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The Next Faithful Step

Episode 14: Sparring Partners

Almond Springs (Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary)

"Thank you for allowing me to attend your meeting," Rev. Charlotte Robinson said to the assembled Worship Committee. It was a new year at the First Church of Almond Springs, California. And it was a time for some changes. "As you know," she began, "Our congregation is working to construct a budget for the first time in its history. In the past, the finance committee would simply meet quarterly to make financial decisions based on the amount of money on hand." Charlotte had been aghast to discover that three men directed the church's financial future from a card table in the back of Vargo's diner. So she asked the church board to create a budget process.

Joe Bellini

Joe Bellini, the committee chair, finished the explanation, "But now that we have a full-time pastor, we hope to have an annual budget in place by the congregational meeting scheduled for the end of the month." "Yes," Charlotte continued, "That is why I am meeting with each church committee to talk about the amount of money that you have been spending and the amount of money that you wish to spend for the coming year." People nodded quietly. Even Jan Neuski, the choir director who had been so difficult, seemed to be nodding assent.

Jan Neuski

Jan's presence in the meeting pleased Charlotte because the pastor had a second goal for the meeting as well. She wanted to reign Jan in. Because of her earlier run-ins with Jan, Charlotte had asked the Personnel Committee to construct a job description for each person on the staff, including and especially the choir director. Jan would not, however, agree to meet with the Personnel Committee. She kept calling in sick or otherwise avoiding meetings where the Personnel Committee might want to talk with her. So Charlotte invited the Personnel Committee to come to the budget meeting - but she did not tell Jan that they were be coming. Jan's obvious ease at the meeting suggested to Charlotte that the choir director did not see what was coming next.

"There is some old business that this group needs to address before we can take up the budget question," Charlotte said after getting everyone's attention. "The Personnel Committee has drawn up job descriptions for each of the staff members and has met with them to discuss any questions. Unfortunately, they have not had a chance to connect with Jan to discuss the job description for the choir director. So it seemed appropriate to get that business out of the way here before we talk about the budget." She then turned to the chair of the Personnel Committee, Louis Walsh, who handed out a job description for a "director of music."

Charlotte then asked Jan to comment on the job description. At first Jan fibbed, incensed at the ambush. "I'm sorry," she said. "I am just seeing this for the first time. There is no way that I can give an adequate response right now. I'll take this home and look at it. Then maybe we can schedule a meeting to talk about it."

"I am sorry Jan," Charlotte parried. She was not going to let her wiggle away. "We really need to discuss your job description tonight. We have worked hard to make sure that you had an advanced copy. I personally put one in your mailbox on at least two occasions - and I know Mavis sent at least one to your home." Charlotte then continued as forcefully as she could, unconsciously imitating the tone and cadence of a television district attorney reading a suspect her rights. "I should let you know, Jan, that the church board has approved all the job descriptions that the Personnel Committee created, including a new one for me. And after tonight, this job description will become the terms for your employment here - and it will be the job description for any choir directors we have in the future." Charlotte fought the urge to add, "Do you understand these rights as I've explained them to you."

Jan then proceeded to discuss the job description, complaining about this point and that. She was particularly upset about the language that left her directly accountable to the pastor. They sparred for about twenty minutes, with Jan thrusting at one line only to have Charlotte parry her advance. Finally, Charlotte repeated her trump card. "The board has already approved this job description. If you have any further questions, you should take it up with them." "Perhaps I will," Jan spat out in one last attempt to save some dignity. "No, you won't," Charlotte snapped silently, "because you won't fight me on my home turf."

After discussing the job description with the Personnel Committee, the Worship Committee turned to the proposed budget. Immediately, Jan raised a number of concerns. "A budget is a good way to see what is most important to a congregation," the choir director began. "It reveals our priorities. And this budget shows just how little value this church places on music and worship. Look at how little we spend on worship. I thought that the church is supposed to exist for worship. Look at how little you pay me as choir director. I get less money than the church pays into the pastor's pension fund. Clearly music is not important to this church." Charlotte started to respond to her, but Jan was too quick. She continued before Charlotte could begin her retort.

"And look at how much the pastor makes," Jan said with a dismissive swipe of her hand toward Charlotte. "Over half of the church budget is devoted to paying one measly person. It is something like $50,000 out of a $90,000 budget. This town is going through some really hard times. Stores are closing. People are losing their jobs. Most people don't make $50,000 in a year. And I think it is a sin, yes a sin, that our pastor is taking so much of our money when there are plenty of people in our community who do not even have jobs."

Charlotte went from beet-red to ashen. She took a deep breath and gave herself a pep talk before speaking. "Jan's taken her best shot," she told herself, "I am stronger than these attacks." Then she opened her mouth to answer Jan.

"Jan, you are correct in saying that a budget shows a congregation's priorities. And so do the job descriptions a church writes," Charlotte said, sounding more condescending than she intended. "A pastor is charged with leading every part of the ministry -- from worship to visiting the sick. You'd have to divide my salary into the areas of my job description to see all the ministry areas that that one line in the budget covers." She paused to collect herself. And Louis Walsh jumped in to become her advocate.

Louis Walsh

"You are wrong, Jan, about the dollar figures you give," Louis began indignantly. He did not like the fact that Jan had challenged his idea in the springtime to bring a full-time pastor and he certainly was not going to let her denigrate that pastor once he'd brought her to town. "The $50,000 in the budget line is not how much we pay a pastor. It is how much a pastor costs us. Ask Joe about being a grocer. When he paid his employees $20,000 a year, they probably cost him twenty-five or thirty because he had to pay taxes, FICA, medical benefits, and Social Security. Charlotte's salary is not out of balance with what others make in town. In fact, you could say it was low compared to what, say, a teacher makes." Charlotte was grateful for his aid. She was not sure that the last part was true because teachers were, she believed, universally under-paid. But she was not going to correct at just the time he was fighting for her salary.

Jan then made some face-saving attacks, trying to challenge what Louis and Charlotte had said. But she soon lost momentum. She slipped out of the meeting while Joe Bellini was speaking and everyone's attention was focused on the other side of the room.

Charlotte thought that was the last she would hear of Jan's complaints about the budget. She was wrong.