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Chapter 3: Mechanicsburg

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Parsonage

A novel about life behind the scenes for an evangelical pastor's family: in the church, the parsonage, the community.

© 1996 G. Edwin Lint

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The rhythmic beep-beep, beep-beep of his wrist alarm woke Jim at six A.M. He found the stop button, padded over to the window, and parted the draperies to peek out and see what kind of day it was going to be. The orange and green neon of the Holiday Inn sign still glowed brightly in the dawn's early dark. Not enough light to predict the day's weather on the basis of the sky.

After a brisk shower slightly on the cold side, Jim got his New International Version out of his briefcase and settled at a round table under a hanging lamp for his morning routine of Bible reading and prayer. Later, he took a legal pad and outlined the weekend's activities. At ten, Miles Abbott, chair of the search committee, and Grace Carson, chair of the church board, would be picking him up for the at Shoney's all-you-can eat breakfast bar down Route 11 about a mile. At that time, the salary and benefits package which the board was willing to offer would be discussed. At 11:30, Jim would be introduced to the church's professional and support staff with an opportunity for questions and answers on both sides. This would be a critical meeting. If Jim was called to this pastorate and decided to accept the call, one of his first official duties would be to review all job descriptions and make decisions on the division of work.

The big meeting of the day would be held at one-thirty in Fellowship Hall and this was being billed as "The Interview". According to the plans of the search committee, The Interview would provide each person who attended the church an opportunity to meet the pastoral candidate informally during a buffet lunch. As he jotted notes on the yellow pad, Jim smiled at the pattern of eating and working and fellowshipping which had been planned. The early Christian church as described in Acts made a practice of combining food and worship. Mechanicsburg was surely in step with the Bible on that point.

The primary element of The Interview would be an open question-and-answer session following the buffet. Jim had been told that everyone attending The Interview would be given an opportunity to ask questions from the floor, and that he would be expected to answer on the spot--and off the cuff. Jim winced a little as he thought about the Pandora's box of controversial issues a session like that could open.

James Alan Hogan was a competent and experienced pastor who was at home in the pulpit, in business meetings, in the living rooms of his parishioners, and in the counseling chamber. But he was not at home with this business of being a candidate for the job of pastoring a new church. He had gone straight to the Ashtabula Community Church fresh out of seminary and had not had so much as a letter of inquiry from another church until he had been contacted by the Mechanicsburg search committee back in September. He was definitely navigating uncharted waters and he and Debra had talked about this very thing yesterday morning before starting his trip.

"Maybe this was how the slaves felt when they were put up on the auction block," quipped Jim. " I hate this business of being put on display so people can poke me and prod me and check my teeth."

"Just be yourself, Jim," Debra had said simply. "I know that sounds trite but if you present yourself as something you're not, you may get a job you'll always regret.

"I especially dislike this interview thing. They expect me to stand up in front of everyone and let them take potshots at me for over an hour!"

"Come on, Jim," Debra said with a sly smile. "There isn't a theological or social issue on which you don't have a carefully-thought-out position right this minute. Believe me, after twenty-six years of marriage, I should know. If somebody pushes your abortion, or alcohol, or tobacco, or illicit sex, or homosexuality button, just let 'em have it right between the eyes."

Jim had decided right then that he would do exactly that, and let the votes fall where they may. Now he knelt at his chair and spent over an hour in prayer with a heavy concentration on how he would handle the interview questions that afternoon.

At nine forty-five the phone rang. "Jim Hogan."

"Good morning, Pastor," Miles Abbott boomed over the house phone out in the lobby. "Ready to see if Shoney's will be able to give three hungry people all they can eat for breakfast?"

Jim took his London Fog off the hanger, picked up his brief case, and walked down the hall to begin what might turn out to be his first day on the job at the Wesley Evangelical Church.

The prospective pastor had gotten to know Miles Abbott during his first visit to Mechanicsburg, and through many phone conversations since September. He was meeting Grace Carson for the first time.

"Morning again, Pastor," Miles boomed almost as loudly as he had on the phone a moment ago. Like you to meet the chairperson of our church board, Dr. Grace Carson. Grace, here's the man you've heard me talk about many times since I first heard him preach last September in Ashtabula."

Jim knew instantly that neither he nor any other pastor would be pushing this lady around. He judged her to be sixty-five and she was at least six feet tall. She had steel gray hair pulled back in a rather severe bun and she was wearing a matching steel gray business suit, softened a little by a light blue blouse with lace at the throat and cuffs. He felt a little like he had just been called into the principal's office.

