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Yesterday, the boys and I attended Sunday school for the first time at North Riverdale Lutheran Church, another step in the progress of settling in a home church. The boys were skeptical about Sunday school in two previous churches we shopped, and I did not immediately guide them into Sunday school at NRLC – even though I was certain by Thanksgiving the church search was completed. Friday at lunch, Pastor Monte told me he was currently teaching the youth class and when I shared this with the boys they were eager to spend even more time with Pastor Monte. To me, this spoke volumes – my children adore, respect and genuinely like our minister – another adult who is part of their village. My class was with Chris Stevens and the people in the class are wonderful. The class is studying Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life, which I have read before at the suggestion of Mother. Warren’s work is good, despite the fact that is filled with pop-psychology rhetoric, but the people, especially Chris, make it worth getting up a few hours earlier to head ten miles north each Sunday morning.

Friday, Monte asked where I would like to “plug in” to the church, if it was to, indeed, become our home church. Without thinking, I replied, “Do with me what you wish. If you need something done, just tell me to do it and it will be done.”

I was not shocked by my own response – although others who know me, are surprised. However, if they knew how committed I was to Pastor Mike Johnson in Springfield, they would understand completely.

My favorite quote is something John Adams wrote in 1774 to his wife, Abigail, a tremendous lady and patriot of her time. When Adams was fighting desperately for the ratification of the document we now know as the Declaration of Independence, he shared his frustrations with his wife, ready to throw in the towel and return to Braintree, Massachusetts. Abigail, in a letter dated June 27, 1776, reminded of what he wrote two years earlier:

“Commitment. Commitment. There are only two creatures of any value on this earth. Those with a commitment, and those who require a commitment from others.”

I have always been the creature who required the commitment of others through my directing, my teaching, my church work, and my volunteer efforts. However, I have always been committed in striving for quality. Only once have I been one whose commitment was required by another – and that was when I worked with Pastor Johnson. Although we were certainly working in tandem, and for the most part on equal footing, it was still his ministry at Faith In Christ Lutheran Church. I believed in Mike Johnson as a leader, and in his vision.

I was born into a family that was heavily involved in church life – a family that was committed to family, church, community and career. My life is really not much different in that respect. I grew up with an understanding of church politics and business, due largely in part to my grandfather’s dedication to his church. Although I was an exceptionally good child I seemed to irritate several of my Sunday school teachers because I always challenged their thinking. These were tiresome individuals who could not readily answer:

  1. if there were alternate routes for Moses and the Israelites to take at the Red Sea;
  2. if Joseph’s coat was not many colors but actually long sleeved which meant he would do no physical labor (I actually insisted at age 8 the translation could have been incorrect); or
  3. if Jesus had siblings (I had the answer – chapter/verse – with the names, handy because I was certain she would not know).

One teacher, Ron Howell, was the exception to the long line of apathetic Sunday school teachers who drilled us memorizing Bible verses and all sorts of other grunt work.

One Sunday morning, three weeks before we completed confirmation class, the entire congregation arrived for worship, rankled by a ridiculous segment on the Carol Burnett variety show the previous evening. Apparently, the same segment my grandparents and I watched with the character Eunice was quite offensive to a good portion of our congregation who believed she was poking fun at religion. This seemed to consume the pews up to the prelude. I can remember Mr. Tarvin, who generally sat in front of us, saying to my grandfather, “My family will never watch Carol Burnett again.”

I turned to my grandmother and asked, “Can we?”

Mr. Tarvin immediately turned and said, “You’d better not!”

Grandma leaned forward and quietly said, “Lee, what we watch in our home is our business and not yours.”

