I received word today that a matriarch of the first church I served died recently. Betty (not her real name) was, without doubt, one of the greatest thorns in my side in my entire ministry. She lived to the ripe old age of 96, active in the church right up until a stroke put her in a nursing home about a decade ago. I don’t know why we had such an adversarial relationship, but we did. From the opening conversation at our initial meeting Betty put me on notice, reminding me that “we’ll be here long after people here have forgotten your name.” I could never quite figure out Betty’s motivation — other than she loved attention and didn’t appreciate anyone who stole her thunder. (This was probably my problem as well…)
Betty taught Sunday school for almost fifty years by the time I met her — a fact she gleefully lifted up whenever possible. “I’ve been studying and teaching the Bible since LONG before you were even born,” she would crow. She was a deeply conservative thinker, accepting without equivocation the innerrancy of scripture. Once in a devotion I was leading, Betty challenged me by saying, “Teach what the Bible says, not what you wish it said. ‘Interpretation’ reflects a lack of wisdom!”
I was hired as an associate pastor to develop small group ministries, to oversee education for youth, children, and adults, to lead worship and preach once a month, and to develop alternative worship experiences that might attract new or potential Christians. Betty constantly criticized me for not visiting the older members. She also disliked the teenagers, and felt that I should control them completely, and whenever possible we should stay outside and not disrupt the church building. She thought videos were suspect and depraved — it didn’t matter what video. Videos in general were inappropriate. Once, for a reason I never figured out, Betty started a rumor that I was neglecting my family. She would also come out from time to time with outlandish statements like, “the only reason the boys want to go on the shore trip is to see girls naked,” and “boys and girls go in the youth lounge unsupervised and lock the door!” (Neither of these things were true — the youth lounge door didn’t have a lock, and the boys went to the shore only hoping to see a girl naked…) Much of my ministry in my first appointment was running around putting out unnecessary fires that Betty started.
Everything came to a head when I suspended Betty for slapping a child who cussed in her class. I told her she could not teach the rest of the year, and that if anything like it happened again, she wouldn’t be allowed to teach children or youth again in the church (I guess I thought it was okay for her to slap all the adults she wanted…). She was livid. She undertook a campaign to get me reappointed, or perhaps defrocked. She challenged me at every meeting, talked about me behind my back, criticized anything I said from the pulpit or in classes, and would call me to complain about something five to ten times each week. Since leaving my first appointment, I confess that I have not held fond memories of Betty.
Yet, when I hear of her passing, I am sad. Certainly the two of us did not get along well, but there was much more to Betty than her relationship to me. Literally hundreds of people tell stories of how great a teacher Betty was. Many adults attribute the faith they hold today to Betty’s influence. Not one elderly person in the congregation wanted for anything as long as Betty was aware of the need. Betty and her husband served as missionaries for years. Betty was not a wealthy person, but was the third largest giver in the congregation — giving by some estimates about 30% of her annual income. Plus she supported other charitable causes as well. She complained constantly about the youth, but made a $500 contribution to the fund to remodel the youth lounge (without a lock on the door…). She was a pillar of the UMW and a crusader for mission work beyond the local community. She served on many Conference committees and Boards over the years. She and her husband adopted a raised a troubled orphan. She spent an hour in prayer and devotion every morning and every evening. She was exactly the kind of person that I adore — in the abstract. In real life, we drove each other crazy.
Word of Betty’s death is a reality check for me. Betty makes me cautious — it is never a good idea to judge someone solely on a personal level. Betty makes me embarrassed — it is too easy to characterize Betty as “a problem” by not being honest about her good points as well. Betty makes me humble — she certainly did as much good as I did, if not more. She was more regular in her devotions, more sacrificial in her giving, and more devoted to seeking out need and doing something about it than I was. Betty makes me feel inadequate — because I feel like I should have been able to find some way to be Betty’s ally rather than her adversary. Betty challenges me — to truly accept the broad diversity within the one body of Christ. We’re all still the body — even when we eyes and hands can’t seem to get along or respect the value that the other provides.
Betty’s granddaughter sent me the notification of Betty’s death. I don’t know whether the message was a kindness or the actual truth, but it is in fact extremely healing: “G-ma asked that someone let you know when she died. She always said you were the finest young pastor she ever knew.” I can’t honestly say I’ll miss you, Betty, but I can say I think you have made me a better pastor, and I am grateful. I wish I’d gotten to know the “real” you better.