If you've been following along, I digressed in "Why I Stayed, Part II" to the model on human relations that my father left for me. I also remember a solo he used to sing at First (Scots) Presbyterian Church by Fred Spielman and Janice Torre entitled "Mankind Should Be My Business". The lyrics are as follows: Mankind should be my business, Mankind should be my trade. I realize it is my business to give my fellow man my ade (sic). The whole world should be my office, Heaven should be my boss, man's happiness should be my proffet (sic), his suffering should be my loss. Just changing money is not enough to make my life worthwhile, I should change a human tear into a human smile. These words were put into Scrooge's mouth in "The Stingiest Man in Town". Another peg on which to hang the garments of my life.
But now, back to Bennettsville, South Carolina, where I was called to be rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church...fresh out of seminary, so until I was ordained a priest, I was "Deacon in Charge". To this day I tell people that the dumbest thing I ever did was to leave that town. Not that the flocks to which I was subsequently called were not a blessing, but this community was idyllic (literally, being a rural place, and figuratively because I remember it as paradise). There was tremendous love and respect among the people there, and since the town was out in the middle of nowhere, there was a sense of appreciation for one another. We all knew we needed each other. I used to think that I had really great relational gifts because, despite large challenges at times (an arsonist burned down our Education Building 3 days before I arrived in town) and great differences of opinion, people rarely, if ever, left the congregation, except when they died or moved away. But now I realize that, if you were going to be an Episcopalian in Bennetsville, the closest option was almost 20 miles away! Given that "breaking up is hard to do", people were more motivated to work things out.
When I moved to Charleston, however, there were 11 Episcopal congregations within a 7 mile radius! And at least 20 in the greater Charleston area! So if you didn't like the way things were going in your church, or if you were mad at your priest, you could easily go somewhere else while remaining in the communion. And boy did my image of my relational skills take a beating. I was humbled, scorched and mauled. I learned in Charleston that the only thing more dangerous than politics is religion. There were enough people who tended not to be radical followers of Jesus, but who were instead "consumers of religious goods and services", to make leading a congregation less than pleasant for much of the time. So much time and energy had to be wasted on placation rather than spent on true mission. My ideals were nearly crushed. And I soured on the institutional church. There had to be a better way to reach people with the life-saving, hope-giving Good News of Jesus Christ! Next installment: West Shore Church.
So, reason number two for "Why I Stayed" is : "Bennettsville reaffirmed for me the value and sweetness that comes from sticking together, and the fruit that comes from working things out, even when times are tough."