Worker Bees the way a socialite hosts a cocktail party. She was the center of every conversation and the arbiter of every decision. On the one hand, Charlotte observed, Jo's style is thoroughly egalitarian. There are no votes. The Bees decide everything by consensus. But, on the other hand, the subject is never closed and the conversation never ends until Jo approves the outcome.

Camille Vargo

Charlotte reflected on a recent meeting with Jo and her sidekick Camille Vargo. The pastor had hoped to plant a seed because the Worker Bees functioned as the congregation's Mission Committee. She wanted to get Jo and Cami to think about paring down the number of mission projects so that they coherred around a single focus. So she broached the subject in private November meeting, hoping to return to it after New Year's. She wanted to hear Jo's opinions out of earshot of the other Bees. But Jo neither embraced nor rejected the idea. In fact, she was uncharacteristically quiet in the meeting. She allowed Charlotte and Cami to explore the idea while she observed without laughing or disagreeing. More than anything the idea seemed to bore her. So it came as something of surprise when Jo invited Charlotte to attend the December meeting with the Worker Bees. "Another contradiction," the pastor thought, "from a complicated congregational leader. I should ask Peg about her. They have a lot in common."

"We have some important decisions to make today," Jo began after the assembled ladies had lowered themselves into the kid-sized Sunday School chairs. Sitting around the paste-spattered table were some of the leading women of the congregation: Jo, Cami, Margo Gold, Hazel Moore and Sally Sparks. Each had been or was currently a member of the Church Board.

"I have asked the pastor to join us today," Jo continued, "because she wants us to take up a matter she brought up when she met with us in October." Charlotte looked around. It was clear from their faces that none of the women could remember Charlotte discussing any important issues at the earlier meeting. "This is an odd beginning," Charlotte thought.

"Jo usually treats Cami like a daughter," Charlotte thought. "It's like she is ticked off about this."

"I am going to ask Cami to lead this discussion because she has the strongest feelings on the topic," Jo said to Camille's surprise. "Ummm … OK … " Cami stammered. Charlotte wondered to herself, "What's going on? Jo knows Cami does not like to be the center of attention. And she usually treats Cami like a daughter. It's almost like she's ticked off about this." Cami was clearly uncomfortable and ill-prepared.

"150 members cannot sustain fourteen mission projects," Cami said bluntly.

"At last count, our congregation supported fourteen mission projects," Cami began tentatively. The women beamed, taking pride in the sweep of their mission influence. "Yet we have only 150 members in our church," she continued. "That's simply not enough to sustain all these projects. When Charlotte last visited our group, she pointed this out to us. And then she met with Jo and me to talk about it."

Charlotte became concerned as Cami continued speaking. Nothing Cami said was inaccurate. But Charlotte worried that she was being too blunt. "Getting people to embrace change requires a deft hand," the pastor said to herself. "People had to have time to adjust." That is why Charlotte had begun talking to Jo and Cami before bringing the question to all the Bees. Now Cami was laying it out cold and bare. Charlotte braced herself as Cami concluded, "And now we have to prune the list down to five projects. So what ones do you think we should eliminate?"

"I've never heard of a pastor asking a church to care for fewer people!" Margo said icily.

"I think that is an awfully callous attitude you have, Pastor," Margo Gold said, addressing Charlotte rather than Cami. "I've never heard of a pastor coming to a meeting and asking a church to care for fewer people." Her voice was icy and Charlotte was taken aback. The pastor felt defensiveness and anger rising in her throat. She clenched her teeth hoping to swallow her pride until Margo was done speaking. "You have some nerve to impose your suede-pump priorities on this congregation. I'm sorry for being so direct. But you are destroying years of relationships, just so you can have control." The force of will it took for Charlotte to keep silent under the attack made it hard for her to concentrate on what Margo was saying. "Why doesn't anyone like my shoes?" she thought, "Margo sounds like Jan." All the while the pastor waited her turn to respond.

But before Margo finished talking, Jo jumped in. And the pastor bit tongue again, expecting Jo to blunt the attack. But instead of coming to Charlotte's aid, Jo said, "I have to agree with Margo, Pastor—at least some of it. It goes against all that the Bees stand for to turn our backs on someone—anyone—in need. I know your intentions may be good in the way that you want to focus our impact. But I think this sends the wrong message."

Charlotte could barely contain herself as Jo continued her accusations. Where were Jo's objections when they had met privately? Charlotte did everything she could, short of interupting Jo, to signal that she wanted to speak next. Charlotte leaned forward, gestured with her hands, opened her mouth as if to speak. But she did not interupt. She told herself, "You cannot embarrass Jo on her own turf."

