I was in junior high when the minister at my church resigned.
It takes a while for a parish to get a new minister, and thus we went through a series of temps until I was well into high school. They were good guys, I guess – some people liked them, some didn’t, and that’s about all you can say in any case.
The first guy was a tall man with a deep voice who could never quite estimate how much communion wine to consecrate and generally preferred to err on the side of caution. This meant that he never ran out during communion. It also meant trouble for whomever else was up there with him and was above the legal drinking age, such as my dad on one memorable Sunday when there was an entire extra chalice of consecrated communion wine left over.
Two things you have to know about this situation, for those of you who did not grow up in the church:
First, anything consecrated has to be consumed then and there. You can’t put it back for later.
And second, communion wine at the time – at least our communion wine – was essentially alcoholic syrup. It was thick, treacly sweet, and would have made a great topping for a dark chocolate ice cream sundae, but to have to drink a whole glass of the stuff in less than three minutes was going above and beyond the call.
My dad earned many church-related points that day.
My personal favorite temp minister was the next guy, though. He was much shorter, something that probably bothered him more than he let on as he was constantly bobbing up onto his tiptoes when he spoke. He was a hospice minister by trade, used to working in hospitals and eager to get back to what he clearly regarded as his calling, and thus had no particular interest in putting down roots with us. This meant that he didn’t really worry about who he offended or who he didn’t – he just rearranged things to his liking and that was that. Also, he had a flair for the dramatic. The man was a Broadway director at heart, and he saw us as his big opportunity to get some of that out of his system.
The kids loved him. But there weren’t that many of us, in a church where my parents were considered young, and his departure was not mourned by most of the congregation. He served his time with us and moved back into his chosen field, and sometimes I wonder whatever became of him – every once in a while his name would pop up in the newspaper, so I know he was doing well.
This is one of the stories that keep him in my mind even now, thirty years later.
It was Easter Sunday, one of the two days of the year where you could be guaranteed a crowd in that church. And the thing about Easter crowds is that they are, like Christmas crowds, traditionalists. They want the comfort of routine. They want to do the same things they did last year. They were in the wrong place.
I was serving as an acolyte that day, which in that church at that time meant that I led the choir up the main aisle at the beginning of the service and then sat up front by the altar, off to the right from the congregation’s point of view. There were two chairs there, and the minister generally sat in the other one when not actively conducting the service. When the choir rose to sing, we were pretty well concealed from the congregation’s view.
He saw that as an opportunity.
About a third of the way through the service there was a two-verse hymn, at the end of which it was my job to get up, walk to the center aisle, bow to the cross, go up to the altar and get the book containing that week’s readings, go back to my chair and then follow the minister back out to the center, where I would hold it for him to read from. This in itself was an innovation, and not one most people were fully comfortable with, but we’d been doing it for some weeks by then and the grumbling had died down.
About halfway through the first verse, he leaned over to me and said, “You know that routine where you go up and get the book?”
“I have a plan.”
I was not all that surprised by this, it must be said. Every Sunday, just before the service started, we generally got together for a couple of minutes to have him lay out the latest wrinkle he wanted to try that day. The whole book routine started out that way, in fact. But this was cutting it close. When he said he had a plan, in my head I was thinking, “The church is full of people, people who have likely never seen you before. They come twice a year. It’s the biggest holiday in the church calendar. We’re a verse and a half from “go” time. And you have a plan?”
But out loud, all I said was, “Oh.”
“Yes. Instead of getting the book and then circling back to me, why don’t you …”
He paused, his voice trailing away. By this point the choir had launched into the second verse.
“Wait,” he said. “I have a better plan.”
In my head: “What? Is this flag football to you? Are you just drawing up plays on the back of the program?”
Out loud: “Okay, hit me with it.”
We ended up halfway down the aisle with him holding the book on his own while I stood there and tried to look like I knew this had been coming.
And aside from the people I told afterward, nobody ever knew how ad-libbed that was.
Most of that congregation might have been glad to see the back of him, but I missed him when he left. The place got awfully predictable after that.