He extended his hand and said in his best pastoral voice, "Happy to meet you, Dr. Carson."

"Just Grace, thank you," she said with a smile. "I left that doctor business behind when I retired from teaching last June."

Miles chuckled. "The Mechanicsburg Area Senior High won't be the same without her. She was principal there for, what was it Grace, twenty years?"
"Miles, you make me sound positively ancient. Stop it this instant!" She stood with her left fist on her hip and pointed a long finger directly at the man's nose, holding that pose for at least five seconds. Miles froze and his face got very red-- and then they both doubled over laughing.

"I get him every time," Grace chortled, her clear blue eyes dancing merrily.

Abbott mopped his brow in almost-real relief. "You sure do, but I never thought you'd pull that in front of our brand new preacher."

"You see, Jim, Miles and I spent a lot of time together in high school. In my office, that is. Every once in a while, just for old times' sake, I pull my angry principal act and he still jerks his knee without fail."

"We can all ride in The Chief," Jim offered as they stepped outside.

"The Chief?" Grace said with raised eyebrows.

"My car," Jim explained quickly. "Jeep Grand Cherokee. Debra and I have twins but they couldn't quite manage Grand Cherokee so we called the car The chief.

"I'd like to meet The Chief some time but why don't we give the old boy a rest and let Mr. President take a turn today? Here, Miles, you drive," and she flipped a set of car keys to Abbott who turned and walked across the parking lot to a brand new Lincoln Town Car, shining like a new penny in the bright January sun.

Jim soon decided that Miles and Grace had been appointed a committee of two to put Shoney's out of business. Miles borrowed a line from Arby's and really piled it on. Grace had a special liking for biscuits smothered with gravy and lots of those mini sausage links on the side. Jim understood why the Shoney's Breakfast Bar had been the restaurant of choice.

Jim ate lightly but slowly, having a couple bran muffins with fruit and decaffeinated coffee.

After the final round of dirty plates had been cleared away, Grace laid out the basic salary and benefits package the Board was offering. The salary was very generous, equal to what Grace had been making her final year as principal, "And that was with a doctorate and--" she looked pointedly at Miles "twenty years' experience." Besides the salary, there was a full parsonage benefit which included a modern twelve-room home with all utilities. The health coverage applied to all family members living in the parsonage who were less than 19 years of age: HMO, major medical, dental, vision, and prescriptions.

"If the church votes to call me to this church and I don't come, it sure won't be because of salary and benefits," Jim said sincerely.

"Good," Grace nodded briskly, "and there's one more thing. Each year you'll get a five percent cost-of-living salary increase. If things are going well in the church at the end of each year, the board can vote to add a five percent merit raise to the cost-of-living raise. Anything else?" she asked looking at both men.

"One more thing," Jim said. "Could we talk a little about this interview which is coming up this afternoon. Is there a hidden agenda I need to know about before everybody starts firing questions at me?"

Grace and Miles looked at one another, each waiting for the other to speak. Finally Grace said, "There is a skeleton in our closet, Jim. I'm not sure how many of the people who will be attending the interview this afternoon actually know this first hand but we did have a bad experience with our pastor ten years ago."

Here it comes, Jim thought. I knew this whole thing was too good to be true. "Define 'bad experience'."

"Bad as it gets as far as preachers are concerned. He had an affair with a high school senior, from my school no less, and they ran away together. Heard they're married now and living in Mesa, Arizona. Very sad for everyone concerned. Pastor Carr had four children and a lovely wife. Two of the kids went to high school with the girl involved. One was a sophomore and, get this, the boy was a senior who had been going steady with this girl before she ran away with his Dad!"

"And here's the worst part of all," Miles said, totally serious for a change. "The media people had a field day with this thing. If you think the televangelists had it hot in the late eighties, this was worse. And I mean TV, radio, papers, everybody. Got so bad the girl's mother cracked and killed herself. The autopsy said over 50 Digoxin tablets stopped her heart cold."

"Then the media got really serious and it was networks and press people from throughout the mid-Atlantic states. Very sad, indeed," Grace said softly.

"I remember reading about the mother's suicide but hadn't made the connection with this church until right now. Any idea on how this might effect the kinds of questions people will be asking this afternoon?"

Grace answered. "My guess is you'll be getting some pretty close questions about your private life, including your personal relationship with your wife."

"I have absolutely nothing to hide and I'll answer every question I'm asked," Jim said calmly.

"Good!" Grace said briskly. "Power breakfast adjourned." She strode to the cashier and had two twenties on the counter before Jim could get his wallet out of his pocket.

Miles winked and said briefly, "On us."

