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Rule for Women Ministers No. 1: don’t take the Lord’s name in vain on church premises—especially on the Monday morning after Easter. I push sweaty clumps of hair from my forehead, draw a deep breath to prevent any wayward oaths from escaping my lips, and tug at my nonexistent waistband. Note to self: never go to battle in low-rise pants, no matter how stylish they may be. Wardrobe malfunction or not, I will vanquish this enemy. I am woman clergy; hear me roar. Or as the case may be, watch me install a new toner cartridge in the church’s ancient relic of a copier. With a deep breath, I jam one end of the cartridge in its slot and force the other end toward its final resting place. The copier, though, is possessed. I’ve known this for the past six months while ignoring the resident demons that jam the paper, staple documents at random, and disable the duplex feature. But my denial, as usual, has proven a more effective strategy in the short run than in the long one. I’ve been wrestling with this cartridge for the better part of the last hour, and now I abandon coaxing for pure brute force. One way or another, I will make this work. With an ominous crack, the toner cartridge splits under the pressure, sending out a shower of fine black powder. It stings my eyes, and I inhale a generous dose for good measure, clogging my lungs. Coughing, I drop to my knees, not the victor but the vanquished.
A strangled sound from the workroom doorway tells me that my defeat will not go unnoticed. I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand, and when my vision clears, I see a distinguished older gentleman standing a few feet away, trying to cover his amusement with a look of concern. His eyes meet mine, and I’m expecting some serious southern chivalry as I’ve seen so often from the men of Nashville. A clean hanky. A gallantly extended hand to help me to my feet. Instead, he steps back, clearly afraid that the powdery black substance will spread to his impeccable seersucker suit. He eyes me with something like disdain, though it’s clear he’s trying hard not to show it.
“I’m here to see the minister,” he informs me as if he doesn’t notice my predicament. I’ve met his type before. In his eyes I’m just a functionary, one of the little people God put on earth to make his life run smoothly. He taps his watch. “I don’t have all day. Could you announce me please?”
Clearly he’s mistaken me for Angelique, my administrative assistant.
It’s happened before, usually when I answer the phone with a simple “Church of the Shepherd. This is Betsy.” It’s appalling, really, how some people treat secretaries. Of course, it’s always such fun when I get to set them straight as to my identity. I’m particularly looking forward to the expression that will develop on this guy’s face when he discovers I’m the minister he’s here to meet.
A truly scathing put down springs to my lips, but before it can escape, I see Angelique standing in the doorway behind the Mystery Gentleman. She’s grinning from ear to ear and holding out a wad of tissues with a fiercely manicured hand.
“You look like you’ve been cleaning a chimney, Reverend,” she says with glee, stepping past the man and coming toward me. “I told you we ought to call the repair guy.”
I wipe my eyes with the tissues and look down with dismay at the toner stains on my glittery pink shirt and trendy gray pants. I bought them for my Big Date tonight, and now I have less than an hour to race home, de-tonerize, and find something else to wear in the black hole that is my closet. Honestly. All I intended to do was sneak into the office on my day off and get a head start on my sermon preparation for next week.
Instead, here I am, covered head to foot in the world’s most indelible substance and being served a side order of chauvinism by this refugee from a Tennessee Williams play. The chauvinist in question, though, is the one who’s flushed now. He coughs and then looks politely away while I wipe my face. Ha!
“We can’t afford the repair guy,” I remind Angelique. As a graying downtown congregation, Church of the Shepherd operates on a bottom line that’s pretty close to the bottom. Angelique just shrugs her shoulders, which are amply revealed by the fashionable portrait neckline of her sweater. I’d ask to borrow it for my date, but I don’t have the…um… equipment to keep it in place.
“The repair guy would have been cheaper than replacing your outfit. Plus, the church would have paid for it.”
She’s right. I hate it when she’s right. But now that I’ve been promoted to the position of interim senior pastor, I’m determined to prove that I can handle the job. The way Sunday offerings have been declining over the past few weeks, we won’t make our budget projections for the year. We don’t need any added expenses.
“By the way,” Angelique adds, “The Judge is here to see you.”
I groan. Great. The Judge and this mystery guy. At this rate I might be ready for my Big Date by next week. I glance at the clock on the wall. Less than fifty minutes to go. Since I became the interim senior minister, I’ve had a steady stream of people through my office voicing unique and, in their eyes, extremely urgent complaints. The retired Reverend Squires, a newer member of the church, who still hasn’t figured out what to do with his spare time, wants me to start special programs for everyone who qualifies for AARP. I think polka dancing and bridge tournaments figure prominently in his expectations.
