[This is a work of fiction, Copyright © 2009, Henry E. Neufeld. Any resemblance between the characters and the church in this story and any in the real world is purely coincidental.]
He was surprised to see her in his office. She was one of those members who attended regularly, but you didn’t really get to know. She had only been here a few months. A single mother with three children, whose husband had simply left one day. It was thought that he was alive, but he made no contact.
He knew she worked as a secretary or something to someone fairly high up in a major corporation, but he couldn’t recall who it was or at what company. She must have things somewhat together, or she wouldn’t have such a job, but one couldn’t tell it from church.
He had tried to talk to her before, but had never gotten anywhere. She was polite, but shy. She never added anything to the conversation more than the answers to his questions.
“What can I do for you?” he asked.
“I would like to be of service to the church, but I seem to have no gifts for church work.”
He paused for a moment. “No gifts? Surely there is somewhere you would like to serve, somewhere that just feels right to you.”
“I’ve tried, but the I don’t seem to fit into the prayer groups, I was asked not to participate any more in folding and mailing the bulletins, and the outreach teams didn’t seem to need me. I do volunteer in the nursery with the other mothers, but that’s the one thing I’d rather not do. I do it all week!”
“But if God has called you to the nursery . . .” he paused.
“If God has called me, I don’t feel it. How do you know?”
“You’ll feel a peace, a knowledge that you’re in the right place, even if you may not enjoy it all the time.”
“Then no, I don’t think the nursery is my calling. In a way I don’t mind it, but I simply feel that I’m not doing the best thing.”
The conversation continued in the same way for a few more minutes.
“Well,” he said, “I normally find something that fits very quickly, but I’m really not sure. Let’s meet again next week.” He pulled out his calendar. “How about same day, same time?”
“I’ll think about this and talk to a few people. You think as well. We’ll both pray about it, and we’ll see what we can work out.”
He said this, but he was really thinking that she obviously couldn’t get along with the people in the various ministries she tried. She probably was called to the nursery but didn’t think that was important enough. Besides he was very busy. Why couldn’t she have talked to the volunteer coordinator instead of coming directly to him? It was really annoying.
Nonetheless he was conscientious enough to pursue the topic during the week. First he talked to the nursery coordinator.
“Well, pastor, she does her share in the nursery and does it quite well. But as you probably know, the nursery is the one place in this church where we have enough help. I schedule her about once every six weeks, just like the other mothers who volunteer.”
“So no problems?”
“No, none at all. She’s great with the kids.”
So whether she feels called or not, he thought, she is doing the work.
Next he talked to the volunteer coordinator. Technically one went to the volunteer coordinator about everything, but in that way churches have, there were certain procedures that were different. Young mothers worked in the nursery, and the “nursery lady” as she was known, did her own scheduling. The rest of these activities went through the volunteer coordinator.
“She came and talked to me about giftings,” said the volunteer coordinator, “and I told her that she was clearly a gifted mother and should work in the nursery. I told her to see the nursery lady about it.”
“What did she say?”
“She said that the nursery only came up every six weeks, and she was sure she should be doing something else. So I added her to the bulletin folding teams.”
“What happened then?”
“She went once, but they never called her again.”
“Do you know why not?”
“Well, Mrs. Delmar said she was disruptive and argumentative. I figured it was easier to put her somewhere else.”
“But you don’t know what actually happened. You know that Mrs. Delmar, to put it delicately, can be prickly from time to time.”
“True, but she’s been getting our bulletins out on time for more than 30 years. So we’re stuck with that.”
“OK, so what happened then?”
“I put her on the outreach teams, and I understand she showed up for visitation one week.”
“Since you say ‘showed up’ not ‘went’ and then just ‘one week’ I’ll assume there’s a problem.”
“You assume correctly, pastor! She tried to take a teenager along with her.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad. It would be nice to have teens involved in visitation.”
“What about a pregnant teenager, who is available on a school day because she’s suspended from school?”
“Oh,” he said. “Oh!”
“So that didn’t work out, you see. By then I was getting tired of annoying the various team leaders, so I told her that she was obviously gifted for nursery work and that was what she should do.”
“Well, this has been interesting,” he said, and left. He was troubled by all this. But the many ministries of his church worked so well, and required so little of his attention, he had to believe they were in good hands.
He decided to talk to Mrs. Delmar on Thursday when the bulletins were folded and the newsletter mailed. When he invited her into his office, he could tell she was delighted. To be called to talk to the pastor was a great honor in her eyes.
After the initial greetings he said, “I wanted to ask you about Ms. Varcik and what happened when she worked on the bulletin team a few weeks ago.”
Mrs. Delmar’s face fell. “Pastor, I really do think I do a good job of getting out the bulletins. I shouldn’t think you would question who I would have on my team!” It was said in a tone that indicated both a little bit of defiance and also the confidence that she was delivering an argument sure to be accepted.
“No, I’m not questioning you. I just need the information for a purpose of my own.”
Mrs. Delmar’s face brightened, as she realized she was about to provide information that would be used in the serious decision making of the church elite. “Well, pastor, she is not a team player.”