There had been a string of similar episodes at church in which the members of the congregation adopted a “holier-than-Thou” over the to which I had gained knowledge, and I had already begun to question whether or not I would be confirmed as a Methodist. That morning, I made a decision: I would never join a church. I always believed in the concept of church and the values it established, but I did not wish to be “one of them.” When it came time to go to confirmation class that evening, I said I did not want to continue with classes nor become a member of the church. My grandfather, who I believed would be aggravated by my decision, listened attentively to my reasons and supported my decision and after thinking a few seconds, said, “Honey, I don’t blame you. Sometimes I am disgusted myself and wish I had never become involved with the work of the church. But I am and I will continue to fight.” Then, he made me promise one thing, “Always walk with God, no matter what. If you choose to never join a church, just promise you will always believe in and trust God.” And, I have. Despite the fact that I am not a technical Christian, fully buying into Christian doctrine, I do apply the basic principles of Christ’s teaching: “Love God with all your mind, heart, soul and strength, and love my fellow man.” To me, that is the bottom line. Everything else falls into place.

Throughout junior high, high school and most of college, I attended a variety of different churches, exploring all the various religions and appreciating the people with whom I came in contact. I developed an understanding for the history of the different religions, their doctrine and a desire to learn more alternate theories and studies of the Christian religion. As I grew more politically aware, I became enamored with the comparison of how our federal and Christian leaders seemed to claim superiority over others. “We are right, others are wrong” seemed to be a familiar theme. I never understood, and often, still do not understand how some can make such claims. As an American citizen, I struggle to find comfort in the fact that our country’s leadership believes it should enter another country and completely turn around its government into a democracy. Why should our political beliefs be forced upon nations whose governments have existed long before ours? With our current efforts in Iraq – I do not support our administration’s reasons for invading and remaining in Iraq; however, I do support the men and women who have been sent there to fulfill their duty to our nation.

In college when I took on my assignment as a director of music for a Lutheran church, I seemed to amaze everyone with my knowledge and different perspective on the Bible and other religious topics. The minister invited me to co-teach, with him, the introductory classes for church membership, and I began teaching the 8th grade confirmation classes – one of my best experiences. Although I could not buy entirely into the Christian doctrine, it was never difficult to be a leader in this capacity. Like my grandfather, I was always careful never to insert my own views. I can remember Grandpa teaching youth church and he began with, “Now, if I say to do one thing or that I believe something is wrong, I am saying ‘it is wrong for me, Leroy, to do that’ – I am not saying it is wrong for you. You have choices to make in life and ultimately the decisions are yours and God’s, and not mine.” That made quite an impact on me as a young ten year old because – although he could often be critical, especially in his later years when health was quietly bringing him down, he could be decidedly non-judgmental in certain areas – especially with me, his eldest grandson. Later, when my first class of 8th grade confirmation students were juniors and seniors, they asked the minister to assign me to their high school class – which he did. What a wonderful experience it was to be with these students again – Tim Henriksen, John Millspaugh, Nathaniel Stahlke… what great kids! I was not the youth leader, but seemed to do more with these students than the actual youth director.

As an adult I have served as a director of music for three different parishes – two Lutheran and one Methodist. Although I was always associated myself as a Methodist, I fell in love with the Lutheran liturgy. With a United Brethren link since the 1850’s, my grandfather and great-grandfather had strongly supported the 1947 merger to the Evangelical United Brethren Church, and again in 1968 with the final merger into the United Methodist Church. Grandpa even attended a UB affiliated college in Huntington, Indiana. In some ways, after Grandpa died in 2004, I felt as though I had to carry on this legacy with my own sons, believing the traditional Lutheran service would be undesirable for them.

In many ways, I am my grandfather all over again when it comes to the various intricacies of church life. I think he did just about everything one could do in church life, and more. He could lead COM (Council On Ministries) one moment, preach a sermon in the absence of our ministers, plunge a toilet, cook breakfast for the United Methodist Men’s monthly breakfast, stay up all night with Castle Rich and David Bodenhorn roasting the hogs for the annual pig-roast/bazaar, or dedicate himself in leading a major missions program for nearly twenty years. Grandpa also had a deep respect for his ministers and whether he agreed with them or not, he stood by them. When Dr. Wayne Anderson was assigned to our church, the congregation was in an uproar because Wayne was divorced. Some fragments of the church were handling petitions and attempting to topple the bishop’s candidate, but Grandpa – who had divorced my grandma in 1969 only to remarry her in 1973 (another great blog story!) – stood firmly by the bishop and district superintendent’s selection. That first morning, as Dr. Anderson stood greeting the congregation as they entered the narthex, Grandpa stood right next to him. Grandma and I manned the sanctuary, prepared to put down any insurgents who entertained disrupting the “welcome celebration.” Grandpa had carefully coached us on how to respond to any comments, and we were armed and ready.

