Todd Blackentosh, Mike Freeman, Katie Yeager, and Melodie Parker.
Todd was our Director of Evangelism and Discipleship and Mike was our Director of Assimilation and Small Groups. Both of these men were my personal friends and our families had been through a lot together since Pastor Nick died. Katie Yeager was our Director of Children’s Ministries and Melodie Parker was the Financial Secretary. They had not been at the church earlier when I had the unfortunate confrontation with George Sinclair, but I notified them to meet with us at the Cracker Barrel as soon as they could manage to get there.
Who was present? Everyone who had been in the office earlier: Liz and her husband, David Richards, Chris Arndts our Youth Pastor, and Julio Hernandez who was the Worship Leader. Both Chris and Julio were single, which drew a lot of attention and whispers from various church members. It was still not cache to be single and in ministry and it certainly was not wise to let single people minister in places that left opportunities for indiscretion and scandal. I thought it was seriously unfair and uncalled for to keep these guys from serving; especially seeing how much they genuinely loved Christ and others. It was Neil’s decision to bring them on, one of his many controversial decisions I liked. Up to that point, I had been able to back and courageously advocate most of Neil’s “crazy” decisions.
Until that morning.
What is really sad is that this normally would not be a “crazy” decision; the church is being threatened, so we don’t have services; open and shut case, right? Well, this time, for some reasons not known to me and because of the nature of the threat, it was different. I had been on the phone with Neil all morning trying to make sense of the situation while my wife, Lorraine, was left to deal with the many angry lay leaders who demanded to know, “why the house of God was not going to open on Sunday.” It did not matter that there was a perceived and credible threat; they were going to worship in that building, being blown to glory.
I wouldn’t mind some of them going right on up there.
As soon as the thought came, I rebuked it. What kind of minister are you, Kurt? Why on earth would you wish something like that on someone? The response was immediate, because they would be with God, that’s why. Of course that would mean that we would have to be sure there were not any non-believers in the building…on second thought, it would be way too complicated. Then the thought occurred, Can we just get rid of George Sinclair? On second thought, that is a problem I was not sure even God could handle and once again I rebuked myself for not “loving my enemies.”
“So, you are telling me that George threatened to open the doors anyway? Why is he being so insistent? Did he give a reason?” Pastor Neil was more curious than annoyed by the news that the head deacon of the church had just threatened to bring the police to open the church.
“No, does George ever have a reason? Neil, he has been waiting for an opportunity like this for quite some time…” I sighed exasperated, “Do you really want to give him the opening he wants to bring you down?”
“Kurt, I thank you for your concern but this bigger than any of us. I just got off the phone with several other pastor friends of mine. Some of them knew immediately what I was talking about; they got the text too. However, some knew about it from a pastor they knew who got the text and a few of them did not know about the text at all. I am not sure what links us together, but this is much bigger deal than we realize.”
The news that many other pastors had received the text was both reassuring and disconcerting, “But Neil, how do you know this is not some massive prank. Normally, I would say go with caution on this…but George is about to bring down all of our heads and this time I won’t be able to stop him. There is enough anger and resentment in this church to fuel ten French Revolutions.”
“I know,” Neil paused on the other side,” but I want to make sure our people are safe. Do you really want to protect your job and put our people at risk?”
“No, I don’t. Like I said, I agree with your decision; it’s just the consequences are dire.” My temples were pounding from the exertion…it was all too much too fast.
“I know that as well; assemble the staff someplace public and let me talk to them, maybe I can head off any confusion or misconceptions. And Kurt,”
“Yes, Neil?” Neil did not mind being called by his first name, something I really liked about him.
“Thanks for all of the work and support; it is good to know someone has my back. Pray for all us.”
“Ok, I will do that. Give me some time to make the arrangements. I will talk to you soon, oh and, no problem, Neil.”
I had made the arrangements and shortly Pastor Neil was going to address a confused and beleaguered staff.
“Kurt, how bad is it?” David asked while trying to calm Liz down.
“Well to be honest, Dave, Lorraine has been texting me constantly…informing me that an unruly mob is forming to remove all of our heads.”
“But why?” Chris asked from across the old, beat up table, “Why is George so up in arms about us taking a security precaution to protect our members? Why are we even having this discussion?”
