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The Next Faithful Step

Episode 22: The Vargo Legacy

Almond Springs (Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary)

"May I lead off tonight?" Stuart Dolman said to his pastor, Rev. Charlotte Robinson. It was a Tuesday night in Februrary. And the monthly meeting of the Church Board was about to start. "What do you mean?" Charlotte asked.

Stuart Dolman

"Would you mind moving my Treasurer's Report to the beginning of the meeting tonight? Vance and Camille Vargo have come to make a presentation," Stuart said. Charlotte thought for a moment and then realized what this must be. She remembered when Cami told her that Vance's father, Vic, had left about ten thousand dollars to the church when he had died. She chided herself merrily. "I've been so busy that I forgot about the money," she thought. Then she turned to Stuart, "Sure, I'll move you to the front of the agenda. Just let me do my devotional first."

Charlotte began each meeting with a short devotional. She worked hard preparing these five-minute homilies because she wanted to set a tone for the meeting. "We are here because God has called us," she usually began. "The work that we do here is part of God's calling on our lives. It is a privilege and a responsibility. Tonight, I'd like to talk briefly about the Sermon on the Mount, specifically its opening line. 'Blessed are the poor in spirit.' Being poor in spirit involves a humility -- a dependence upon God -- that is the opposite of pride and self-reliance." She then went on to talk about how church leaders can rely on God. She concluded by saying, "We who lead -- those of us in this room -- need to cultivate a poverty of spirit. We need to embrace humility and invite God's Spirit to take our community where we would not otherwise go. So I invite you tonight to lead humbly. For we are here because God has called us. Leading is both a privilege and a responsibility." Then she prayed.

"Our first item of business is not on your agenda," she said brightly, when the prayer was through. "Stuart tells me that Vance and Camille Vargp have come to make a presentation. There was a moment of confusion as it appeared that each of the Vargos wanted the other to speak. Finally, Cami addressed the room.

Camille Vargo

"We have a gift to present tonight in Vic's name. You all know how important this church and you people were to him. He was especially pleased when you came, Pastor, because we had never really had a full-time pastor before. Your presence meant so much to him." Cami sniffled a little before continuing. "In fact, I think it's kind of fitting that you were the last person to talk to him before he passed." Cami took a heavy breath and Charlotte fished a tissue out of her purse. The comment touched the pastor more than she would have guessed.

"So Vance and I have come to describe the gift Vic left for the church," Cami continued. "It is a much larger gift than any of us realized it would be when they read the will. Apparently, Vic had some investments in North Carolina that had accumulated in the 1990s. It really surprised us. But now they are worth at least $128,000, maybe more. There are still some things to sort out. Anyway, the reason we came is to tell you that this money will eventually belong to the church."

Charlotte was stunned. She looked around the room to gauge the reaction. Louis Walsh, Vic's best friend, was slack-jawed. "I guess he did not know," Charlotte thought. Others looked equally surprised. Camille beamed, no doubt hoping for this reaction. Meanwhile, Vance sat glumly with his arms folded. He did not seem to share everyone else's feeling. "I wonder," the pastor thought, "if he resents the gift."

"Did Vic designate any particular use for the gift?" Jo Walsh asked pointedly. "No, not really," Cami began tentatively. And then stammered, "Well, maybe. It depends on how you define 'designated.' I believe Vic intended the money for a purpose, if that's what you mean. Everyone here knows how much he wanted us to have a full-time pastor. It is my understanding that he even committed a specific amount of money over the next few years, money that would go towards the pastor's salary. Isn't that right, Stuart?" As she finished, she turned to the treasurer. But before he could answer, Jo jumped in.

"What I meant was, is there is anything in the will that stipulates in a legal way that we have to spend the money a certain way?" Jo said, being more careful this time. "Not that I know of," Cami shrugged. "I am not sure that he knew how much money was in the account. When he designated me to be the executor of his estate a few years ago, he gave me specific instructions about a number of things." She smiled, "that was such a Vic thing to do." Then she looked up, "And I know that he re-wrote much of the will after he sold the land to that developer, Mr. Dorn." She paused. "But it just seems obvious that Vic would want us to honor his commitment and use the money to support Charlotte's salary."

"That's not normally how it works, though," Jo said like a parent instructing a child. "The Church Board should determine how all undesignated funds are to be used. And we would certainly want some of the funds to go to salary support. But we may well have other uses for that money as well - ones that aren't focused so much on ourselves and our congregation." Her comment opened a lively debate.

"You are right, Jo," Margo Gold jumped in. "I would think that the board should set aside a certain percentage - perhaps a large percentage - for benevolences and mission efforts. It would be selfish if spent the money only on one person." The pastor noticed an edge in Margo's voice.

Charlotte thought immediately about Margo's outburst when the pastor last met with the Worker Bees. Charlotte had meant to follow up the disastrous meeting with phone calls so she could find out why Margo was so opposed to her. But with all the Christmas activities, Margo's holiday travel, and then Laura's request to moderate the public meeting on the housing tract, Charlotte never quite got through to Margo. "I really dropped the ball on that one," she thought as Margo finished speaking.

"I think the community as a whole should benefit," Ansel Richards then said. "This could be a way for Vic's estate to make amends for selling off all that land. Perhaps we could have a park or some green space in the middle of the housing tract that would bear Vic's name. Wouldn't that be ironic? We could use some of this money to maintain the park and green space."

