I live next to a cemetery, which rests next to a parsonage across the street from a small country Baptist church. They’ve been without a pastor for a couple of years since the previous one received a call to a pulpit in Delaware. I think it was Delaware. In any case, I miss Sammy and his complete set of unbreakable standard wrenches. As a rider of primarily Japanese motorcycles, I’ve only ever managed to own metric.
Every now and then I’ll see activity at the parsonage; they did a little work on the septic at one point, and I believe they’ve replaced the carpet. The new deck on the back looks fantastic. One day as I was driving by I noticed that the backyard shed set into the wood line of the property had it’s large door standing open a couple of feet. “Must be sorting through some storage,” I thought to myself, driving on. A couple of days later I noticed it was open again. Either someone was working again or they’d left it open by accident. I hadn’t been paying enough attention to know. There weren’t any cars in the drive, but it was the middle of the day. Best not to meddle.
I’m not sure how many more days passed, but coming home for lunch one day in a blinding downpour, I glanced at the parsonage again as I turned onto our road. There was the door, ever ajar. Alright. They can’t mean to have it open in this kind of weather. I pulled in.
The rain was coming down sideways, so I pulled the hood of my raincoat as completely over my head as possible. As I left the drive into the grass, I realized that the sudden rain had flooded the backyard; water was standing at 4″ deep in places. So I had to proceed to the shed hopping from high place to high place. I made it to the shed and shoved the door shut. It bounced open again. I shoved harder with the same result, realizing I was hearing the whump of an ill-fit door unable to close properly. So I tried that gentle lifty/jostle move you have to employ on most public bathroom doors to get them to latch. Still nothing. Annoyed and increasingly dampened, I opened the door to see what might be impeding it.
“Why the hell are they storing a tree in their shed?” I stood staring for a few moments, trying to make sense of what I was looking at.
There was a massive oak tree inside the shed; the section of trunk I was staring at was about 18″ in diameter. A limb was just pressed against the back of the door, keeping me (or anyone, apparently) from closing it. Then I realized I was also seeing daylight in the shed and as my eyes opened to the larger picture I began to laugh. I prolonged my now-soaked existence in yard of the parsonage to marvel at my own inability to see over the past couple of weeks.
There was no shed.
We’d had a lot of rain in a short time and with the loosened soil we’d had a lot of downed trees. Here a tree had fallen and surgically crushed the roof and back three walls of the shed, impossibly leaving the front wall both standing and unaltered apart from a door slightly swung open. I went home to change. A week later I ran into the the youth minister/associate pastor of the church at a planning lunch and started to tell him the little tale you’ve just come through. He cut me off, holding up his hand. “I don’t want to hear another word about that shed.” I was surprised and tried again, starting with how I’d stopped to try to close the door. “Oh, well you’re the first person that stopped. Everybody else has called to complain. Everybody in our church thinks that we’re mistreating church resources by leaving the door open. The shed was emptybefore the tree hit it. There was nothing to mistreat even if the shed still existed. But we’ve had dozens of calls. We even had a deacon threaten to leave the church.”
In ministry, perception is reality.
The truth didn’t matter a lick. What matters is that church members were driving by making assumptions and not seeking information. If it hadn’t been so completely ridiculous, they’d have had somebody’s head. Imagine trying to explain that one in your next interview. “Why were you terminated from your last position?” “Well, a tree fell in the forest when no one was around. Apparently that makes a very loud noise.”
Idiots. I mean, God love ‘em, and all. But how few idiots do you think it would take to get you fired?
We like to believe that we live in a forgiving bubble where if we do a medium-to-good job and maintain good relationships with our youth families or the senior members or the local schools or our staff or all of that we’ve got some job security. But do we? It can happen by accident (you leave the A/C turned down t0 65 in a room that also affects a quilting group next door) or it can happen on purpose (one person decides they really don’t like you and works with passive-aggressive subversiveness in any corner that’s behind your back). Which is why we have to be hyper-vigilant about keeping ourselves accountable and over-communicating in our work.
I’ve been dealing with the latter of the two for all five years I’ve been in my current church. It sucks. But I’m alive because I’ve been able to be transparent about it in appropriate places (my pastor & SPR are aware) and in recent months I’ve had the grace of a team that bears the responsibility of our ministry with me. I’m not invulnerable, but I’ve protected myself as much as possible against false perceptions becoming reality for our ministry.
I suppose it’s also helpful that I do a pretty good job. How are you protecting yourself? Have you been the victim of this kind of thing in your own ministry?