Wayne’s first sermon, like so many others to follow, was outstanding. He opened his Bible, stepped away from the pulpit and the words flowed effortlessly and beautifully – one of his many gifts. “Yes, it is true that I am divorced. I still honor and respect my ex-wife, and cherish the fact she is the mother of our son. I know some of you may not agree with my choice, but my wife and I made an adult decision. I know divorce has touched many of your own lives, and I know you understand the pain associated with such separations. Therefore, I hope you will support me, and pray for my ex-wife, my son and my self as we continue to live with this reality of life, of being human.”

At the end of his sermon, those who seemed most critical of Dr. Anderson, were the first on their feet to applaud him. That battle was over, and Grandpa was relieved.

Whether he personally liked a minister or not, or thought him great, was not an issue for Grandpa. One minister always seemed to founder in his sermons and his verbal communication, yet Grandpa was truly supportive, and ignored my critical comments from others; however, he never failed to chuckle at my bona fide impersonation of the preacher’s peculiar sermon delivery. Unlike my grandfather, I am less tolerant of most ministers. In fact, there have been very few ministers who have impressed me or won me over.

“There are just some ministers who are in the wrong profession, but for some reason, cannot figure it out. They just do not get it.” Mike Johnson, the former pastor of Faith In Christ Lutheran Church in Springfield, Ohio, use to say.My three years as Mike’s director of worship & music and the church’s administrative director, were certainly memorable and defining years. The remarkable part is that two very strong visionaries/leaders were so symbiotic – moving in effortless unison as the bows of a fine string section, yet maintaining recognizable individuality. The energy was incredible.

I truly believed in this man’s ministry. Mike left a lucrative position with Procter & Gamble to enter the ministry – quite a risk and sacrifice for one with three young children and a wife who was finishing up her undergraduate degree in elementary education. Although I did not buy completely into the doctrine that compelled him, I did buy into the man – his ambition and dedication to his parish, his desire to move beyond the tried & true, and his inner truth. I loved, and still do, discussing the mechanics of church business, and all the aspects of worship, and these were items that drove the two of us to bringing some of the most memorable moments to the folks at Faith In Christ . On top of Michael’s brilliance in managing the church, he was (is) a phenomenal speaker. His sermons were thought provoking, entertaining and creative – one Sunday the praise team sang, “Feeling Groovy” as an intro to his message. Mike was the first minister from whom I took communion – and the only one until this past November when I took communion from Monte Stevens. These two men are quite similar, and they are probably the only two individuals (not including family) who have truly impressed me to the point of believing in them enough that I would do almost anything to see them succeed or continue to succeed.

Normandy United Methodist Church was an experience in and of itself. The district had a history of placing the not-so-strong ministers into the parish that was considered “the loose cannon church” in the district. A few years before I arrived there was one brilliant minister who was really building an effective ministry until it was discovered she was Lesbian. Her replacement was a gentleman whose ministry had been salvaged (numerous affairs with female parishioners) several times by his older brothers who were district superintendents. His ineffective management and long, dull sermons drove the staff and congregation nuts. Then, there was the associate pastor who manipulated, lied and created social chasms within the church family and spent three years trying to undermine my music program which grew despite her sinister attempts. When I reported to Grandpa that I was considering taking the Normandy position, he asked, “Have you done your research?” He already knew of the church’s seeming erratic history, especially where the ministers were concerned. Once I provided him the information I had gathered, he gave the nod and insisted I proceed with determination, but with caution.