Bernice Kenton, whose face has been stretched tighter than her Lycra exercise pants by her plastic surgeon, wants me to bring in a yoga instructor three times a week. And Jed Linker, longtime church custodian, who wants more money just to keep the building from falling apart. And maybe a pension, if it’s not too much trouble.
You see, Church of the Shepherd is in a bit of a quandary. It’s a dinosaur, one of the last of a dying breed of downtown Nashville churches. While other congregations have relocated to the suburbs where all the young families (i.e., potential parishioners) now live, we cling to life here on the corner of Broadway and Fifth. Our worship attendance continues to slide, and little by little the church has closed off sections of the building to cut down on the cost of upkeep. Even the Family Life Center, built during the eighties in a vain attempt to lure people in from the suburbs, has been shuttered. None of the athletically inclined yuppies of the day ever ventured as far as the sanctuary.
I look down at my clothes again.
“I couldn’t be more covered in toner, could I?” I ask Angelique. She nods, so I continue to scrub my face with the remains of the wadded tissues.
“The Judge, huh? Well, better get it over with.”
At this, the Mystery Gentleman clears his throat. Angelique and I both swing our heads toward him. I’ve enjoyed leaving him standing there, but he hasn’t gone away as I was hoping.
“That wouldn’t be Judge Blount, would it?” he asks with an ingratiating smile. “I know him well.”
Great. This guy will probably turn out to have been the best man at The Judge’s wedding.
“Well, let’s not keep The Judge waiting, then,” I say through clenched teeth and a forced smile. “If you’d like to follow me?” Head high, shoulders back, I lead the Mystery Gentleman from the workroom to my office, ready to do battle with a lot more than just a toner cartridge.
Now, just because I’ve been made interim senior minister doesn’t mean I get the big office—the one with its own bathroom and separate sitting area. Nope, I’m still here in the associate-minister digs with my one little slice of window, a desk chair with a missing caster, and a severe lack of bookshelves. I wince at the chaos of paper and Bible commentaries on my desk, but when I see the dozen red roses in a crystal vase on the credenza, I have to smile. They came with a card—Looking forward to tonight. David—along with copies of exegetical notes for Sunday’s sermon text. A guy like my David, one who sends you flowers and helpful preaching material, is definitely a keeper.
The Judge, having made himself at home in my office, is sitting in one of the two chairs facing my desk, as he does on a regular basis. He doesn’t glance my way when I circle behind my desk and sit down, since he’s too busy shaking hands with the Mystery Gentleman. The pair of them are clearly friends, but there’s also an undercurrent of testosterone here, a jockeying for position, despite the fact they’ve both been cashing Social Security checks for some time now.
At length, they remember that I’m in the room.
“Miss Blessing,” The Judge growls, eyeing my toner-tinged face with a frown. “I see you’ve met my friend Arthur Corday.”
The Judge refuses to acknowledge the fact that I am an ordained minister by continuing to refer to me as “Miss” rather than “Reverend.” I tried correcting him for the first month I was here, but like the slow, steady drip of water on a rock, he wore me down. Now I’m just glad when he doesn’t refer to me as “that woman.”
“Mr. Corday.” I rise out of my chair and extend my hand across the desk as if meeting him for the first time. He shakes my proffered hand despite its toner-intense state and again flashes that honey-dripping southern smile.
“A pleasure, Reverend Blessing.”
He’s all charm now that I’ve been elevated out of the secretarial caste, so I’m guessing he wants something.
“I’m surprised to find you here, Arthur,” The Judge says, still virtually ignoring me. His jowls quiver so much when he speaks that he reminds me of UGA, the Georgia Bulldogs’ mascot. Is it a coincidence that The Judge is an alum? Probably not. “I told you we weren’t interested in your offer.”
Aha! I wasn’t wrong about the underlying scent of male competition. Intriguing.
Tap, tap, tap.
I look up, and there’s Earlene, one of the church custodians, standing in my office doorway.
“We’ve got a Big Problem,” she says in her gravelly, Marlboro-tainted voice. How that deep, resonant voice got into that rail-thin body of hers,
I’ll never know.
