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The Next Faithful Step

Episode 5: The Worker Bees

Almond Springs (Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary)

They called themselves "The Worker Bees" because they were the ones who got things done at the First Church of Almond Springs, California. On this late October morning, the six women of the Bees were hosting their pastor, Rev. Charlotte Robinson, for the first time.

Ansel Richards

The Worker Bees are unique at First Church. Charlotte first learned about them when she met with the chair of the congregation's Mission Committee, Ansel Richards. "I may be listed as the chair," Ansel laughed, "but I don't actually go to the meetings." He paused for effect and then explained. "For years the Worker Bees have been the Mission Committee. The Bees meet every Tuesday morning. One Tuesday of the month, they are the Mission Committee. Other weeks they plan social events or make food for shut-ins." Charlotte was puzzled. "Then why are you the chair?" she asked, wondering about an absentee male heading a women's group.

"It was Jo's idea," Ansel said referring to Louis Walsh's energetic wife. "When I was asked to be on the Church Board, I initially declined because I'm a teacher and I don't have time to go to board meetings and be on a committee. So Jo made me an honorary Worker Bee. They don't need any more help and she wanted me to be on the Church Board. So she just waved whatever wand she has as the Queen Bee and gave me honorary bee status." "But why make you chair?" Charlotte persisted.

"Jo Walsh believes in rotating leadership. She decided everyone should have a chance to be in charge. So everyone gets a turn to be chair. She still types up all the minutes herself, leads most discussions, and makes the reports to the board. That way no one feels put upon. I guess my turn came up because in January the minutes started listing me as chair. I expect that I will have to give up my hard-earned title as chair when the calendar year ends. Jo's really the one you should talk to about the Worker Bees." So Charlotte called Jo.

Jo Walsh

"Come see the Bees in action," Jo said proudly when Charlotte asked about the women's group. The first thing that Charlotte discovered was that Jo's Worker Bees firmly believed in the regenerative powers of food and fun. Jo was the kind of person who would laugh at any joke. And when she tilted her head back in a convulsing cackle, others could not help but join in. Her laughter frequently filled the church kitchen, where the Bees often were found. Whenever someone in the church got sick, the Bees donned their aprons with the baby blue honeybees embroidered on the breast. And soon Jo was at the ailing person's door with a casserole and some funny story. "The Bees do a little of everything," Jo said working up to a laugh, "and everything we do eventually involves food."

"They really do dabble in everything," Charlotte thought when she saw the agenda Jo had written on the old rollaway chalkboard in the Sunday School room. In the course of two hours, the Worker Bees discussed money to support denominational missionaries, evangelism and outreach, the prayer chain, care for the elderly, and three 'local mission' projects near Fresno: a homeless shelter, a home for battered women, and an educational program for the children of migrant farm workers. Charlotte found it all quite dizzying.

"How do you decide which projects to do? Surely you can't do everything?" she asked the Bees. "You're right, pastor," Jo said, "We can't do everything. That's why we were hoping you'd help us recruit some new people. But in the meantime we can't really tell someone 'No' when they have a good idea, can we?" Jo looked around for support and the other Bees began nodding. "So we have what I call an 'adhocracy.' We nurture each new idea on an ad hoc basis. No one's idea is rejected out of hand. And if someone in the church thinks the congregation should support some mission project or another and they can get a couple of others involved. We can't really turn anyone down."

"I'd like to hear more about your adhocracy," Charlotte inquired, "Do you have problems getting volunteers to support all these projects? Don't the projects compete with one another?"

Camille Vargo

"Well, yes," said Camille Vargo, the youngest of the Bees, "I used to think that the reason we had trouble getting support for all the projects was that people just weren't committed enough - that they didn't take their Christian commitments seriously enough. But then I started looking around. It's like this. I agreed to get people to help with the homeless shelter in Fresno. I mean, we give money to it. But don't you think we should put in some time too? Anyway, almost everyone said, 'No' - even the people I know care deeply about the plight of others. They were just too busy. They either had stuff with their kids or other projects. People at the church aren't lazy. They're over-committed." "Yes, pastor," Jo said in support, "That's why we are counting on you to bring in more people. We are doing as much as we can." "So folks are spread pretty thin by all the projects," Charlotte said, drawing the conclusion that Camille had avoided.

Charlotte was temporizing. She felt a bit trapped. She wanted to suggest that the congregation prune its mission activities. She thought it would be wiser to give full support to a few projects rather than give minimal support to lots of projects. But she did not feel the time was right to make such an argument to the Bees. "I can't challenge Jo's 'adhocracy' right out of the box," she thought.

Something deeper was gnawing at Charlotte. All her instincts suggested that she point to the congregation's mission statement and suggest that the Bees weed out any projects that did not fit directly with the church's self-defined mission. But she knew that she could not do that, at least not yet. It would seem, in the first place, like she was imposing her will on the congregation—which she wished to avoid. And then there was the problem of the mission statement itself. "God's Hope for Our Future" was so vague that any project could fit under its banner. A mission statement that Charlotte had once called a 'treaty among the tribes' now felt like a white flag of surrender, signaling that she had given up the mission discussion too soon. "I've got to let the Bees set their own agenda, at least for now," Charlotte silently concluded as the conversation moved on to another matter. Then she nodded her head as she made a quiet decision, "It's time to call Peg. That's what mentors are for."