A few weeks after my arrival, I was working in the music office and the minister entered. It was actually my first meeting with him, and I already had him pretty well sized up. There were several in the church with whom I had established an immediate trusting rapport, and they confirmed my assessment. The minister said, “You know we have gone through five music directors in the past two years?” I nodded. He continued, “What can I do to make your stay here worthwhile?” I looked him straight in the eye and said, “Stay out of my way. Give me elbow room to do my job. If you let me do my job, you will have a music program of which you never believed possible in your own church. It might even polish some of the tarnish from your reputation.” I knew it was bold, and somewhat risky, but he knew I meant business. I was not like many of my spineless colleagues who preceded me. The senior pastor fully comprehended that his secrets of his shady behavior for which other staff-parish relations had dismissed him, were safe with me. I insisted that I was not intending to threaten him or hold his past over his head, but I was intent on doing my job – and he was not going to interfere. The senior minister never interfered – but his associate did.

When I arrived at Normandy in 1996, there were 22 in the chancel choir, a bell choir and a children’s choir of about a dozen bodies. When I left three years later, there were two chancel choirs (Voices of Normandy – a combined total of 68 members), a bell choir (Bells of Normandy – with a new director, new members and an extra octave and a half), a women’s chorus, a men’s chorus, a teen chorus, two children’s choirs (directed by the associate pastor), a youth orchestra and a special group of outstanding youth vocalists, the Normandy Classics – which sang much more difficult repertoire than the children’s choirs. Each ensemble was expected to sing at least once a month – except the Voices of Normandy which sang every service. This made each ensemble accountable for working towards a regular monthly goal. We re-developed the committees, formerly known as music and worship committees to Music Design Team and Worship Design Team, and I incorporated monthly meetings. Weekly attendance rose from an average of 160 to 280. On top of all this, we hosted three church choral festivals, developed a performing arts season, and delivered sell-out productions of Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Godspell and The Sound Of Music, as well as two major Easter cantatas with full orchestras. Our productions attracted the finest performers in the Miami Valley, as well as a tremendous plethora of talent from Normandy. The von Trapp family was complimented with 50 singing nuns – a fun-loving group of women who were far more entertaining back-stage than on-stage. At one point I threatened to take away their weekend nun’s passes to the Friar’s club! It was a thrilling experience to bring so many individual talents together each week for worship or for major productions. And so many have remained devoted and cherished friends.

Unfortunately, the senior pastor would not harness his associate minister. She had his number and he had hers, and it was the Cold War revisited. Each brought with them a shady past which, had the information surfaced with this particular congregation, would have led to immediate grounds of dismissal for both. I documented 78 individual pages of harassment from the associate pastor over three years, but seemed to get no where with the first Staff Parish leadership. In fact, it was even implied that I was imaging everything – and the 49 witnesses too, who had signed their signatures on the pages vouching these episodes had occurred. The summer of 1999, Grandpa wrote me: “Stay at Normandy and fight for what is right! Never let a small group or one person be the reason you leave.” The congregation, however, had tired of what they were witnessing with the surface perfidy of their pastors and were becoming restless. The new Staff parish president, a manager with Reynolds & Reynolds, was ready to go to battle. The early fall of 1999, secret staff parish meetings were held to plan the termination of the associate pastor – but they continued to run into various snags along the way. By October, while I was finishing up directing the 40th anniversary production of The Sound Of Music – which Normandy was proud to produce – the battle lines were clearly being drawn. The associate pastor and her small army moved into place, ready to conquer staff parish and 95% of the congregation – with me as their chosen staff leader.

Before Christmas, there were some major, but pretty lame attempts to uproot my leadership, but I stood firm, gaining even more support from the congregation and staff parish. Against the advice of my grandfather, I went to my attorney. Had it been sexual harassment or threats of physical harm, I would have had a case. I discussed the scenario with my grandfather and admitted that their most recent attempts had been exhausting and unnerving. Grandpa encouraged me to go to the minister one last time. I did. I expressed to the senior pastor, who was nearing retirement and all its benefits, that if he did not step to the plate and fix the problem with the associate pastor, my resignation would invariably bring his ministry crashing down around him. He understood, but still deemed himself powerless with all the crud she knew from his past. I even pledged to support him and stand by him if she should reveal any of his past – but, he shook his head, said nothing, and refused to act.