They drove North on U.S. 11 to the Camp Hill junction and then South on U.S. 15 to the Wesley Drive exit, a ride of about twenty minutes. The Wesley Evangelical Church complex of sanctuary, gym, softball field, parking lots, and parsonage spread across fifteen acres of good land East of Route 15 and close to the Wesley Drive exit.

"Was the church named after the Drive or was the Drive named after the church."

"Neither," Grace smiled. "Before we even knew this land was for sale, the church was incorporated as Wesley Evangelical Church. Wesley Drive was here before we were. Actually, the church is named after John Wesley, who happens to be my favorite hero in church history."

The Wesley Evangelical Church complex faced Route 15 but since the highway was limited access, the facility was reached by taking the Wesley Drive exit and then using an access road which entered the property from the northwest corner.

The church itself was built of colonial brick with a columned portico and large wings spreading out on both sides. The North wing housed administrative offices and classrooms for younger children, including the nursery. The second and ground floors supplied classroom space for older children and adults. The ground floor under the sanctuary housed Fellowship Hall with banquet seating for one thousand and a fully-equipped restaurant kitchen. The South wing contained the gym and some classroom space for teens and young adults.

Since the land sloped down from the front of the church, all the ground-floor rooms had some natural light and those toward the back of the building had full-size windows. The gym was on the first floor of its wing but there was no second floor in order to provide the head room needed for basketball and volley ball.

Although the main church building was rectangular in shape, the platform area of the sanctuary was along a long wall, the North, wall, with the choir loft on the left of the pulpit and the orchestra pit on the right. The piano and organ were on a dais directly behind the pulpit and faced each other at a forty-five degree angle. In front of the piano and organ were a semicircle of short pews to accommodate the pastoral staff and others who would be participating in a service.

"How's that for a whirlwind tour?" Grace's long strides had just circumnavigated the major areas of the church and she was barely out of breath. Whirlwind was the right word, Jim mused, who seemed to have less breath left than did his guide.

"Check out that pulpit for size," Miles suggested.

The pulpit was done in natural walnut enameled ivory insets, as was the case for all platform furniture and the pews as well. Jim assumed the classic pastoral stance with arms spread to grasp the outside corners of the pulpit. Speaking in his best platform baritone, he said, "The ushers will now come forward to receive the Lord's tithes and your offerings."

"Hired on the spot," Miles chortled and snapped his fingers. "You're our kind of man."

All laughed and Grace said with her blue-eyed twinkle, "Careful, boys. Some guy from the "Patriot-News" might be hiding up there in the balcony and writing all this down.

Jim turned to face the pews again and his mood turned quickly serious. The platform spots were on but the rest of the sanctuary was in semidarkness. The empty pews stretched in a semicircular panorama before him on the floor and above him in the balcony which swept around three sides of the sanctuary. How many souls were represented by these pews? Which ones already knew Jesus Christ as a personal Savior and were filled with the Holy Spirit? Where would the Sunday Christians be sitting who lived the other six days of the week as though the Bible didn't exist. Which specific spots would be occupied by those prayer warriors so essential to the success of any church program.

In answer to Jim's unasked question, Grace spoke softly. "An average of 3500 people every Sunday morning counting both the 8:30 and the 11:00 services, plus the kids in the nursery and junior churches. Twenty-five hundred every Sunday night. At least 1500 Wednesday nights for Bible study, Christian service training, membership classes, and various activities for kids and teens. And every one of them with a never-dying soul. Pretty awesome responsibility, isn't it."

Jim nodded in silent agreement while lifting an unvoiced prayer in the words of Bill Gaither's song, "Come, Holy Spirit, I need you."

Suddenly Miles looked at his watch. "Hey, it's almost 11:30. Time to meet the staff." With that, he led the way off the platform through a door located between the choir loft and the organ. Fishing a single key out of his wallet, he walked across a broad corridor which ran behind the platform area of the sanctuary and stopped at an unmarked door directly across from the hall from the choir loft.

"Pretty neat, huh?" he asked Jim with a grin.

"Miles, this is more than neat, this is down-right convenient. The pastor can walk right out of his private office, cross one hall, and be on the platform in less than ten seconds. This your idea?"

"This whole complex is his idea, including the parsonage," Grace stated flatly. He's just too shy to admit it so he drags me along to toot his horn for him."

"You're an architect?" Jim asked.

"Sure is," the former principal answered. "Tell him, Miles, and stop confusing your shyness with humility."

