“Your youth group is a miserable shadow of the one we had when Fred Martenson was our youth pastor!”
The words rang in David’s ears as he stood on the sidewalk outside the church’s administrative building. His next move was to walk to his car, get in, and go home. That seemed like a good idea, but he seemed frozen. The board of elders had just gotten done evaluating his first three months as the church’s youth pastor, and it had not gone well. He had entered filled with optimism. Attendance was up. His youth were getting more involved in the church. There was much left to be done, but he was pleased with the progress thus far. He even had a new plan, initiated by one of the youth, involving the young people visiting shut-in church members, encouraging them, and helping them. All in all, he felt he had done well in just three months in his new position.
But the board felt otherwise. He had spent nearly two hours hearing comparisons of his tenure thus far to the accomplishments of this former youth pastor, Fred Martenson, who had apparently been a paragon of all pastoral virtues, and had only left when the powers-that-be had required his services in a large church that was near collapse. Only the talents of their youth pastor would do to save the large church. So they had reluctantly let their treasure go.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of persons, places, or events to anything in the real world is strictly coincidental. This story was written as a comment on the lectionary, Pentecost + 25, Cycle C. Copyright © 2013, Henry E. Neufeld.
David had never heard of Fred Martenson. He had replaced someone by another name, one he couldn’t remember at the moment and whose name nobody seemed to mention, and that only after a year’s vacancy. He’d heard nothing about this Fred from his young people, though he thought he’d heard the name from one of the older members a couple of times. It really hadn’t stuck with him.
But apparently the man was some kind of wizard at youth ministry, or apparently at pastoral ministry in general, and he was expected to live up to his accomplishments, whatever those might be.
His reverie was interrupted.
“That bad?” said Roger Geoffries.
David didn’t answer for a few moments. He was too surprised. He had not been certain Roger Geoffries could talk. The man was at the church regularly. He cleaned. He mowed the grass. He tended to flower beds. He fixed things that nobody else could fix. But when Roger talked … well, nobody knew. Roger never talked.
“How did you know?” asked David.
Roger Geoffries shrugged. He seem to indicate that it was obvious.
“Yes, it was bad,” said David.
“The ghost of Fred.” Was that just a twitch of a grin on Roger’s face?
“Ghost?” asked David.
Roger nodded. “Can’t catch him. Never sure when he’ll turn up. Never sure he’ll stay away.”
“Who was Fred Martenson?”
Roger stood looking at David. David didn’t know why, but he felt he was being evaluated, sort of like someone was doing some new, fancy medical scan on his soul. finally Roger spoke. “Have lunch with me tomorrow. Noon. Down at Purley’s Cafe.”
That caught David by surprise, but after a few moments of reflection, he decided that he’d better take any offer of friendship. There was no evidence that Roger had any power in the church, but he couldn’t refuse any offer of friendship.
“OK,” he said, and then somehow found the will to move. He waved at Roger who just nodded and went back to work.
At the cafe the next day, David was surprised when he found two people already at the table. There was someone with Roger, perhaps a few years older, but not by much. As David approached their table they both rose.
“Let me introduce the Right Reverend Dr. Fred Martenson,” said Roger with what was clearly a grin.
Fred held out his hand, but then looked back at Roger. “Oh cut it out!” he said. “We don’t use those titles, and even if I was in an organization that did, I wouldn’t be entitled to the titles. He enunciated ‘title’ so that it was clear he was enjoying the repetition.
David froze. After the night before, it was like meeting a legend. Or a ghost. He wasn’t sure which.
“Come on,” said Fred. “I won’t break your hand or anything.”
David remembered courtesy and shook hands with the legend. “It’s just a bit disconcerting, meeting a legend,” he said. He thought ‘legend’ was better than ‘ghost.’
“Or a ghost,” said Fred.
They all laughed.
“There are those who are legends in their own minds,” Fred continued. “And then there is something much worse. Legends in a church. You might think I should say ‘in the minds of church members,’ but it seems as though these legends, or ghosts, live in the very structure of a church. They’re at least as hard to exorcise as the demons that come out only by prayer and fasting.”
“But if you did all those things …” David’s voice kind of faded.
“But I didn’t.”
“You mean the board members were lying?”
“I think you have to know that you’re lying for it to be a lie. The board members are just repeating the church’s tradition.”
“I don’t understand.”
Roger interrupted, shocking David again. “It’s the youth group and the youth pastor that existed when I was growing up. Fred was my youth pastor. He’s only four years older than I am. I was one of his senior youth. And he was a good youth pastor. But when he got called to pastor a large church, peoples’ pride got in the way. His story started growing.”
“I met Roger again when he was in college.”
David was stunned again. Roger the groundskeeper in college?
“He was studying philosophy.” Fred paused, allowing David to recover from this next shock. “He discussed some of the questions he had about the Christian faith with me. So we started meeting. We’ve continued to meet since.”
“I saw the legend grow in the church,” Roger interrupted, “and I decided to do my best to remember things as they actually were. It was, indeed, a good time. But to be honest, young man, you have a chance to do even better.”
“But how do I overcome the legend?”
“You have to do that in your own mind,” said Fred. “If you win in your mind, you’ll be fine.”
“But won’t the church fire me?”
“Not hardly,” said Roger. “They didn’t fire the four youth pastors before you. They just drove them off. If you can’t be driven off, you have a great opportunity.”
“This kind comes out only by prayer and fasting,” said Fred. “The board of elders is going to pray, sort of. But the only person who’s going to pray and fast is you.”
Who is left among you who experienced our youth ministry in its former glory? How does it look now? Doesn’t it look like nothing to you? (paraphrase of Haggai 2:3)