I contacted Grandpa and told him I was resigning. He set down a time line of what to expect:

  1. I would resign
  2. staff parish would ask for an extension to work things out
  3. if I continued with the resignation, the associate pastor would be fired within a week
  4. and then bishop would terminate the senior pastor the following week.

Grandpa’s schedule was impeccable. Staff parish asked for a seven day extension, and when they missed their deadline, I stood firm on my resignation. That was Wednesday. The following Thursday, the associate pastor was terminated. The following week, the bishop arrived with an entourage to terminate the senior pastor. For the next six months, I worked behind the scenes, unbeknownst to most, healing, rebuilding and restructuring the battle weary church. At least the congregation was back on tract – they no longer had dysfunctional pastors, and they had regained control of their church once again. Unfortunately, after an interim period, they were rewarded with less controversial, but still, ineffective pastors.

That summer of 2000, I had healed enough to visit other churches. Some good friends invited me to a particular church which strongly accepted all kinds of people; however, I was just not comfortable with the social aspects of the church which, in my opinion, was much like a market for singles.

I spent the next few years visiting a variety of churches – a full spectrum of faiths and doctrines. Matthew arrived and I felt a desperate need to settle on one church, but nothing seemed to suit our family needs. I desperately missed Faith In Christ, but the drive was just too long to commit to regular attendance. In October 2003, I was a guest organist for a Methodist church on the other side of Dayton. It felt good to be back home in my Methodist roots, despite the fact the church was quite elderly and offered little in the way of youth ministry. Still, we continued worshiping until this past Spring when I realized the church leadership, while trying desperately to establish roots in a number of community programs, had lost its focus. Some friends invited us to their church and the three of us were quite comfortable there. In fact, we had no intention of looking any further. The church was only a mile or so away from home, had a great choir, a good size congregation and youth program, and the sermons were decent. I knew that my extra-curricular participation would be minimal at best, but as long as we had a church home, I could be satisfied. Why I did not continue searching for the “right” church, in hindsight, is somewhat baffling – especially to me. I have never settled for second best, yet, I knew deep down I was not entirely satisfied.

That summer, Mike Johnson, after fifteen years of a remarkable ministry, bid farewell to Faith In Christ, leaving for a parish in Wyoming. He invited me to sing at this farewell worship service, and I truly dreaded the day. I took, what I considered to be my last communion until a time when I hoped to visit Mike & Joy in Wyoming, and shared in the tearful farewell of a beloved pastor. I had visited FIC the previous March for the baptism of a family friend’s child, and had returned occasionally over the years since I left in 1993. I truly loved the people at Faith In Christ, and if not for the distance, we would be there every Sunday. Those are people I want to be in the village to help me raise my sons. In stead, we attended regular worship at the church in our community.

So, now, for reasons known and unknown to myself, I have pledged my self to the ministry of another. I have always believed that everything in life happens for a reason. Sometimes, we know the reason right away, and sometimes it takes years to learn why some things happen the way they do. I am not apprehensive, by any means, and look forward to this new venture. Naturally, it will not possess the exact components as my experiences with Mike Johnson, but I do anticipate a fantastic experience. For whatever reason, and there seem to be a good number of them at the moment, North Riverdale Lutheran Church, has become our family’s church. Our dear friend, Valerie Lockhart, a friend of Chris Stevens, was hopeful, and even somewhat persistent in maneuvering the crossing of paths – and she succeeded. Ironically, I met Valerie through her sister, a friend/member from Faith In Christ in Springfield.

And for what ever reason, I committed my self, for the second time in my life, to another individual’s ministry. God just had to set me straight when I believed there were no other ministers like Mike Johnson – and for my sake, and for the sake of my sons, I am so glad I was mistaken. The spiritual path and church experience from childhood through today has been a delightful rollercoaster ride of events – fun, scarey, thrilling, uncertain, quite certain, educational, and always blessed – even during those darker moments. And what is more, the ride seems to be at the top of another hill, ready to plunge forward into excitement and even more growth as we establish ourselves in the life of a wonderful church full of many wonderful people.

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January 2006
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