The conference president called me one morning. He needed a phone number I had, and I wanted to schedule him to speak in my church. That taken care of, our conversation turned to my ministry. "How's it going with Elder Schmidt?"* he asked.
"Is he giving you any trouble?"
"Actually, he's been out of town so much he hasn't had time to make a lot of trouble."
The truth was that Elder Schmidt+ did not need much time to make trouble for me. He was a retired pastor with two decades' accumulation of authority in this congregation. I was just a boy pas tor two years beyond ordination. Pastoral success required cooperating with Elder Schmidt, which was a liability not without its blessings. He was brusque yet generous, inconsistent yet wise.
Our relationship was rather one sided. I initiated almost every contact we had. Conscious of his power, he did not feel the need to call me or suggest that we meet. Yet he clearly enjoyed our relationship, and I certainly benefited from it. As Elder Schmidt shared wisdom from his experiences, I learned essentials of urban ministry that no book could teach. He taught me how to handle both the needy and the wealthy and how to cope with situations I had never dreamed of: old people unable to marry because of Social Security complications, parents terrorized by 60- year-old children, single women with scant resources and no skills struggling to pay rent on roach-infested apartments. In short, I learned the art of pastoring from Elder Schmidt. We even were becoming friends.
Meanwhile, the church was trans forming under my ministry. Many new and younger faces appeared at services. Elder Schmidt began to speak with delight of our success. His approval and excitement was mirrored among the old-timers, who told me with glowing faces how nice it was to see all those young people on Sabbath morning.
As the congregation grew and their needs expanded, I spent less time with Elder Schmidt. I moved from serving him to serving the city, from pleasing him to ministering to strangers. The church experimented with Sabbath school, tinkered with the worship service, and began having frequent fellowship dinners. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Elder Schmidt began rebel ling against the changes in the church.
One bad board meeting
A crisis erupted one Monday night at a board meeting I'll always remember. After the opening prayer, the meeting immediately went downhill. Our first agenda item was a baptism I had planned.
"I'm glad to hear about your converts," Elder Schmidt said, "but I want to know what your plans are for evangelism in the coming year. I wish we had a copy of your schedule that you distributed earlier this year. What happened to it? We need an evangelistic campaign that teaches the prophecies. That's what really helps people make decisions.
"It seems that since Elder Drumm has come," he went on, now addressing the rest of the board, "this church has become a social club. We never used to have potlucks; now you have them almost every week." Then he turned again to me. "Are all these new people attending really becoming Seventh-day Adventists, or just having a good time?"
My first impulse was anger. Given the membership "growth" from 250 to 84 under Elder Schmidt's former leadership, what right did he have to castigate me? And what was wrong with a "social club" if it was helping people respond to the gospel?
I reminded Elder Schmidt about one unusual evangelistic endeavor God had blessed. "What about our seminar last September on recovery for homosexuals? Two of them are coming to church, and they've arranged for me to study with some others."
That was the wrong thing to say. Our seminar for homosexuals happened to be the next item on Elder Schmidt's death list for the board to consider.
"A lot of older members are upset about your inviting all those homosexuals here. We don't want to get AIDS. Who gave you the right to make this a homosexual church? I remember in the sixties when every Adventist church was trying to get at least one hippie. Now we have a new fad with these gays. Listen, we're not here to get involved with every fad that goes by. Homosexuals may need the gospel too, but we have to think about our longtime faithful members."
"Elder Schmidt," I protested, "we have an obligation to help people in need, especially when they are looking for a way out. We cannot do less and be true to the gospel."
The most amazing thing about Elder Schmidt's tirade was that he had originally approved of our outreach to homosexuals. What made him change his mind now?
What would Jesus do?
Rather than confront his inconsistency, I announced: "It's time to go on to the next item on our agenda. We've already voted to install replacement windows in the apartment and the office. I would like your guidance on how to finance them."
"It's about time you sought our guidance," Elder Schmidt declared with an ugly edge to his voice. "What right do you have to arrange a loan for the church?" Then he addressed me by my first name. "Jack, not even the church board can borrow thousands of dollars. We need a business meeting!"
