Some years ago, the church where I was pastor held its third -- and final -- retirement celebration for the church secretary, “Miss Em.”
It was a retirement and birthday party celebrating her 50 years of employment and her 80 years of life. The guests who gathered in the fellowship hall for the covered-dish lunch seemed to sense that this time the retirement would “stick” -- that this was the end of an era.
The previous retirements over the past 15 years merely reduced her titles and paid hours but did not dislodge her from her roles. At the event, there was much speech-making, weeping and applauding. Significantly, most of the stories people told were about events more than 30 years ago.
Someone asked Miss Em how many pastors she had “raised.” There was much laughter, and she merrily replied, “16!”
I suppose I am her 16th. The truth is, this woman sometimes made or broke the ministry of the previous 15. Miss Em represents a power I never learned about in seminary: She is the church matriarch -- the gatekeeper. Pastors come and go; she endures.
The first two years I was pastor, when church members were hospitalized, when they were ill, when someone died -- they called Miss Em, not me. Miss Em would decide when -- or whether -- to call me. If I wanted access to the people, I had to go through her.
Experienced pastors gave me advice when I was appointed: Get Miss Em on board with any project. One reverend wryly noted, “If you get into a battle with Miss Em, you will not win.” How true this proved to be for my predecessor.
Ours was a small, declining congregation rattling around a big, beautiful, empty edifice in the inner city. It wasn’t always that way; 50 years ago, this church was large and busy. The building was surrounded by a pleasant, blue-collar neighborhood with bungalow-style houses. Most of the members lived in the neighborhood. None do anymore. A congregation that once numbered 500 souls on a Sunday shrunk to about 35.
Miss Em became the secretary in the 1950s. Twenty years later, she trained to become the director of Christian education and youth leader. She also stayed on as secretary.
But eventually there were no youth, and no need for Miss Em’s titles or training. She continued as secretary, although with computers and fax machines, she became outmatched.
When I arrived, the elderly Miss Em was not just the secretary. She also was the Sunday liturgist. Twenty years prior, a pastor had given her a black robe and stoles. She still wore them every Sunday to make announcements and read Scripture.
The church had not been able to afford Miss Em’s salary for some time. Early in my tenure, when I encouraged the church to cut expenses, one member told me the congregation would rather pay Miss Em than the light bill. It almost came to that.
This church had floundered for years and was dying, held in the grip of -- what? Not just one person, surely, but a philosophy, an attitude, a way of being. I tried to grasp and understand the situation. I tried to comprehend it theologically.
There was an intense and understandable loyalty in the congregation to this lady who had been a friend and confidante to them, a woman who helped raise them and their children.
But there was more to it. There was a debilitating fear of change and an intense desire to preserve what was left. Somehow, the driving force of this church became preservation of the status quo rather than transformation in Christ. This matriarch represented what the church used to be. Everything revolved in a fierce and possessive way around this one elderly woman.
How does one describe Miss Em? She is small and stooped, with wrinkled skin, short gray hair, sharp brown eyes and pink cheeks. She has more energy than I imagined any octogenarian could have. She is a devoted wife, mother and grandmother. She is kind but controlling. Miss Em is as loyal as the day is long, provided you have earned her loyalty. Female pastors are a challenge for her, and so is change. However, she met these challenges with a great deal of grace.
I suspect she is a frustrated pastor, born in an era when she did not feel free to answer a call to ordained ministry.
Miss Em knew every little quirk about our building, and she alone knew where everything was kept. She knew who to call when something broke or stopped working, and things often broke or stopped working. She was the keeper of the keys to everything. One of our members affectionately called her “the innkeeper.”
As pastor, I slowly and cautiously pried this matriarch’s fingers off many things. I tried to be gentle, but it was time. The church needed to move forward, and she clung to “the way things are” -- or were. I often felt frustrated and ill-tempered with Miss Em -- although she was not ill-tempered with me. When I prayed about it, sometimes in tears at the end of a long day when she seemed to thwart everything I tried to do, God spoke to my heart: “Have mercy on an old woman.”
To give our worship services some desperately needed vitality, I eased Miss Em out of her role as liturgist (and out of the robe and stoles) by bringing in seminary students to help lead worship. Miss Em moved into the choir, accepting her new robe, stoles and duties with grace. She accepted the change better than some in the congregation, who complained that I was “robbing” Miss Em of her duties.
Early on, I cast about for something to occupy Miss Em, to get her out of the most disorganized and broken-down church office I had ever encountered. Because the church has many elderly members, I trained her to take Communion to our shut-ins. Soon she had a small group of church members going with her, and her nursing-home services even began to attract others.
This was thrilling for her, and I remember once when she excitedly described her latest visit, I told her, “Miss Em, you can also do a devotion or a sermon.” She replied, “Oh, I do that already!” I almost laughed out loud. What a blessing!
Even after retirement, Miss Em continued to be our minister of visitation. One Christmas, I gave her a small Communion paten and chalice, and she was delighted. When I paid pastoral visits to our shut-ins, they would wistfully ask, “When is Miss Em coming back?”
I grew to love Miss Em, and she grew to love me, as well. I have heard it said that love alters our perceptions; how true this proved for us both. As time passed, I began to go to her for advice about the church, and she shared with me her struggles to be faithful to the ways in which God was calling her.
Gatekeepers, matriarchs and patriarchs, I have learned, are a fact of life in many small churches. They can be detrimental or godsends; often, they are both. I believe God gives pastors the patience, wisdom and grace to grow with these gatekeepers, to maneuver around them when necessary, and to be in ministry with them, as together we seek to be a sign of God’s kingdom.