I swallow a groan and force a smile. “I’m afraid I’m in the middle of something right now, Earlene.” But the presence of visitors in my office is no match for whatever Earlene has on her mind. In the past couple of months, almost every mechanical, electrical, or structural thingamajig in the entire building has gone haywire. First it was the leaky baptistery. Then it was moisture in the steeple. That was followed by a series of unpleasant discoveries: fruit flies in the sanctuary (someone left an orange underneath the communion table for no discernible reason), leaks in the roof of the education wing, and potholes in the parking lot that could swallow small children.
Earlene frowns. “It’s the doors.”
How could we have a Big Problem with the doors? The Judge and Arthur Corday exchange looks.
“The sanctuary doors,” Earlene says, popping her gum. “They’re so warped I can’t get them all the way closed. They won’t lock.”
And that is definitely a problem, because like any downtown church, we run a continual risk of vandalism and petty theft. Since the sanctuary doors are approximately fifteen feet tall and have to be ordered from
France, Earlene is right to classify it as a Big Problem.
“Have you talked to Jed?”
Jed, the head custodian, can fix almost anything, usually with a toothpick protruding from one side of his mouth while he does it.
“I can’t,” Earlene says. “We’re not speaking right now.”
Earlene’s “can’t” is really a “won’t.” Every six months or so, she and Jed, who is technically her supervisor, have a huge blowup and refuse to acknowledge each other’s existence.
“Earlene,” I say with my best Voice of Authority, “you have to talk to Jed. You can’t do your job properly if you don’t.” Although doing her job properly has always been a dicey proposition for Earlene. On the other hand, she’s truly a good human being and has a gift for dropping downto- earth spiritual insight like a bomb in the midst of our conversations. Earlene’s what we in the church like to call a mixed blessing.
Her forehead furrows, a sure sign she’s peeved. “Do I have to?”
Sometimes I feel more like a preschool teacher than a senior pastor.
And I really wish I didn’t have an audience for this test of my conflictmanagement skills. “Yes, you have to.” Earlene’s not happy, but at length she nods and turns to leave.
“You might try some vinegar for getting that blacking off,” she says over her shoulder, delivering a parting shot to show me that I’m not holding all the cards. But I refuse to rise to the bait. I turn my attention back to the two men in front of me.
“Sorry for the interruption. You wanted to talk about some kind of offer, Mr. Corday?”
“A proposition for Church of the Shepherd, really,” Arthur Corday says. He’s practically dripping sincerity. In some ways, I prefer The Judge’s open contempt to the false congeniality oozing from this man.
“What kind of proposition?”
“Arthur represents a local real estate development firm,” The Judge interrupts. “They want to make an offer for the church.” Clearly the two men have discussed this previously, and The Judge isn’t too happy about Mr. Corday’s proposition.
“They want to buy the congregation?”
The Judge scowls. “Don’t be deliberately obtuse, Miss Blessing. They want to buy the land. Downtown real estate is at a premium.” He frowns, and his jowls hang heavily on each side of his face.
“That is an intriguing proposition, Mr. Corday.”
“Please, call me Arthur. I was hoping to pique your interest…if you find the seven-figure range intriguing.”
Arthur Corday’s words make me forget about the toner. And breathing. My eyes must be gleaming with avarice, because The Judge says, “Don’t get the wrong impression from Miss Blessing, Arthur. The leadership of this church would never consider selling the building.”
Unfortunately, The Judge is right. These folks had their chance to flee to the suburbs in the 1970s, and they didn’t take it. But I’m excited about the prospect of relocating. The chance to cash in our chips and start over in a suburb like Franklin, where land—and families with young children— are plentiful, fills me with glee. With the kind of money Arthur Corday’s offering, along with what’s left of the church’s once sizable endowment, we could make a good start toward building our own little Fort God on the edge of someone’s cow pasture in Williamson County. Young families would flock to Church of the Shepherd—pun intended. Instead of changing toner cartridges, I could be doing the real work of ministry.
Ring, ring, ring.
The shrill sound of the phone at my elbow almost shoots me out of my chair. I try to ignore it, but I’m genetically incapable of not answering a ringing phone.
“I’m sorry, gentlemen. Excuse me for just a moment.” Angelique wouldn’t put through a call right now unless it’s important.
“Betsy, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but your mom’s on line one. She says it’s an emergency.”
Even the streetwise Angelique frequently falls prey to my mother’s guile. When the good Lord was handing out the gift of manipulation, my mother got in line twice.
“It’s okay. I’ll take it.” Because the one time I don’t, it will turn out to be a real emergency. “Gentlemen, excuse me for just one moment.”
I punch the button for line one. “Hi, Mom. What’s the matter?”