I felt like tearing my hair out. Why was he being so rough on me? The board already had discussed the windows at two separate meetings. I had even requested Elder Schmidt's advice. He said we should borrow funds for the windows rather than dipping into savings. Now he had reversed his course and was blaming me.
Although thoroughly exasperated, I calmed myself with the thought that my defense was God's business. Besides, if I counterattacked, I might not win the battle.
Sometimes in recent months I had wondered what would happen if a head-to-head war developed between Elder Schmidt and myself. Who would win? What would be the cost? Tonight he was pushing me toward explosion. What would Jesus do?
I struggled for the right words, explaining how I had not obligated the church for any money borrowed. I kept hoping someone on the board would speak up and defend me. Once or twice a member tried but could not get in more than a couple words before get ting cut off by Elder Schmidt. One good soul protested that it was a pretty serious thing to level accusations at the pastor. But nothing stopped the onslaught.
For Elder Schmidt's benefit I explained in detail what I had done in securing bids and checking references, then protested: "This is not fair to the board. We processed this window business in two separate meetings before tonight. I think we should borrow the $4,000, then ask the congregation to raise the money as we repay it quarterly.
"Greg, what do you think? Should we go ahead?" I addressed the "naysayer" on the board. He was not negative, just careful. If there was a defect in our thinking, Greg would spot it.
"Edith, what do you think?"
She was the one I most worried about in polling the board. The widow of a much-beloved former pastor, highly respected and loved in her own right, she was the treasurer of the church and a longtime friend of Elder Schmidt. Would she agree with my proposal? I worried about the consequences for her if she offended Elder Schmidt.
"Yes," she said, "I think we should go ahead."
The vote was unanimous. But it was also dangerous. What about Elder Schmidt's need to feel like a vital part of the church? He still had technical questions about the installation of the windows, which gave me opportunity to restore some of his authority. When I asked him if he would call the contractor in the morning, he agreed.
Well, by now it was late. Everyone was weary. I was drained, exhausted. The meeting had been two and a half hours of unrelieved conflict. Afterward, there was little of the usual banter. When Elder Schmidt had left, Mrs. Trares came over and held my arm. "Don't feel bad," she said soothingly. "He treated my husband that way too."
The next morning Elder Schmidt called to discuss his conversation with the contractor. The elder was polite, but his voice was strained. Last night's war was not forgotten. Did he think he had won or lost? Had I kept him with me or was the breach irreparable? Trying to bridge the gap between us, I asked if he could preach for me in the near future.
"No, I'm very busy these days."
"Well, would you be willing to have the pastoral prayer this Sabbath? I really appreciate your prayers. They re ally sound like pastoral prayers."
"Yes. I could do that."
An unusual prayer
That Sabbath Elder Schmidt invited everyone to kneel, then proceeded to pray as usual concerning typical blessings and petitions. Then his voice changed and he shifted gears: "Father, we need Your forgiveness. Sometimes we hurt people when we don't mean to. Forgive us, God, when we say what we should have better not said." His voice was thick. Unspoken pathos gripped the entire congregation. I worried whether he would be able to finish his faltering prayer. "Forgive . . . Thank Thee for Thy mercy. We need it so much. May Thy Spirit bring healing to the hearts we have hurt."
His voice returned to normal as he prayed about my sermon. My thoughts turned to a conversation I had earlier that week with the conference president, discussing how Elder Schmidt had chopped me into little pieces at the board meeting.
"You're not the only one," the president interjected. "He's really given it to me more than once. I don't know what makes him so unreasonable. He gets mad at everybody."
"You know," I responded, "he may be a rascal, but much of what he says is true. And I've learned a lot from him. I don't like his obnoxiousness, but I could not have accomplished half of what we've done this past year had it not been for him."
Beyond that, I felt touched with the way he nearly choked with tears in his prayer, begging for forgiveness. He hadn' t mentioned Monday night's meeting, but the board members all knew what he was talking about. It takes a sincere person to apologize in public.
* All names in this article are pseudonyms.
+ "Elder" usually designates the leading lay office in a Seventh-day Adventist congregation. When used in front of a name, however (e.g., Elder Schmidt), the word designates an ordained pastor.