You want to do what? (Why I’m in the mediation biz Part 2)

As I said in a previous post, experiencing embarrassment as a 4th grader and experiencing church conflict as a pastor’s kid made me want to run from speaking out, ministry, and sometimes Christianity altogether.  I still hate conflict.  So, how did I end up here?

God’s call.  Plain and simple answer. The following story, which I edited and reedited to make it shorter and failed, helped shape my call. It is a story of how I set myself up to fail, of people knowing and not warning me of the situation I was entering, and unhealthy communication issues that led to my getting fired from my first ministry position. Looking back on this story, I see how God was at work in my life, shaping my current ministry. So read on if you want. I understand if you don’t because it’s long.

In my third year of seminary, I took my first ministry position as part time student associate pastor. I would be at the parish Friday through Monday and help provide pastoral care, lead the youth group, and preach every Sunday at two of the congregations in the 4-church rural parish, under the guidance of a retired “Full Bird Colonel” Army chaplain who had been there for 20 years.  Tuesday through Thursday I would be at the seminary, about two hours away.

Turns out a lot happened on those Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays I was away. I was fired after 9 months. 

What happened?

  1. Month one: I set myself up. I told everyone when I started out at the parish that I wanted to stay for 2 years. Big mistake! I made a “promise” without knowing exactly what I was getting into.  Keep that in mind as you read further.
  2. Months 1-4: Clash with the supervising pastor. My“Full Bird Colonel” supervisor was an authoritarian, where as I was an equipper. In my search for adult volunteers for the youth, I thought first of “Tim and Judy.” My supervisor told me that Tim and Judy were too busy with their toddler and suggested that I not even ask.  I asked anyway—not realizing I was given an “order.”  Their answer was a gracious “no,” which I accepted and I found other adult volunteers.  My supervisor scolded me at staff meeting and suggested that I follow him around with a steno pad and take notes so I would remember what he told me.  I didn’t. Friction ensued and escalated.
  3. Months 1-9: Parsonage issues of the emotional kind. I was the first to live in the brand new parsonage, which the parish was loudly proud of. They were so proud, in fact, that they put a plaque in the hallway–never to be removed — in honor of one of the nicest men in the church who led the building committee (and who didn’t want a plaque.) Three things I did that alarmed them:
    1. Month 1: Accidentally stepped through the ceiling of attic storage (and bruised the heck out of my leg, but they seemed more interested in the hole in the ceiling). 
    1. Month 2: I locked the door behind me as I left the house and forgot my key on the kitchen counter. No biggie; I just went over to “Thelma’s” house—a church member who lived nearby—and borrowed her “emergency” key. At the next staff meeting, my supervisor told me that he heard about the mishap and again scolded me for “losing” the key, wondering if I was up to living in the new parsonage.
    1. Month 5: Risked getting the carpets muddy by not canceling an open house to show everyone the new parsonage after Christmas Eve Worship. I figured it was a good time to let everyone know I was taking good care of the place.  At a “meeting” right before the service that someone forgot to invite me to, they decided I should cancel. I didn’t. The open house went without a hitch, there was lots of laughter and good food, and people loved the décor. But the parsonage committee was not amused! 

It just went downhill from there. The final straw:

  • Month 8: I messed with the church building. Some “mover and shaker” church ladies asked me for suggestions on how to attract young families, who were rapidly moving to our bedroom community. I suggested a room swap between the nursery, which was in a dark room with no windows, and the “office,” a bright and airy space that was underused.  Of course, I told them, they would need to get approval from the church trustees. They didn’t. People were upset. It was my idea so I was blamed. Not only had I been putting the parsonage at risk; now I was messing with the church building.

Other things started to snow ball.  I didn’t preach long enough, I didn’t visit the nursing homes enough, I spent too much time on school work. I began to dread going back to the parish.

Back at the seminary, the internship faculty saw me burning out and losing my confidence. They advised me to go to another place they had found for me, even though I had “promised” to stay two years. After lots of soul searching, I finally decided to go, but only after I had served at least one full year at the parish.

It was the last straw for the supervising pastor, who then called a last minute SPRC meeting (personnel committee) where I was fired. They believed they could get a new intern over the summer, so no need for me to stay the full year.

The seminary didn’t send them any interns for a few years. Turns out I was the second intern to report being treated in this fashion. Some advance notice would have been nice.  

Key learnings:

1.  I now realize that my supervisor and I had very different points of view.  In his point of view, a young female student had come in and disregarded his position and seniority. In my point of view, I was equipping the saints to do ministry and making human mistakes.  Knowing what I know now, I still believe I was treated unfairly but also believe I unknowingly set myself up to fail.

2. I needed to learn how to diffuse, communicate through, and deal with conflict. AAAAACK.  I would see similar patterns of behavior in my first appointment as the solo pastor.

3. I wasn’t alone in not knowing how to deal with conflict. The previous intern, the internship faculty, and the church hierarchy knew about this situation, but didn’t know what to do about it. Too many pastors like myself were burning out and too many churches were dying due to issues like this.  No wonder the church was declining.

So here I am, doing my best to understand my past, learn from my experiences. It feels weird putting myself out here like this, being so vulnerable, knowing that someone who reads this may remember these events differently. My hope is that someone learns something from my experience that empowers her in ministry.

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