That is a good question, Chris and in a rational universe…
“I honestly don’t know, Chris. Lorraine is trying to find that out. If we knew that information we could know how to more effectively deal with it.”
As I finished, Katie walked in with her husband, Leo looking rather frazzled. “What on earth is going on here, Kurt? I wake up this morning and the whole world has flipped upside down; just what is going on?”
Leo and Katie Yeager had just married a month ago. They were the newest addition to our church staff and not without controversy; Katie was our first female staff member who was not a secretary. Even though she was a “director” (actually everyone but Neil and I were technically “directors”) she had the same essential function as a “pastor.” Church members, especially traditionalists, caught on to this and caused more fuss than was necessary, but we managed to vote Katie in. I had not regretted it either; Katie and Leo were an awesome asset to our team and terrific people.
“Katie, to be honest, I don’t know much about what is going on. Pastor Neil is going to address the staff in a few minutes.”
“Kurt, c’mon, you’re the Administrative Pastor for crying out loud! How do you not know what is going on?” Leo’s question was legit and I kind of wondered the same thing myself.
“The information I am going on is coming exclusively from Neil; he is the one who received the threat or warning, or whatever it is. I am just as frustrated at my lack information as you are.”
Leo was satisfied with my answer and pulled out a chair for Katie to sit down. We had hastily reserved a large section of the restaurant (which was not really an issue considering its declining patronage) so that we could have the necessary privacy necessary to hold this ramshackle meeting. We were given a wall of privacy with plenty of seating and buffers between us and trickle of a crowd that was in the restaurant that Sunday morning.
Not too long after that, Todd and Mike arrived, without their wives, both of them looking angry and somewhat nervous at the same time.
Todd addressed me, “Kurt, what the heck is going on man? Do you have any idea what kind of phone calls I have been getting? The church is going nuts, Kurt, and all I can say is, ‘I am sorry, but I don’t know anything.’ Well we had better start knowing something, Kurt.”
Todd and Mike had both been with me when Pastor Nick was the pastor of our church until his mysterious and untimely death. All of three of us had stuck our necks out for Neil, because we believed that he was the kind of pastor our church needed. However, it soon became clear that we would pay a heavy price for looking after the best interest of the church. Neil’s ideas and initiatives were great, but they were controversial and they drew a less…material crowd to the church. All of it looked great when you saw the fruit, but on paper…especially calculator ribbon, it was a nightmare.
“Kurt, George Sinclair is about to have us all arrested! You picked a fine day to decide to shut down the church, what were you thinking?”
“Mike, what are you talking about? Do you why George is so upset?” I was ready for the answer.
“Yeah, I do and I understand his anger; the mayor is looking for a church and he is very interested in ours. However, the mayor has already planned to look at many other churches and he will simply pass us over if we cancel services today. Just think of all the more,” Mike was trying to choose his words carefully, “financially stable members that he could bring to the church. We could get out of the red ink for the first time since Neil became pastor!”
“I understand the frustration with the budget problems; but what do you expect from a church filled with people who were making mostly minimum wage or less?” I replied with the most honest question I could muster.
“Are we supposed to put the safety of our people at risk for a few extra tithe checks?” Julio’s tone was accusatory and I was even taken aback by it.
“Well, Julio, it is more than a few tithe checks; think more about the quality of the check rather than the quantity. And of course, if there is a credible threat, then we need to protect our members” Mike tried to not talk down to Julio, but Mike did not like Julio or Chris for that matter; it was not a race issue…it was an age and marital status issue. Mike figured they were a liability to the church; he and Todd both took a lot of convincing to hire both of them (they came within four months of each other).
I could not keep asking Todd and Mike to take flack for Neil.
Melodie finally arrived proclaiming, “Sorry, I am late! Oh, what did I miss?”
“Nothing at all, Pastor Neil is about to address the staff about the current situation.”
“What can you tell us, Kurt?” Todd asked obviously still phishing for facts.
“Not much. I received a call from Pastor Neil this morning informing me there was credible threat to the safety of this church. Liz and I immediately headed down to the church where we completely gutted all of the network computers and shredded all of our printed rolls.”
“Wait, whoa.” Katie piped up, “You did what?”
“I think he just told us that he gutted our computers and destroyed the church rolls…is that right?” Mike was suddenly alarmed.
“You did not destroy all the financial records did you?” Melodie was now fully engaged in the discussion.
