Humbling: Being the Problem

In the summer of 2007, I was freelance editing this book: A Practical Guide for Life and Ministry: Overcoming 7 Challenges Pastors Face, by David Horner. It was a good project, pretty well-written and well-organized, with engaging stories about church life and what seemed like good advice. I was well into Section Five: Learning to Grow Through Your Troubles. I was shaking my head at all the terrible congregants who make life difficult for their pastor. At least I wasn’t one of “those.”

Until, of course, I was.

Right smack dab in the middle of editing that section, I lost it at church. I’m not saying I raised my voice or snapped at someone. I went ballistic: high-pitched, barely intelligible screaming and crying to one person on the phone in front of someone else. I wrote an impassioned email to my pastor. Because I was right. And because I’d worked so hard at the church for so long, I had no doubt that he’d see my rightness, too.

Thank God he didn’t.

A little background. One year earlier, our church administrative assistant and my partner in the dance ministry was arrested for and charged  (later convicted) with embezzling money from the church and from our pastor. This was a serious sucker punch for me. I’d thought she was my friend. We not only danced together, but I also trusted her guidance when she told me God wanted us to “flow” in a given dance, which means we don’t choreograph it, we go where the Spirit leads us to. This was not in my tradition, but I prayerfully did it, and it was a tremendous and intense experience. We’d prayed and cried for and with each other. And we’d laughed so much.

The church didn’t handle it particularly well. As often happens in multiracial churches, everyone “went to their corner” and most of the white people voted with their feet, including almost all of the other children’s ministry leaders. We talked about leaving, too, but after a discussion with the pastor, decided to stay. The correct phrase for my attitude would be soldiering on. I went back to leading the children’s worship program (which I’d been about to hand off to someone else who left). Being one of what were now only two teachers, I was downstairs with the kids half of the time, two weeks on, two weeks off. We were also back to having all the kids together, age 3 through second grade, which leads to less worship and more crowd control.

I also wound up taking over the administration and leadership of our church’s Calvin Institutes of Worship grant. I went to the opening retreat/conference mostly because I was available during the day. The language on our grant application (done by the embezzler) was so garbled and jargony that I couldn’t understand what the grant was about, and I had to talk about it repeatedly. I was in tears or on the verge of tears almost the whole few days. But as the conference went on, God inspired me to really take charge of our group.

It was a tough year. We were all hurting, but gritted our teeth and pushed ahead. It was also a good year. Through studying multiracial worship and church life, we were drawn together and encouraged that what we were doing was worth it.

However, I know now that I kept a little part of my heart hard. I nursed grievances. I expected problems. And when my calculations for the grant disbursement didn’t match those of the money team, I lost it, utterly and completely, to one of our financial managers over the phone, screaming and getting nasty and personal in a way I will be ashamed of forever.

The pastors let things calm down for several days and then called a meeting. Nobody was treating me like I was right, so I wasn’t hearing anything until the woman I’d screamed at faced me and said, so simply and quietly, “I feel like you’re accusing me of doing what embezzler did.”

That’s exactly what I was doing. I’d never gotten the chance to confront my old friend, never gotten the chance to be upset with her, never dealt with the betrayal at all, so I took it out on this other woman. Everyone knows what it’s like to be blamed for something you didn’t do. It’s a horrible feeling. And I’d just done that to her at my highest possible decibel. I was the problem.

I cried and apologized profusely on the spot. I apologized to the man who’d witnessed my end of the phone call. And then a few months later, I confessed this story and asked forgiveness of the woman in front of our Women’s Fellowship group. She gave me her forgiveness, something I’ll always be grateful to her about.

And all the while, I had to edit these chapters about what it’s like for the pastor when there’s a problem person. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the defining moments in my church life. I am a better congregant, a better leader, a better Christian for having failed so spectacularly, for being forced into the humble position of asking for forgiveness and being granted it.

This experience also informed my recent decision to leave the church that had taken such good care of me in that low time of my life. It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision done in a blaze of emotion. It was the culmination of a six-month period of prayer and conversation with my husband and with others. Even so, it’s breaking  my heart. This is the week of “lasts”: last praise team practice for my husband, and for me, the last time dancing with one of the kids, last time giving the second grade “graduates” their Bibles, last time leading children’s worship. It might be the last time I’ll worship with some people I love. I’ve been cleaning up my office and straightening up the story materials, finding old photos of now-big kids back when they were little, wallowing in nostalgia. I’m just plain sad. Grateful for how important this place has been to me, but sad.

No pithy ending for this longish post. It just isn’t in me today.


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7 thoughts on “Humbling: Being the Problem

  1. love this writing natalie! you have shown us that you aren’t perfect (what!!!…that WAS a surprise to me…). the difference between a ‘problem person’ and a ‘problem a person had’ are evident in this piece. yes, there are problem people, who i feel, carry their problems with them wherever they go. there is no change. you changed.

  2. Thanks for your honesty in this post, Natalie. This is quite a journey you and your family are on. We are blessed to know you and blessed by your story. I continue to pray for direction for you and your family as you like my family search for a new church home.

  3. Natalie,

    I see a lot of reason, and (reasonable) emotion behind each stage of your reaction. Yeah, flipping out at that lady on the phone wasn’t cool, but you reflected on it, apologized sincerely, and have continued reflecting.

    I think you’re making a false comparison between the “problem congregant” and yourself. A truly problematic congregant is one who doesn’t reflect on her behavior, and doesn’t seek reconciliation, but rather enjoys drama for its own sake, while basking in “I’m right.”

    I don’t see that here. Your church was criminally betrayed by someone with whom you worked closely and trusted. You tamped down your anger and tried to continue her ill-performed job, then you blew up. You made amends for that episode, and went on to process it in a mature, kind way.

    We humans are programmed to see patterns that are often illogical. Concurrence is not the same as causality. Reading about problematic congregants at the same time you were undergoing a painful experience as a congregant doesn’t make you a problem.

    I know you are freakin’ smart enough not to tamp down your ethics in future dilemmas, but rather to have learned from this experience and present your perspective in a different way.

    In the meantime, I think you’re fabulous.

    love, Sonja

    1. Thank you, Sonja, for your beautiful defense of me. I have certainly met some truly problem people like that, and I know I’m not like that, but you do have something there: in my shock at being a problem, I’m beating myself up until I become the problem. Because, indeed, I’ve served joyfully and worked well with others for the many years after that. Thanks.

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