"That's not a bad idea," Vance Vargo piped in, acknowledging the conversation for the first time. He unfolded his arms, "He should definitely give something back to make amends." His reaction rang a bell for Charlotte. "That's right," she thought, "Vance was strongly opposed to the land deal from the beginning."

"Hold on a second," Stuart Dolman bellowed. His deep voice resonated through a room when he was agitated. "There is no reason for this money to go anywhere beyond the church. If the man had wanted it given to the poor - or to build a park - then he would have said so in his will. He committed to paying a large portion of the pastor's salary and he has given us the funds to honor that commitment even though he has died. There is no reason to make this complicated."

Charlotte was uncertain how to proceed. She felt a conflict of interest moderating a debate about her own salary. She decided to take the debate out of her own hands.

"This is indeed a most generous gift," she began. "One that should be honored by careful consideration. And tonight is probably not the time to debate the best uses for the money. We are too close to it. We have not had time to carefully consider the options. So I have a suggestion. Perhaps we should form a small task force to meet over the next month and then come with a recommendation on using the Vic's gift wisely. And perhaps the best person to lead the task force would be…" And then she paused.

A voice in Charlotte's head stopped her cold. She had been ready to appoint Vic's executor, Camille Vargo, to lead the task force. But then she remembered that Cami froze when faced with the prospect of public embarrassment. No, she would not do. In the moment, the pastor's eyes darted around the room looking for a trustworthy soul who had not already staked out a territory in the debate. Louis was too self-centered to seek everyone's opinion. Stuart was solid, but might appear to be her vassal. Laura had too many other responsibilities. Doc Davis seemed to be the logical choice. "But why does it always have to be a man?" Charlotte thought. "What about Hazel? But she's not used to public leadership. But I want her to be…" Then Charlotte knew what she would do. It had taken just a moment for the ideas to flow through her head as incomplete sentences. But it was enough that people would have noticed. She knew instinctively that she had to cover her pause.

"Wait a second," she said. "I started to say that the best person to lead the task force would be Doc," she fibbed. "But perhaps it might be better to ask Doc and Hazel to lead it together. Would the newlyweds like to lead this group together?" But before they could answer, a voice of dissent arose.

"Not so fast," Margo Gold said, waving her hands as if a bus were barrelling down on her. "Before we get ahead of ourselves, I want to know who is going to be on this task force. Will there be a diversity of ideas on the committee? Will the pastor meet with the group? Or will they be able to work freely? That's a lot of money. And I want to make sure that we on the Church Board don't lose control of it?" Charlotte noticed once again the edge in Margo's voice. "She really does ont trust me," the pastor observed silently. Then Hazel spoke up.

"Would you like to be on the Task Force, Margo?" Hazel asked gently. "Perhaps you and Doc should be the ones to co-lead it. This congregation has always valued your insight. And you have a lot to offer such a task force." Margo's shoulders dropped and tension slipped out of her face. Then Hazel turned to address the whole room.

"We are used to making our own decisions here at the church," she continued. "We've made those decisions for a very long time --- long before we called Charlotte to be our pastor. And we will continue making them. That's what a board is supposed to do. But we have to remember Charlotte is on our side. I remember (just as you do) the fights that we had with some of the part-time pastors - including one who was fond of saying, 'there are other churches in town, you know.'" She paused to smile. "Remember what Jo said after he, umm, (what shall we say) resigned. 'There are other pastors out there, you know.'" Everyone laughed, especially Jo.

Even as they chuckled, Charlotte saw the board members exchanging concerned glances. It was as if Hazel were letting an embarrassing cat out of the congregation's bag. Charlotte realized that there were stories that people had kept from her, especially stories about problems with the string of part-time pastors that preceded her. "Perhaps," Charlotte thought as the laughter receded, "that's why Doc came to my office to compliment me in November. And maybe Margo's anger is not just about Jan's departure as choir director."

"But I have to say that I believe that Charlotte is different," Hazel continued, no yet ready to relinquish her soap box. "She has worked hard to listen to us - and to get us to listen to each other. And that's no small feat. There may be plenty of pastors out there, but there aren't plenty of good ones. And I hope this one will be with us for a long time to come." And then Hazel folded her hands and waited for some else to speak.

"Thanks, Hazel," Charlotte said. "I hope so too." Then she turned to Margo. "So would you like to co-chair the task force, Margo?" she asked, while trying to cover her own hopes that Margo would decline the offer.

"Perhaps I will," Margo said cryptically. Her tone was defiant but not quite as angry as it once had been. "Who will pick the rest of the group?" she said looking at the pastor through the corners of her eyes.

Charlotte wanted to be solicitious. "What do you think would be best?" she asked, "Should you and Doc and I get together to decide? Or, perhaps you think we should take volunteers."

"Volunteers are probably best," came Margo's simple reply.

"Does anyone have a problem with that?" Charlotte asked without requesting a formal vote. No one objected. And half the board volunteered for Doc and Hazel's task force: Jo Walsh, Louis Walsh, Stuart Dolman, Ansel Richards, Laura Webber and Hazel Moore Davis.

"This question's not going away anytime soon," Charlotte thought, as they took up the rest of the agenda.