Despite the good-natured banter, Miles did look a little embarrassed. As they were hanging up their coats, he explained that his role in designing the church had begun while he was a freshman in high school. He had enrolled in Mechanicsburg High School's four-year art program with a heavy emphasis on commercial art and drafting. The church complex was an on-going project all through high school and on into his baccalaureate program at Penn State. By the time he graduated summa cum laude, all of the views and elevations were complete. The church board had been keeping tabs on Miles' project for the past eight years and they adopted it without hesitation. The general contractor liked the work so much, he paid Miles a fee which wiped out his college indebtedness in one stroke.

"Enough about me," Miles said as he swung open the door on the other side of the room from which they had entered. "Let's meet the staff, and here's the keystone which holds this whole operation together. Say 'hello' to Sandy Simpson, administrative assistant."

"Hello, Sandy Simpson, administrative assistant," Jim said with a twinkle.

"Good morning, Rev. Hogan," she said as they shook hands.

Each person took rapid inventory of the other. Jim saw an attractive young women in her early thirties with a riot of red curls reminiscent of Annie. She was slim, about five-five, wearing a little softer version of Grace's gray business suit, only in light brown. A quick sweep of her work alcove located right outside the pastor's door told him she was neat and organized.

Sandy liked Jim instantly. His handshake was firm but not lingering, and he didn't cover her right hand with his left as Dr. Clark had done. His gaze was direct and never left her face to travel down the rest of her body.. Although she sensed he was checking her out just as she was checking him, the interpersonal dynamics were totally professional.

At that moment, Miles leaned between Jim and Sandy to kiss her firmly on the mouth.

"Miles, honestly!" Grace groused without venom. "When are you going to grow up?"

"I have a license for it," Miles pouted with mock offense.

"What Miles is trying to say in his own unique way is that he and Sandy are married," explained Grace with a smile.

"Yep, five years this June," Miles boasted with his thumbs pushing out red suspenders from under his suit jacket. "And there's only one thing that mars my happiness. My thoroughly modern Sandy insists on continuing to use her maiden name!"

"If you don't pipe down, your thoroughly modern Sandy is going to mar your head with a tape dispenser," Sandy said lightly as she pinned a name badge to her husband's lapel. "Now put this on Rev. Hogan and I'll take care of Grace. Got to get everyone in uniform," she said pertly.

Jim glanced down at what Miles was ready to pin on his lapel.

Rev. James A. Hogan
Pastoral Candidate

The card inserted in the plastic pin-on badge was beautifully done on what Jim guessed was a printing press. The type was bold sans serif with black ink on light blue card stock. A photo-reduced version of the church logo appeared in the lower left corner. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite right.

"Sandy, I hate to make waves about something minor but would you mind making up another name card for me? I know it's time to meet the rest of the staff but maybe you can just turn this card over and write this, and he leaned over her desk and wrote on a scratch pad:

Pastor Jim Hogan
Ashtabula, Ohio

 

"Didn't I get your name right?" Sandy asked with concern as Jim was scribbling on the pad.

"What you did was completely accurate," Jim said with a smile, "but this is correct," and he handed her the sheet from the scratch pad. "My name is Jim Hogan, my signature is James A. Hogan, and I never use reverend. If a title is needed, 'pastor' is fine."

Sandy looked at Jim scribbling on her scratch pad and smiled broadly. "Finally! A preacher who knows what he wants and knows how to ask for it. But I won't turn this card over and write on the back, I'll make a new one. Just take a sec. Want to watch?" The office in the Ashtabula church still used IBM Selectric typewriters equipped with a correcting tape feature. He sure did want to watch.

Without waiting for an answer, Sandy zipped around her desk and sat down at what Jim discovered was an Power Macintosh computer with a screen the size of an aircraft carrier's flight deck.

"Couple clicks of the mouse here and there and bam! you'll have a correct name card." In less than a minute, Sandy's flying fingers and nimble mouse had the corrected card on the screen. Holding down the OPEN-APPLE command key, she pressed the letter P and the laser printer behind Jim came to life and began to hum softly. He turned and watched a sheet of blue card stock roll out with his correct name card in the upper left corner of an eight-card grid.

Sandy disappeared in a utility alcove where Jim could hear quick rasps of a paper cutter. In a maximum of two minutes from the point of his original request, he was wearing a name card identical in style to the others which read:

Pastor Jim Hogan
Ashtabula, Ohio

 

"I'm impressed," Jim said sincerely as he looked down at his new badge.

"You better be," Miles said with a grin. "That was ten thousand dollars worth of the Lord's money you just saw at work.

"And worth every penny of it," Grace said matter of factly, as she led the way out of the reception area and into the main conference room.

 

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