“Betsy, you’re never going to believe this.”
My mom frequently starts conversations this way. Usually, her story/news/harangue has to do with someone I’ve never met. I know more about her friends’ children’s in-law’s sciatica and hospitalization for drug rehab than I ever cared to.
“Believe what, Mom? Are you sick?”
“Me? Sick? No, of course not. It’s Mabel Grant’s stepdaughter’s husband. He’s walked out on her.”
“He walked out on Mabel?”
Sorry, but I can’t resist baiting her just a little. I’m due a little recompense for listening to these endless tales that seem to come right off All My Children.
“No, of course not. His wife. He walked out on her for another woman. Just left, right out of the blue.”
Due to our family history, two-timing husbands who desert their wives hold a particular fascination for my mother. I try to interrupt her, but there’s no stopping her in midrecital. So instead I paste a concerned look on my face and hope that The Judge and Arthur will think I’m listening to an account of an actual emergency.
“Can you believe that?” my mom asks.
“These things happen,” I say, soothingly, because that’s been my job since my dad left home—soothing my mom.
“That doesn’t make them right.”
Well, I can’t argue with that.
“Mom, I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go. I have some people in my office.”
“Oh, of course.” Her voice trembles a little, just to let me know what it’s costing her to hang up the phone. “But aren’t you supposed to be getting ready for your date with David?”
“I will. As soon as I finish up here.” Panic. Rapid heart rate. Thanks, Mom. Fortunately, the Judge and Corday have gone back to their private discussion and are ignoring me again for the moment.
“Please wear something nice,” my mom says. “And don’t forget to put on lipstick. Didn’t you get a nice new shade when you had that makeover? This might be your last chance.”
My mother has been giving me the lipstick admonition since she bought me my first tube at thirteen. With the diligence she’s shown over the years to keep me properly painted, she could have solved the thirdworld debt problem.
“Mom, I’m only thirty. I’ll get married when I’m ready,” I snap. And then I feel bad, so I say, “I won’t forget about the lipstick,” as my mea culpa. Although I probably will forget, makeover or no. I’m really bad about remembering stuff like that. “Bye, mom.”
“Bye, dear. I love you.”
I hang up the phone, and my hand pauses for a few extra seconds on the handset. She does love me, in her own warped way, but I’m really tired of serving as her emotional crutch. When I went away to college, I had hoped she’d find a new man and he’d fill her life. No such luck. She just kept on micromanaging me and my sister, Melissa. Only Melissa requires far less micromanaging than I do, since she’s like Mary Poppins—practically perfect in every way. Melissa’s pregnant with her second child and is currently on bed rest. Even though she spends the day flat on her back, she somehow manages to do legal research for her law firm while knitting a complete layette for the baby.
How can I ever compete with that?
Arthur Corday sees that I’m off the phone and clears his throat. “Reverend Blessing, would you at least take my offer to your administrative committee for their consideration? I’m afraid it’s only good for thirty days, so you’ll need to act quickly. If the church decides not to sell, we’ll need to pursue other options.”
Disapproval emanates in waves from The Judge, but at the moment I don’t care. Corday’s offer is a lifeline to a drowning man (or church, as the case may be), and it wouldn’t be fair not to let others in on this decision.
At least that’s how I justify it to myself. It has nothing to do with how leading a successful relocation might induce the church to call me as the permanent senior pastor. If God’s purposes and my professional advancement just happen to dovetail nicely, who am I to argue?
“I will certainly bring it up with the committee as soon as possible, Mr. Corday…er…Arthur. We’re scheduled to meet on Wednesday.”
The Judge scowls. “You may bring it up, Miss Blessing, but I will certainly make my feelings known on the matter.”
“I’m sure you will, Judge,” I half say, half sigh. Glancing over his shoulder, I see the rapidly advancing arms of the clock on my wall. My pulse jumps accordingly. Lucrative offer for the church or no, I’m not missing this date.
I stand up, and the men follow suit. Sometimes you have to use a southern gentleman’s innate manners for your own nefarious purposes.
“Arthur,” I say, extending my hand for a farewell shake, “thank you for coming to see me.”
His smile is just this side of sincere. “It was my pleasure, Reverend.”
He holds my hand just a little too long, and when he finally releases it, I resist the urge to wipe it on my pants. I usher the men out the door, and when they’re gone, I grab my purse from the desk drawer. Further battle with the copier will have to wait. Right now I have to get ready for a night out with the man of my dreams.
From the Trade Paperback edition.