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The Next Faithful Step

Episode 6: The Mentor's Reflection

Almond Springs (Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary)

Peg Abrinski was everything Charlotte Robinson was not - and that is why they were such good friends. Charlotte was inexperienced and energetic, having only been pastor of the First Church of Almond Springs, California, for a short four months. Her sixty-six year old friend was, by contrast, experienced to the point of cynicism. As one of the first women ordained in the denomination, she had seen it all. And as she approached her friend, a smirk suggested that Peg's wit was as active as ever.

Peg had invited Charlotte to visit her in the Silicon Valley, where Charlotte had once interned with Peg. Charlotte surprised her friend by suggesting that they meet at a mall of all places. "I told Len," Charlotte said of her husband, "that I'd get all the Christmas shopping done before Advent. Then he'll take care of everything else for Christmas. And it's already November so I better get hopping." There was an apology of sorts in her voice. But Peg would not let her off so easily.

"So you drove three hours because they don't have malls in the hinterland?" Peg said by way of greeting. "No," Charlotte responded with more sincerity than Peg expected, "I was hoping to take a little stroll with a valued mentor." "OK, then," Peg said with mock solemnity as they entered JC Penney, "Tell your 'valued mentor' about your triumphs and woes so that I can begin dispensing wisdom." Charlotte took the bait.

"My biggest failure is easy to name," she said while examining a lavender oxford. "I tried to do a visioning process in my second month at the church so that we would have programs in place by the fall." "And what happened?" Peg said, knowing what was coming. "Well, I began by listening, which is good. But then I settled for a treaty instead of a mission. There were deep divisions that I am just beginning to understand. But I tried papering over the differences by coming up with a phrase that each side could claim without having to change much."

"What was the phrase?" Peg asked.

Charlotte shook her head in disgust as put down some gaudy Hawaiian shirt her teenage son would no doubt love. "The mission of our church is 'God's Hope for Our Future.'"

"What's wrong with that? You opposed to God's Hope?" Peg said with a smile.

"Well, it allows everyone to see 'God's Hope' as a code-word for their own favorite ideas," Charlotte concluded, "It's a wimpy-weak statement."

Peg thought Charlotte was being too hard on herself, but wasn't going to compete with a Red Tag Sale for Charlotte's attention. So she asked about the successes. "Probably when Vic Vargo died," Charlotte said sincerely, "I sat there at his death-bed thinking, 'I'm doing just what I am called to do.'" The shopping banter and pastoral reflection continued together, until Peg had had enough.

"Put down the towels," Peg finally said with feigned anger, "Drop the merchandise. And step away from the cash register. You can shop or we can talk. But I'm a lousy shopping consultant. And you're being a lousy listener." Charlotte put the towels back on the display rack as Peg continued, "The mentor is taking charge. You don't need finger towels for Gramma. You need time for reflection. You have the gifts to be a fine pastor and you are throwing them away because you are always doing too much. Here's what's going to happen. We are going to find someplace to sit. You are going to buy me a cup of Peet's coffee and some San Francisco sourdough with cheese. And then you are going to get your mentors-worth." Charlotte's eyes laughed at her friend's mocking self-importance. "I would never question your wisdom," she said, "Where shall we go, oh wise and esteemed mentor?" Then she began walking toward the exit.

"Let's try again," Peg said after they had settled into a restaurant. "Let's start with a question. Why do you think that I nixed the shopping safari?" "Because I wasn't giving you my full attention," Charlotte said tentatively. She was unsure where her friend was going and was beginning to feel a bit like her teenager daughter. "That's part of it," Peg conceded. And then she continued more gently, "But there's more. When you worked as my intern, how many times did I have to tell you to stop doing and start praying? Remember some of the rather unconventional means I needed to get your attention." Another smirk, as they both recalled. "Charlotte, I seem to recall that you eventually settled on a routine where you would write in a journal each day or two about some key event. What made you such an extraordinary intern was that you used that journal time to separate out the different layers of meaning. Do you still do that?"

Charlotte was a bit embarrassed. "I have written about some really interesting events since I arrived in Almond Springs," she said while staring at her coffee cup.

Peg saw through the ruse immediately. "In other words, every so often you take the time to write in your journal. But for the most part, you are too busy to reflect about the lives entrusted to your care."

Charlotte shifted uncomfortably in her chair. She felt excuses and defensiveness rising up from within her. But she found herself shaking her head. Once again, Peg was painfully accurate. It would do no good to fight her. In that moment, Charlotte knew that the reason she had driven three hours was to hear Peg say what Charlotte could not tell herself.

"I know that the way I spend my time does not reflect my priorities," she said sitting a bit straighter. "That is why I drove out here." "You mean it wasn't our shopping malls that drew you?" Sometimes Peg's sarcasm was a bit much. "But there is so much to do," Charlotte said plaintively. "What do I choose to leave undone?" Peg suddenly looked like a gardener presented with a muddy patch of ground. Charlotte could almost see her rolling up her sleeves.

"We'll talk about your spiritual life in a moment," Peg commanded. "But first, let's get it all out. Tell me about how hard you work and all the things that worry you." This was the mentor that Charlotte revered, wading into the muck. Charlotte now felt free to say whatever she needed to say.

"There is nothing in the church that I don't have to fix," Charlotte began. "That's what keeps going through my mind. Every time I walk into a meeting, I discover another organizational problem that needs aligning and every time I meet with a family I discover another relationship that needs mending. It is so debilitating to know that every little thing is out of whack. It's like moving into a house and discovering that every floor needs re-sanding and every socket needs re-wiring. And I don't even know what to do first," she said gaining momentum.

"I can't spend all my time caring for personal relationships because I have organizational responsibilities. And I can't just worry about organizational matters because it's the people that are the heart of my ministry. The personal and the communal aspects of my work are intertwined, yet they seem to be taking me in opposite directions. It's so frustrating." She paused and waited for Peg to speak.

"Are you asking me which is more important, the congregation or the individuals that make up the congregation?" Peg asked. "No, not exactly," came the reply, "I know it's not so simple. And that's what I try to work out in my journals when I write them."

"Good," Peg said, "I recall that when you worked with me, you had a great sense of the balance between personal and communal. But if I recall - and the mentor is never wrong - you wrote about a third layer in your journal. Where is the spiritual or theological in our conversations? What are you working on at that level?"