But Charlotte was not going to get to speak just yet. As Jo was winding down, she turned to Margo and said, "I am sorry for interupting you. Go ahead and finish what you were going to say." Charlotte watched as the meeting careened wildly out of her control. Margo continued her tirade. But Charlotte was not really listening anymore. She wanted to scream, "There's been some misunderstanding." But she had even given up trying to get a word in. It was going to take more than a few kind words to repair the rifts opening up before her. "What am I going to do?" she thought.

"I have to listen," Charlotte thought. "I have to find a way to understand what's really going on here. This may be a simple misunderstanding. And those can be corrected. But there's got to be something more here. Margo's reaction was so strong. She sounded like a spouse who was bringing up past disputes. She acts as if she and I have a history. Have I wronged her somehow? Does this have to do with my treatment of Jan?"

Charlotte decided to ride out the storm—to push down her defensiveness and try to understand. "This will not undo us," she thought, silently quoting something she had once read about conflict as Margo finally finished. "I have to be calm and open." And then she wrote silently on the notepad in front of her, "This will not undo us." Finally it was her turn to speak.

"There are some strong feelings here," Charlotte began as earnestly as she could. "And I have a responsibility to understand them. I want to say to you that there has been some misunderstanding. I would never want to have us care for fewer people. And I'd be glad to tell you more about what I intended. But I'm not sure that's the best thing to do right now." She paused and looked at each woman's face as she tried to slow the process and ease the tension in the room.

"What are some of the rest of you feeling?" Charlotte said softly, "Help me understand what's going on here. I get the feeling we are talking about more than the number of mission projects. I want to understand you."

Camille Vargo spoke first. "Umm … Ahhh … " She jumped in because she wanted to defend Charlotte. But now that she had everyone's attention, she had to figure out what she wanted to say. But nothing came into her head. She just did not know what to say when everyone was looking at her. "Umm..I forgot what I was going say," she concluded sheepishly.

Then Hazel turned her chair so that her back was to Charlotte. Her knees almost touched Margo, who was sitting next to her. "Margo," she began gently, "I know you to be a caring person of great feeling. Something important is obviously eating at you. What is it?" Hazel was clearly trying to intercede for Charlotte.

"But, Hazel. This is exactly what we said would happen if we hired a minister," Margo pleaded. "Pretty soon she'd want more money and more power." "So this feels like the pastor's just grabbing power?" Hazel asked. "Well, isn't she? Why else would she try to take over our work?" Margo answered. They were speaking directly to each other, as if Charlotte were not even in the room. They continued on for a few minutes. It became clear that Margo had originally opposed the idea of a full-time pastor and that this incident had triggered some worries left over from that debate.

The pastor listened quietly, wondering what Jo was thinking. Charlotte had been watching her and saw an uncharacteristic look of confusion on her face. "This won't be over until Jo decides what she is going to do," the pastor thought. "I'd bet that she wants to protect her turf but is not ultimately interested in undermining my authority. Again, she contradicts herself."

"I don't think this is a good time to make this decision," Jo suddenly announced. "We've got a lot of other work to do. And this discussion is not going to end any time soon. So why don't we put it off until the end of the meeting and we can use whatever time is left over to talk about it." She did not even look at Charlotte as she made the pronouncement. As soon as she said it, the tension eased in the room. Shoulders sagged as people exhaled audibly. Hazel turned her chair back to face the table. Jo stood up to face the agenda on the chalkboard, placed a check mark next to the pastor's name, and then directed the meeting to the next item.

Charlotte said little for the rest of the meeting. Jo was especially talkative. The meeting ended ahead of schedule without returning to the tabled question. The women quickly dispersed after Jo's closing prayer. The pastor wanted to catch Margo after the meeting. But Camille jumped up and began talking to Charlotte before she could get to Margo. Knowing that Cami felt responsible for the blow-up, Charlotte kept her focus on the younger woman, reassuring her and comforting her. When Cami left, Charlotte turned to gather her papers. Then she looked up to see an empty room.

Charlotte sat back down in the under-sized child's chair to reflect on what had just happened. "I'll have to follow up this meeting with almost everyone in the room," she thought."I need to find a way to connect with Margo, to thank Hazel, and to understand Jo—all during the busyness of Advent." She looked around the room and indulged in a moment of melodramatic self-pity—erasing the chalkboard as she whispered aloud, "Merry Christmas to me."