Skip to content

The Next Faithful Step

Episode 3: The Hymns Conflict

Almond Springs (Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary)

As the organ began to play a hymn, the Rev. Charlotte Robinson jerked her head up in alarm. It was a late September Sunday at the First Church of Almond Springs, CA, and the organist was playing the wrong hymn. As Charlotte looked around, she noticed that no one else seemed particularly disturbed. In fact, they began singing right on the choir director's cue. With that Charlotte opened her worship bulletin and discovered that everyone was singing exactly the hymn that the order of worship announced. The only problem was that this hymn was not the one that Charlotte had selected. Charlotte scanned the bulletin. All of the hymns had been changed.

Jan Neuski

There was nothing Charlotte could do during the service. But it did seem important to find out just what had happened. She suspected that the mix-up had something to do with the end of summer. For this week the choir director, Jan Neuski, had returned from her summer-long vacation. Charlotte had only met her briefly. They could straighten things out, Charlotte decided, at the Tuesday staff meeting.

The "staff meeting" really consisted of Mavis Martin (the church secretary), Jan the choir director and Charlotte. The couple who worked with the youth group were invited but never came to the meeting. When Charlotte sat down, Mavis and Jan concluded their quiet conversation. Charlotte turned to Jan, "It was so nice to have the choir on Sunday," she said brightly, "I am glad you are back from vacation."

Mavis Martin

Jan brushed the complement aside and responded seriously. "I guess no one told you how you're supposed to handle the hymns, did they?" She sounded like an exasperated schoolmarm correcting yet another slow learner, "Louis Walsh probably should have told you. It's certainly not Mavis's job. Each Wednesday, you need to have a sermon title to me. You can put it in my box or give it to Mavis." Jan paused and took on an expression of condescending indulgence, "Now, don't you worry, I'm not mad at you for last week's mishap. No one told you how to do it. When I came in to the office and saw the hymns you had chosen, I just called Mavis and we fixed the bulletins." Her eyes narrowed, though, as she drove the lesson home, "So long as you get me the title and text on time, we shouldn't have any more difficulties."

Charlotte felt her ears turning red. She was embarrassed and angry and a little confused. She decided to check what she had heard. With as much detachment as she could muster, she said."So you're saying that the pastor should not select the hymns and that the hymns I had originally selected for last week were, uhmm, deficient?" "Of course they were wrong," came the pained reply, "Otherwise, I would not have had to change them."

Charlotte decided to wade in. Rather than arguing the merits of her hymn selections, she took up the organizational question. "I can understand, Jan, that when there was no full-time pastor," she began softly, "that you had to take over some duties that do not usually fall to a choir director. And I am sure we both agree that the music is an important part of the worship service. But the pastor usually puts together the entire worship service—including the hymns. That is, after all, why I was hired."

Charlotte paused because she felt she was handling the situation poorly. She wanted to be the kind of pastor who would listen to Jan and find out why her reaction had been so strident. "There is surely something deeper going on here," she thought to herself. But, for all her interests in being compassionate, Charlotte could not help but feel defensive because her authority was being challenged. She felt herself fighting the urge to shout at Jan like an insolent teen.

Before Charlotte knew what to say next, Jan jumped in. "I'm sorry I've stepped on your pretty suede pumps, my dear," Jan scoffed. "But music is my responsibility. I only work ten hours a week and I don't get paid enough to argue. But, hey, I can be big about this. Go ahead and pick your hymns this week. We'll see how you do. You may find that you can learn something from me."

Charlotte did not want to leave it at that. She tried to negotiate with Jan, to work with her to find some mutually acceptable way to work through the situation. But Jan would not budge. "We'll see how you do," was all Jan would say. The next day, Charlotte tried calling Jan again in the hopes that there would be some way to re-kindle the conversation—perhaps by asking Jan what she thought of certain hymns. But Jan would have none of it. "You pick the hymns. That's why they pay you the big bucks," she said. So Charlotte wrote the liturgy, gave the hymn selections to Mavis, and hoped for the best.

On Sunday, Jan avoided Charlotte before the service, walking away whenever Charlotte came near. And then the time came for the first hymn. Before the organist began, Jan stepped forward and announced without fanfare or irony, "There is a correction. We will sing Hymn 155, 'Rock of Ages.'" It was as if Charlotte's choices were simply typographic errors. Indeed, the placard above the piano that listed the day's hymns showed that all the selections were different. And before each hymn, Jan announced a "correction" to what was printed in the bulletin. Clearly Charlotte was going to have to do something.

"We all have to learn our limits," Jan said.

"And you just learned yours."

A few minutes after the service, Charlotte ran into Jan in the choir room as each was hanging up her robe. Charlotte decided to be pleasant and to wait until the staff meeting to talk in depth. She did not want to get into it with other people in the room. But as soon as Jan saw Charlotte, she said, "Well, I hope you learned your lesson. Your hymns were wrong. I'm the professional and music is my responsibility." Then Jan walked away, smiling smugly at the choir members in the room (who seemed to be sharing the joke). As Jan approached the door, she called back over her shoulder, "Don't take it so hard, girl. We all have to learn our limits. You just learned yours. Music is my responsibility." As the door closed Charlotte could see Jan walking triumphantly toward Mavis Martin.

To prepare for the Tuesday staff meeting, Charlotte decided to make some inquiries. She found out what she could about Jan. She had been the choir director for about ten years. Each preceeding pastor had tried to replace her and each had failed. Charlotte heard that Jan had been divorced a number of times. The choir, it seemed, both feared her and cherished her; they hated her mercurial ways but appreciated her long-term commitment to them. Someone even told Charlotte that Jan had been the only member of the church community to fight the Three Wise Men's idea to bring a full-time pastor. (Her argument had been, "Pay me what I'm worth and then we can talk about a pastor.")

No one was sure who had orginally hired Jan, nor did they know if she had a job description. The chair of the Personnel Committee reported that, "She's been here a long time—but she's never had contact with my committee. I know other pastors have tried to get rid of her. But they didn't do it through the Personnel Committee.

"You are Jan's worst nightmare."

Charlotte's friend Laura Webber (the impeccable vice-principal) said, "I think you are Jan's worst nightmare. You are a competent, professional woman who has already gained an acceptance in the community that Jan will never have. You have a happy husband and great kids. Oh, and don't be misled by her griping about money. She doesn't need the money. She returns her salary to the church at the end of the year (with much ceremony, I might add). For her, everything is a battle over 'respect' and getting 'what she deserves.'"

Joe Bellini, the chair of the Worship Committee, was the other person Charlotte called. "Sure, I remember when the last pastor had a run-in with Jan," the old grocer reported. "He wanted to fire her. But he was afraid, so he asked me to get the Worship Committee to terminate her. What a wimp, he was. I said, 'No way.' I'm a choir member and I know that Jan can be difficult. But I wasn't gonna do his dirty work. No way I was going to step into that minefield."

It seemed that Charlotte had only two options: she could fire Jan or she could give in to her. Each presented collateral problems that Charlotte was not ready to face.