“Could you be more precise?”
“Well, I don’t want to be critical, but when you are a new member on a team you need to first learn the established procedures. Then, when you have the experience to back you up, you make suggestions.”
“And Mrs. Varcik made suggestions?”
“Well, first she just started doing things in her own order. When I pointed out to her that she was doing it differently, she had the audacity to tell me that they did it differently where she worked.”
Mrs. Delmar paused to allow the enormity of this suggestion to sink in. “So I told her that doubtless at her job they had a few small things to mail, but that could hardly prepare her for the complex operation of getting the bulletins out.”
She paused again. “But do you know what she said?”
“She said that they put out thousands of brochures where she worked, and that they had an excellent system. Then she apologized, but she didn’t mean it.”
“Did she do things your way after that?”
“Well, it’s not my way. It’s the way we do things here at this church. But yes, she did.”
“So it all worked out alright?”
“Well, for that day. But I didn’t ask her back. She can volunteer somewhere else, like the nursery.”
Next he went to talk to the outreach coordinator, Mr. Yardley. Mr. Yardley could hardly contain his outrage.
“Has she been complaining to you? I knew I should have gone to you right when it happened! I just don’t believe young people these days, running to the pastor at the first complaint!”
“She didn’t complain to me about you. But she did say she had participated in the visitation program for only one week. I’d like to know why.”
“Well, she came here with a teenager.”
“Yes, I heard that. I also heard that the teenager was pregnant.”
“She was. Very pregnant.”
“You mean it was obvious she was pregnant.”
“Yes. And Mrs. Varcik wanted to take her along on the visitation.”
“Do you know where the girl was from or who she was?”
“No, and I don’t care either. There’s no way we can include an unmarried pregnant girl on our visitation teams.”
“OK. So what did Mrs. Varcik do?”
“Well, they helped prepare the flowers and the food that we take, and then she went home. But I didn’t invite her again, because I don’t need that kind of problem. She even came to me the Sunday after and told me she didn’t think I should have spoken the way I did in front of the girl. What did she think I should do?”
“I don’t know. That’s all I need.”
So he had some thinking to do. On the one hand, it was quite likely that Mrs. Varcik had some great ideas, but he had a smoothly running church. And he could hardly imagine what would happen if they went out on visitation with a pregnant teenager along. What would people think? No, the price would be too high. There was a Staff-Parish Relations committee vote coming up on whether to inform the bishop that the church wanted him to return for a second year.
So as much as he hated to do it, he would have to inform Mrs. Varcik that her place of service was the nursery, however that made her feel. He hoped it wouldn’t make her decide to leave. The church was shrinking in membership and they needed every member they could get.
That Sunday he was approached by the church lay leader.
“Pastor,” he said, “I think we have a serious problem with one of our members.”
“Oh? Who is that? Do I need to visit?”
“No, no visit. It’s Mrs. Varcik. Yesterday I saw two sherriff’s department vehicles in front of her house. It looked like something serious! I hear she’s been trying to worm her way into the various ministries of this church and disrupting everything as she goes. We don’t need the type of person in our church who gets in trouble with the police and associates with promiscuous teens.”
“Yes, I see that we have a problem. I’ll think and pray about it, and let you know.”
“You do that, pastor. Some of the pillars of this church are going to leave if this problem isn’t solved!”
Over the weekend he had a lot of thinking to do. There was something wrong with each of these situations, but why wouldn’t someone be kind enough to follow the procedures that all the dear old folks who folded the bulletins liked? More important, why would someone bring a pregnant teenager on visitation?
He convinced himself the problem was with Mrs. Varcik. He didn’t want to think about that Staff-Parish Relations committee vote. The bishop was not required to follow it, but with a pastor who had only been at his church one year he just might, and he had too many one or two year pastorates on his record.
It was Tuesday and staff meeting was over. That afternoon he would tell Mrs. Varcik that she should confine herself to working in the nursery. A thought still nagged at him. Why was it OK for her to work in the nursery, but nowhere else? Who wanted a woman who had been in trouble with the police to work in the nursery? Perhaps he should check and make sure there wasn’t another explanation.
No, he thought, I should trust the church leaders. Why? Because they have proven reliable in the past? No, because anything else takes me somewhere I don’t even want to think about.
At the end of staff meeting his youth leader asked for a moment of his time.
“Is it urgent?” he asked. “I’m very busy today.”
The youth leader was a sheriff’s deputy who also volunteered at his church. His duty schedule usually allowed him to attend staff meetings.
When they were in the office and the door was closed, he asked what was so urgent. He tried not to sound impatient, but he was very busy, and he didn’t look forward to a number of things he had to do that day.
“I need a volunteer to work with me in the youth group, and the volunteer coordinator says I can’t have the person I want.”
“He says she is inappropriate.”
He had a bad feeling about this, but he had to ask. “Who is it?”
“Mrs. Varcik. She’s wonderful with the kids.”
“I think it would be better not,” he said. “Why do you need a volunteer anyhow? Surely one man can handle a half a dozen youth.”