“Ok everyone, calm down.” I was trying desperately to keep my composure, “All paper records were destroyed and Pastor Neil will explain why when he talks to you. All of your hard disks and flash drives have been removed from the premises but they were not wiped, again, Neil will explain why shortly. That is all I am allowed to tell you.”
“You just let this happen?” Todd was the one losing his composure, “We have put our jobs on the line from day one for Neil. Why on earth would you do something as desperate as that without first consulting the rest of the staff?”
“George Sinclair is trying to get us all fired, Kurt! The least you could have done is tell us about the threat and heard our input! Since when do you rule this church? Just because you have the word, administratorin your title does not make you dictator! I am tired of backing this lunacy; enough is enough.” Mike was talking a bit too loud for the quiet restaurant.
You know, Kurt, they are kind of right.
“Look, I am sorry I did not consult you. In this case, we had to make a quick decision based on the facts presented to us. I will take the fall for it, if I must, but I will not let the materialistic motivations of an ornery member of our church jeopardize the safety of its members.”
“But who gives you the right to make unilateral decisions?” Katie was being surprisingly uncooperative,
“Neil could not even make a decision like that without some sort of backing and affirmation…you just did it and did not care whether we agreed or not.”
“Look,” Chris joined the conversation, “Kurt and Neil and everyone else trying to look out for this church are just trying to be responsible and good stewards of our people. What is the worse that could happen? We lose our information and have to spend a few days typing or printing? Or maybe it would force us to go out and make fresh contacts,” he looked at Todd, “either way if it was necessary and for the safety of the church…we should not even be having this discussion!”
“There is more to it than that, kid,” Mike always pointed out his youth, “you have to be aware of the politics involved in such a decision and how certain people in the church hold too much power as it is. We just gave George Sinclair the power to get all of us canned. He has no qualms about it either. So, let’s see if you think it’s the right thing when you don’t have a job come Monday morning.”
Mike has got a point; it is the coward’s way out but dang if it is not appealing…
Chris was cowed but still looked resolutely certain; way too certain.
“Just how credible is this threat?” Dave spoke up and even he was getting slightly uneasy by all of the “execute the staff” talk.
“Yeah, I would like to know that myself.” Todd seconded and every one began murmuring and nodding in agreement.
Why on earth did you call me to this, Lord? Neil, you had better be able to convince these people or they might just kill me for acting as your envoy.
“Neil is going to call in just a few minutes and when he does, he will answer all of your questions. I simply do not know any more than what I have already told you.” The answer was not satisfactory but it was all
I had at the moment.
Neil, why in Hades have you left me to deal with this…
“He will change everything about this church! He will disgrace the ministry of Pastor Nick; whom we all love even though he was suddenly taken from us. No! We must not allow this hipster-novice to ruin our home! His ministry “ideas” will end up bankrupting this church and our beautiful new sanctuary will sit empty, EMPTY I tell you! Do what you know is right; keep this church from being massacred by a young hooligan who lacks the wisdom God gave a horsefly! Thank you.” George’s voice rang with emotion; he was sincere, but sincerely wrong. He sat down and put his arm around his wife while his daughter kept eyeing our prospective pastor’s sons, Enoch and Elijah.
I could not believe what was taking place.
The congregation had overwhelmingly voted for a change in venue; as much as we all loved Pastor Nick, his way of ministry was not reaching our neighbors with the Gospel. It was tough, but we had all agreed that it was time for a change. We had gone through several candidates; none of them gave us a good vibe. Neil and Katherine had changed all of that; we were almost certain that God wanted them to come and give our church a breath of fresh air. The pulpit committee was unanimous on the calling, but the old guard showed up in force.
“Kurt, I don’t know if we can keep this up.” Mike leaned over to me as another member of the church began to express their opinion, “If George manages to rally enough troops and we come out on the losing side…”
“Since when did it become about being on the ‘winning’ side? I thought we were doing this for the future of the church, not so we could squeeze by with our jobs.” I was feeling the same way, but I did not want to appear without confidence; I was the leader.
“You say that now, but wait till your job is on the line; wait until you have to make the decision between your family’s livelihood and saving the church.” Mike was adamant but I could tell he wanted to do the right thing.
We need a good outcome, then don’t we?
