A few nights ago, in response to a post about “Bullying” at church, I found myself leaving the following comment at a blog I like to visit:
Bullying can take more subtle forms, too. I saw lots of practically wordless bullying when I worked for the “Ladies’ Ministry.”
That’s in quotes, because essentially, our “Ladies’ Ministry” consisted of thrice-yearly get-togethers where the pastor’s wife would speak. There were virtually no activities other than these special events, few Bible studies or other small groups where women could learn the Bible, get to know each other, and form friendships. Instead, it was all about the pastor’s wife. Her elaborate themed events would require literally WEEKS of preparation and untold hours of work from many, many people.
Oddly enough, it was considered an honor to be “asked” (you had to be asked, you couldn’t just volunteer) to work on the decoration team. There was an even more select group, about a dozen of the church’s most socially prominent women, who got to be part of The Committee, who actually got to MEET WITH the pastor’s wife IN PERSON and discuss what they were doing for the next event.
Anyway, there was such a bizarre and totally irrational fear that gripped all the ladies who worked on the decorating team. I was so oblivious when I first came on board. I’d never been part of Charismania before, and I didn’t understand the big deal when some gals were freaking out because the two colors of cloth napkins didn’t coordinate perfectly with the elaborate fresh floral centerpieces. Some of the daisies had come in dyed the wrong color. I actually made the innocent remark of, “Why don’t we just call Mary (pastor’s wife – not her real name) and explain what happened?” My question was met with stunned silence as everybody looked at me with patronizing pity at how naive I was.
I soon learned that Mary was NOT to be bothered, not for ANY reason. She had a few minions who functioned as go-betweens, who actually got to speak with her on the phone. And even they (who were her supposed “close friends”) were extremely reluctant to call her. Everybody was so incredibly afraid of Mary.
I never actually SAW overt bullying on the part of the pastor’s wife, but I heard whispers from people who had seen her temper flare. Apparently that was an experience that you did not want to live through twice. And later, I also found out that one scornful glance from her could cut far worse than any knife. She had a way of lavishing smiles on those who did well, to where everybody yearned for her approval and worked like slaves to get noticed by her. Those who were the recipients of her disdain, though, might as well kiss goodbye any hopes of making it socially at that church.
It was a truly sick dynamic.
After we left our church, I came to the sudden realization (as though blinders had fallen off) that those ladies’ events weren’t even about us ladies. They essentially functioned as outreach events, designed to draw people in to the church and impress them. I realized that I didn’t even enjoy them at all, that they were stiff and uncomfortable and overly gaudy and cost way too much money (tickets were sold, usually at $10 to $20 apiece, depending on the meal served).
Executives at billion-dollar corporations don’t even exhibit the prima donna behaviors that our pastor’s wife displayed. It’s all so much the opposite of the “mind of Christ.” Even now, more than a year after we’ve left, I cannot believe we willingly subjected ourselves to that stuff and thought it was OK…let alone CHRISTIAN.
Taking a few minutes to write out my thoughts like that on the “Clarity Rediscovered” blog caused me to experience something of a flashback, as I remembered just what it felt like to participate in the “Ladies’ Ministry” at our old church. My time as an “invited volunteer” with the so-called “Ladies’ Ministry” at Living Word Church (for the record, NOT the church’s real name) was probably the first source of my disillusionment with the Smiths’ ministry, more than anything else.
When we initially came to Living Word, I naively projected everything that I’d known about “church” – from a lifetime of involvement in typical Evangelical/Baptist Bible-believing churches – onto Living Word. As I worked with the other ladies on the decoration committee, I assumed that certain things were just “givens.” I was completely unaware of the untouchable celebrity status given to Mary Smith. I had no idea that their thing for “excellence” actually meant frantic perfectionism. I believed that Mary, as the director of the women’s ministry, and as basically the only teacher permitted to speak to us women, must simply exemplify what a “good Christian woman” ought to be, in terms of her patience, humility, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.
Therefore, when “crises” would arise – like when the fresh floral centerpieces arrived and didn’t quite perfectly match the colors of the napkins – I didn’t understand, at least at the beginning, why it was such a big deal. I just “knew” that Mary Smith, as a kind and gentle woman who exhibited the fruits of the Spirit, would have wisdom and perspective about such silly details. I projected what I’d always known about women of good Christian character onto her and assumed that if we just explained what had happened, she’d laugh and tell us not to worry about it. I “knew” that she’d never, EVER care more about some trivial thing like napkin colors than she’d care about us ladies’ feelings.
But the truth was something quite different. I learned, soon enough, that Mary Smith’s decorating committee was ruled through fear and intimidation…that Mary Smith had an exceptionally sharp eye for detail…and that a few dozen ladies’ spirits rose or fell depending upon the expression on Mary Smith’s face when she entered the event venue for the first time and reacted to the room’s look and feel after we’d finished decorating. If she loved the overall effect of the decorations, her face would burst forth into a sunshiney smile, beaming her approval on everybody. But if something were even just slightly “off” or not quite up to her standards, she would demand that it be changed.
And everyone would hop to attention, wringing their hands over the “ruined” detail, scurrying to do everything in their power to fix it.
That was the fruit of Mary Smith’s “ladies’ ministry,” at least the main fruit that I personally witnessed – stress, worry, fear, intimidation, and the feeling, especially among the new decorating recruits, that it would take years for one to ever fit in and be accepted among the “regulars.”
Because I’d posted that comment the other day, these memories of my time on the decorating committee were still with me in a fresh way as I sat in our new church this past Sunday and listened to a message about putting others first. It was nothing “revolutionary” – it was based on Philippians 2:1-4.
Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
No, it was nothing “new.” But as I sat there and listened to the pastor speak, I was so grateful to be back among “normal” Christians and out of the twilight zone of Charismaniac Christianity!
And I couldn’t help but wonder, how had Mary Smith seemingly forgotten that passage in Philippians? How had she lost touch with what it felt like to show up at the church and get all sweaty and grungy as we lowly helpers worked for hours to set up tables? Even if her committee would have all lost their minds and just thrown up some cheap paper streamers and covered the tables with newspapers, how could Mary Smith have gotten so out of touch with reality that she’d even DARE to flick a glance of disapproval in ANYBODY’S direction?
To answer my own question – I’ve come to believe that what I experienced during my time in the “Ladies’ Ministry” at Living Word was simply the fruit of spending years listening to sermons about “destiny”…and how we’re the “head and not the tail”…how we’re “above only and not beneath”…how we’re “blessed”…how we’re “anointed.” While all these things ARE, at least in part, true for the child of God, if you forget about how God’s economy is not our economy, and how God uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, then you will wind up completely disconnected from what real Christian living is all about.
Rather than being Christlike, a humble servant who puts other people first, you will behave like Mary Smith. Listen to enough “empowering” Charismaniac sermons, and you, too, will become a puffed up arrogant diva.