“Half a dozen? Where have you been pastor? We don’t have enough space in the youth room.”
The youth room was actually a cabin-like building, quite bare, separate from the church. He had to admit to himself that he hadn’t checked there for weeks, glad that this new volunteer kept everyone quiet. The youth leader kept everyone quiet for the simple reason that nobody ever checked the youth room.
“Where are they coming from? We don’t have that many youth in the whole church.”
“Many of them aren’t coming from the church. In fact, Mrs. Varcik has invited about half of them.”
“What do you do with them?”
“Well, we talk. Most of the time they talk and I listen. I wish we had somewhere for games, but you can’t get a ping pong table into that youth room and still have room for a reasonable number of people, much less play basketball.”
“The gym is available, isn’t it?”
“The activities coordinator says we can’t have the youth group in the gym on Wednesday nights, and that it is inappropriate to have games on Sunday. I was afraid to ask about anything by the time I’d been told those two things.”
“Why not? Just because the gym is in use two times doesn’t mean it will be in use the rest of the week.”
“Pastor, pardon me for saying this, but you have been here less than a year. You really don’t understand how this place operates, do you?”
“The gym isn’t in use at those times. The activities coordinator doesn’t want us in there. The only reason he hasn’t complained against me is that my parents are pillars of the church, and I’m a respected law enforcement officer. If I was anything else, he’d have come to you to explain that I’m filling the church with undesirable young people.”
“OK, but about Mrs. Varcik. You can have a volunteer, but not her. The lay leader was telling me that there were sheriff’s deputies, two cars over at her house the other day. We don’t need someone who has been in trouble with the police.” As he said it, he had a bad feeling. This young man would know, what had happened. For all he knew, the youth director had been in one of those police vehicles.
“Bull … ” started the youth director. Then he stopped. “Pardon me pastor, but I’m afraid that while the word might not be appropriate for the pastor’s office, the sentiment is. Surely you’re not believing the gossip mill in this church! Surely you know better than that!”
He really had known better. He knew it, and he knew that he’d made himself believe the easy thing.
“So tell me,” he said.
“Mrs. Varcik is the go to person for children’s services and for the sheriff’s department. When they need emergency care for children or youth, that’s where they go. You’ll find our vehicles over there quite a bit. Usually we’re taking an abused child or a young person in trouble to her to stay until further arrangements can be made. She takes care of them. More than half the kids in my youth group are there because she invited them. Many of those got started when they were in temporary care at her house.”
He was stunned. This wasn’t the timid woman who had come to him, claiming to have no gifts. How could he reconcile that woman with the one his youth director was describing?
“I knew she was secretary to some important executive. She’d have to have something together to do that, but I didn’t realize …”
“Secretary?” said the youth director. “No offense to secretaries, who have a hard job, but she’s the personal assistant to the president of the power company. And she’s raising three kids. She really is extremely efficient.”
He came to a decision, one he knew he’d suspected would be right almost from the start. “OK, go ahead and invite her to work with you. I’ll take care of the rest somehow.”
“Thank you, pastor. You won’t regret it!”
I bet I will, he was thinking, but not because of anything she’ll do.
At the appointment later that afternoon, he decided to go straight to the point.
“Why would you tell me you have no gifts when you clearly have many gifts, and the real problem is that nobody wants you to use them here in the church.”
She looked down, she squirmed in her chair, and then she looked back at him with tears in her eyes. At the same time he could see the efficient, capable woman the youth leader had described.
“I thought it was me.”
“Because it happened wherever I went at church. People talked about gifts and volunteering, but wherever I went, they tried to block me. This is the church, isn’t it? I should be able to serve here! Everyone else seems to be able to, but why can’t I?”
“It’s not you, or rather, it’s what you do in a place that is very much set in its ways. Did you grow up in the church?”
“No, I didn’t. I didn’t start coming here until my husband left me. The first Sunday I was here you preached from Matthew 25:31-46. I’ve memorized that passage. You talked about how doing all those things for other people was how we show that God is working in our hearts. I knew this was the place.”
“I remember that day,” he said. He certainly did. Some people said he was giving people an excuse for sin because he said that if you served others you were following Jesus.
“Well, I came here because it’s the nearest church to my home, and I stayed because of that sermon, but I don’t see how this church represents that sermon.” She started to blush, feeling that she had been too critical.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” he said. “I know what you’re saying.” He paused. “I had a talk with the youth director this morning. He wants you to volunteer with the youth.”
“But I understand that the volunteer coordinator said ‘No’.”
“The volunteer coordinator doesn’t actually have the authority to say no. That’s just something that everyone started doing around here. We’re just going to ignore him and start living that text!”
It would be rough, but if the Staff-Parish Relations committee wanted to tell the bishop he was following Jesus too much, then they would have to go ahead, and he’d have to hope the bishop could read between the lines and realize that’s what they were saying.
And if not, he was more afraid of being found amongst the goats on judgment day than of losing his pulpit!
(This title is included in the book Stories of the Way.)