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Me and Mrs. Jones

I have vivid, unpleasant memories of the first time when as a pastor I served as moderator of a congregational meeting. We were moving along to the final item on the agenda when a woman whom I had heard "could be trouble" stood up to be recognized. She launched into a lengthy presentation (which seemed like 30 minutes to me, but was much shorter) about the inadequacies of my ministry (which was not up for discussion at that meeting). I was professionally and personally unprepared.

I don't remember everything, but she said something about my Sunday sermons' sounding more like lectures, about mistakes in the newsletter and about my failure to be available when she called my home. She even commented an the rowdy behavior of my children and suggested a lack of parental discipline. I was speechless. As I looked around for help I found the friendly face of one of the officers whom I knew well and who was a member of the committee that called me to the church. When he asked to speak, I was relieved. Surely he'd rescue me. Yet when he stood up, he simply moved the final question on the agenda without answering her or reassuring me. I was dumbstruck again.

After I asked someone to conclude the meeting with prayer (having lost my zeal at that moment), I caught up with the officer and asked, "What happened?" With a blank expression, he responded, "When?" As I explained my feelings of being wounded by the abrupt and unwarranted attack from the disgruntled parishioner, his face opened into a knowing smile. "Oh, Mrs. Jones? She's like that," he explained, as if that should settle the question. "She just goes off from time to time. Maybe someone should have answered, but that takes longer." He reflected for a moment and added, "If you think she is bad, you should have known her mother."

Being new to parish ministry, I thought the best response would be to plan a campaign to help Mrs. Jones. Damage control first: I tried to discover how many people held her views and to ascertain how many people she influenced. Then I resolved to correct the problems that she raised so that she would have little reason to complain in the future. I determined to find out why she was inclined to make caustic comments, and help her to find happier and more constructive outlets for her energy....

I failed in all these ambitions. I couldn't find anyone who had listened carefully enough to her complaints to evaluate their accuracy--she had complained about so much so often that others had stopped listening. I never did everything well enough that she couldn't find some reason to criticize. Throughout my more than a decade in that parish, she remained difficult. 

But in the process, I found that she also served an important function in the congregation. In the middle of a committee meeting where she was not present, someone might pipe up, "If Mrs. Jones were here, she'd have this to say . . ." and go on to criticize a program. It was funny--and revealing. Although Mrs. Jones set the outer limit, she gave others permission to be critical when necessary.

Mrs. Jones was not permanently hostile or evil, but a "character" the congregation always accepted and sometimes loved. In her own' cantankerous way, she saw herself as a champion of causes especially discipline of children and care for the elderly. As a loose cannon, she worried us when she took aim at some new, unsuspecting soul. Members who had been previously initiated embraced the new target as a sister or brother baptized into a special group in the congregational family.

Once we accepted that her comments had some value, Mrs. Jones became highly energized and unusually productive. She was not easily wooed into conformity, but rather relished her provocative role. In fact, others began to protect that role. When my successor responded to her attacks, he attracted criticism "for the way he treated Mrs. Jones." Even as a thorn to comfortable group process, she made an essential contribution and considered herself a loyal member of the church family.

Over time, Mrs. Jones became so infamous among us that the mention of her name came to symbolize the critical sensitivity we needed on many issues. We joked with her about her "unique, prophetic gifts." I urged her to be more accurate with her use of information. (I discovered that almost everyone discounted her "facts" even while they listened carefully to her feelings.) I also tried to find a positive term with which to label her unpleasant interventions (but failed). As a special character among us, Mrs. Jones never lost her angry edge--but in a strange way, we eventually became mutually respectful friends.

May-June 1996




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