Finding a place in the congregation

Loren Seibold, D.Min., is pastor of the Worthington Seventh-day Adventist Church, Worthington, Ohio, United States.

Annie called me on a winter afternoon. "I want to be baptized in your church," she said. Complete strangers rarely volunteer for baptism around here. I made an appointment to meet her at church on Sabbath morning. "Just look for an overweight girl with blond hair," she tells me.

Her description proves accurate. She's about 40, short and broad, with a round face, blotchy complexion, and light-blue eyes. Her stringy hair is tied up at her neck, with a part like a lightning bolt. Between the hem of her too-short skirt and the tops of her tooshort stockings white flesh bulges. She carries a huge Revelation Seminar Bible, which she's adorned with a homemade cover that looks like it was made by a 5-year-old at Vacation Bible School.

She is instantly in my face. Annie has developed a method of keeping people from dismissing her: she talks without a break for you to respond or end the conversation.

After church she corners me. She works in a small factory, she tells me. She lives alone, and seems to have few friends: what she describes as friends sound to me like people who make fun of her. She has never been married or had a boyfriend, but I get the impression that she has a remarkable fantasy life.

She's just finished a Revelation Seminar in another city, she tells me, and she wants to join a church close to home. As she talks, I become convinced that she is seeking a relationship with the Lord. I've never held the opinion that conversion must be proven by the ability to acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of doctrines; nonetheless, I find Annie has learned the material.

It's not difficult to decide that Annie should be baptized.

But there is something that troubles me. Annie has found the Lord. But will Annie find a church home?

Annie is not impoverished. She has a job. She is responsible, in her way. Annie, it seems, is functional.

But Annie is not quite normal, either. She would stand out like a sore thumb in any group, and even more so in a church on the fringes of Stanford University. My members are thoroughly kind and Christian. They will do what ever they can to accommodate her. But Annie, I can see already, is going to be a difficult fit.

After her baptism, people make a game attempt to include her. Someone invites her to a Bible study and prayer group. She is so needy that she dominates the evening. She has poor boundaries, telling things that she shouldn't, cycling through emotions that seem to make no sense. After just one evening the other members are exasperated; by the third the group has been totally absorbed into Annie, and people begin dropping out.

In Sabbath school I see some young visitors whom I'd like to encourage to choose our church. But during the lesson discussion Annie takes over, with nonstop nonsequituers and pointless tales of her life and hard times. I can see that the visitors aren't enjoying it; for that matter, neither are the rest of us. I don't expect to see my visitors again.

As I circulate among the pews between services shaking hands and greeting, Annie grabs hold of me, begins a new story, and won't let me go. Eventually I escape; but later she will grumble to me that I snubbed her.

Even one-on-one meetings are harrowing. What starts out as a half-hour visit turns into two hours, with me spending the last three quarters of the time trying to extricate myself for other errands.

As weeks pass, I see people leaving a space around her---psychological and physical. A month later she ceases to come. When I call her, she complains that she has been left out.

And she's right.

I hold an idealistic view of what the church should be. It should be a place where the needy come for help. A shelter for those from the highways and byways. A fueling stop where spiritual emptiness is filled. A hospital for sinners.

That's the ideal; let's talk about things as they really are. In truth, I could instruct and push and scold my church for the next 10 years about what they should do, and in the end I know would blame them very much for trying to leave space between themselves and someone who clings and dominates. It is, in fact, a testimony to their own psychological health that they maintain their stability in the face of Annie's allencompassing neediness.

But what about Annie?

I've never seriously doubted that Annie was seeking the Lord and that the Lord sought her. She sought the Lord's church, too---but we didn't find her.

On one hand, I wonder if it's fair to expect that every church should meet the needs of every member. Were we equipped to fill Annie's needs? Ethnic church pastors tell me that they meet separately from the rest for language and cultural reasons. In a way the same thing is true of Annie. We didn't share the same culture. And although we and she spoke English, we never really spoke the same language.

On the other hand, it is hard for me to accept that when the Lord drew someone like Annie to Himself, we could not keep up our end of the bargain. It speaks volumes about the culture we Adventists share: one that doesn't easily make room for God's odder children.

Could another congregation have ministered to Annie? Perhaps. And yet I hear similar stories from other pastors.

As long as we minister, we will be not just ministers to souls, but also ministers of relationship and group process.

And as long as we minister, we will have Annies.

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Loren Seibold, D.Min., is pastor of the Worthington Seventh-day Adventist Church, Worthington, Ohio, United States.

September 1996

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