Todd only looked out me worriedly the whole time; it was clear that he could sense the end was near. His wife, Haley, glared at me from around her husband’s torso; she did not want her family to go down with the ship. Maybe I am pushing too hard; maybe I am being foolish. I had been so sure, perhaps too sure; Lorraine and I both went through the qualifications and what we believed that church had been praying for and Neil and Katherine fit the description.
Then why are we about to have a church split?
Neil and his wife sat in on the proceedings, at their request, and much to the dismay of those who wished to slander them without them being present. They sat there almost motionless, listening to the warring factions come riding to their defense or unleashing a volley of brutality directed at their hearts. Some of the comments had been quite personal and there were a couple of times where I had to ask a member to hold their peace in order to keep things “Christian.”
All we need to do is make them see that defeat is inevitable and make them leave; then we’ve got them.
The current member speaking was actually rather sensible, carefully weighing the pros and cons and reminding the congregation of its commitment to a change that could be risky. They also challenged the congregation to make sure we continued to adapt, lest we find ourselves with more people in the cemetery than in the pews. Good poin;, who are you again? The next member totally dismissed this speech as naivety and urged the congregation to hold on to its traditions and what has always made it great. That got me thinking a bit.
I have had some good times here, but I have never considered us great. Great in what sense? Great in that we have catered to everyone’s comfort and ease? We certainly are not great in our impact for the kingdom of God. Does this guy even know what he is talking about?
The more the church member talked; the more agitated I became. He was adamantly defending the status quo; he did not care a bit about the neighborhood around the church that was not being reached and that people were living and dying without Christ just a few doors down. All he cared about is the coziness that he has always felt. God help us that is has come to this.
The member finished talking and the discussion ended; I looked at Todd and Mike who both nodded their approval. To know that these men were on board gave me the confidence and backing to call for a final vote. But before I could do so, Neil asked to address the congregation.
“Kurt, if you would I would like to say a word.”
What are you doing, man? Just let us handle this.
I knew it was not a good idea, but something told me to let him speak anyway. “Of course, Brother Neil, please go ahead.”
“Thank you,” he checked his bearings, “I know you all loved Pastor Nick and I know that I can never replace him,” there were a lot of murmurings and the shaking of heads, “but I do not intend to replace Pastor Nick,” some looks of interest and the turning of heads, “I intend to build upon the firm foundation and legacy he left for this church. He was a good man who loved all of you dearly, of this I am sure. He would want that love to burst out of these doors; to burst out into the streets of our neighborhood that is increasingly becoming more and more alien to this church. These people need what we have; no, they are not our kind of people,” he paused seeming to lose his train of thought but continued, “but these are the kind of people Jesus loves and God wants to reach, and if we are honest, we are not too much different from them. Were it not for the grace of God, we too could be where they are; we too could be pushing drugs, prostituting our bodies, and killing our enemies. They need us because we carry Jesus with us wherever we go; if you will let me be your pastor, I will show you just how far God wants to carry Jesus through this church. Thank you so much for your consideration, God bless you all, regardless of your decision.”
It was nothing remarkable or extraordinary, but the room was silenced and many had begun to nod their heads and a few people rose to applaud. Suddenly, the room burst out into a cacophony of applause, cheering, and all out praise to God. It was an amazing sight and after that, I knew we had won the battle; Neil was called by an overwhelming majority of the congregation.
But now all of that seemed like smoke on the wind.
I owe these guys; I got them to back Neil and put their necks in a noose. I owe them an explanation, if only I had one.
My thoughts were interrupted by the phone call; the phone read 8:22 and it was Neil.
“Hey Neil, are you ready?”
“Ready as I will ever be, man. Is everyone assembled?”
“Yeah, we’re all here.”
“Ok, go ahead and put me on speakerphone.”
I took a breath; one of many I would take that day, “Ok, everyone listen up. Neil is on the phone and he is going to give us all the information that we have been waiting to hear,” everyone got quiet and turn to face the phone, as if Neil were standing right there. If only Neil were standing right here. “Ok, go ahead Neil.”
I put Neil on the speakerphone.
Here we go; I hope you know what you are doing.
Neil’s voice boomed out, “Good morning everyone, I wish I could speak to you under better circumstances, but we have to deal with what comes to us. So, if I could have your complete attention, this is what we are faced with…”