I coined the phrase white, married, middle-age man syndrome thirty-plus years ago. I was in the first wave of women in ministry, pioneering an unchartered and hostile environment. It was more like a suicide mission, but I was young, enthusiastic, and idealistic. I had no mentors, no colleagues, and no clergy cluster to which I was welcome. I did have a journal and I found a woman therapist. Writing my experiences and having someone who listened affirmed and validated the constant challenges in which I found myself and helped me find a perspective by which to navigate and survive in this new territory.
You may want to check out a previous post, The White, Married, middle-Age Man Syndrome, for some background for today’s stories.
The five of us clergy gathered every Monday morning promptly at 8:30 for clergy staff meeting. We all sat in the same places in the senior pastor’s large study and there was a definite pecking order. The senior pastor was really holding court and the four of us were his loyal subjects. Well, the other three were his loyal subjects. He treated me more like an errant daughter in need of guidance and direction. The eldest of us, a retired pastor who really didn’t want to retire, was my greatest ally, but because I didn’t follow the traditional denominational career trajectory he sometimes didn’t quite know what to do with me. The PhD in Christian Education was totally dismissive, but this was a man who picked out his wife’s outfits for Sunday. The forth was divorced and dating and gave me the oh-oh feeling. I think it was the transactional analysis the oozed from him that creeped me out. There we gathered. The faithful, faithfully every Monday morning at 8:30.
After we gave homage to the wonderful sermon and worship services, and dissected all the attendance numbers and collection amount, we started in on the pastoral care needs for the week. We collected, on average, 300 to 400 prayer request cards from the Sunday worship services. Some long-suffering volunteer came in early Monday morning and photocopied all of those cards for us! We’d then each receive a 22 to 25 page document on 11 by 14-inch paper, collated and stapled together. As you can imagine, the confidentiality of this packet was of the utmost concern for us. I don’t think any of us ever took our packet from that office. Clergy offices, like clergy, are considered public property and you never knew who would be looking for something in your desk or bookshelf.
This particular Monday, when it was my turn to bring up any pastoral concerns we all should be in the know about, I mentioned that the wife of one of our prominent members approached me in the parking lot. She found out her husband was having an affair and when she confronted him about it, he hit her, breaking two of her ribs.
The first question asked was, “Is she sure he’s really having an affair?” The second statement was, “She shouldn’t have provoked him.” I was stunned into silence. When I finally found my voice, it was all I could do to not come unglued! No mention of her safety, well-being, the emotional trauma of learning that your husband of 25 years is having an affair, and then the physical violence. And then I was told to “let them” (yes, the white, married, middle-age men) handle this because it was a very delicate situation with financial consequences for the church! I was ordered, under no circumstances, to have any contact with her and, should she contact me, refer her for pastoral care to one of “them.”
I frothed all week over that one incident. I was thankful to be quite busy outside the office with the rest of my church responsibilities that week. Good thing, as I was going to find out on Sunday.
I taught two adult Sunday School classes during the 9:30 and 11:00 services. The 9:30 class was well attended, about 75 to 85 adults every Sunday. I’ve preached in churches that don’t have that many people in attendance during the worship service, so I was quite pleased that we had that many in a Sunday School class in a church where adult Sunday School is not the norm.
I don’t remember what we were studying, but there was a lively, thoughtful discussion going on. This class was full of well-educated, industry leaders in Silicon Valley. Something caught the corner or my eye. At first I thought it was a roof rat. Next thing I knew there were suits everywhere, guns drawn, going right for one of the men in the class. I heard something about FBI. They extracted the man and were gone about as fast as they arrived.
Once the shock of what happened passed, the questions started flying and it became a little chaotic. One of the clergy was dispatched from the worship service to tell us to quiet down and I was ordered to “report in” immediately after the service. As if the shock of the FBI arresting someone in the class wasn’t enough, a colleague “ordering” another colleague caught the ears of more than a few class members. What a mess this day had become.
Although the man arrested was a long-time member of the church, I was the only clergy who knew him. He regularly attended the adult Sunday School class and was an active participant in the Singles group. Of course, the Singles group was one-third of the adult population of the church, the largest giving constituency, and the average age was 45, but they were often treated like a rogue youth group.
I hadn’t even closed the door, when the chastisement began: As “one of my singles” how could I not know what was going on and give everyone a heads up on this most embarrassing situation. At this point, I didn’t even know why this man was arrested, and certainly wasn’t privy to any FBI arrangements. My job was to find out and be ready to give a full report by our clergy staff meeting … as if everyone’s phones weren’t already going to be ringing off the hook.
I got a call from the arrested parishioner’s attorney later that afternoon. His client was arrested as part of a child pornography sting the FBI had been conducting for several months. This man was pleading guilty as part of a plea bargain. I had something to report the following day.
Ten years later, the “wife of the prominent member” ran into me while shopping. I didn’t recognize her, but she recognized me. We sat down for coffee and I heard the rest of her story. The long and short of it was she was contacted by one of the white, married, middle-age clergy. He didn’t believe her story, thought maybe she was exaggerating because “her husband would never do something like that unless provoked”, and maybe she should consider getting some help. When she filed for divorce, she was asked to find another church to attend. She never went back to any church.
The child pornography man? He was murdered in prison. I learned, years later from his mother, that my colleagues accused me of being negligent in my pastoral care duties because I didn’t alert the prison authorities that his life was in any danger. By the time he was sentenced, I was on staff in another church and not providing any pastoral care to anyone at that church. His mother, having no one to turn to in her grief at her son’s church (which she too was a member), began attending a new church. Truly by coincidence, I was there.
Why talk about the white, married, middle-age syndrome? Because thirty-plus years later it is alive and thriving. So much so, that the Republican platform has made it their official platform. I don’t care how many different men you get to pray and invocate, or how many hymn-sing-alongs you can orchestrate. Jesus never championed the people or institutions or power-players of the day. Jesus widened the circle and it included the side of the least. Violence and oppression were not any part of his agenda. Men and women were valued equally. Women were taken seriously and allowed their own control. Violence, including any kind of rape, is violence. Oppression against a person or a group because of lifestyle, or culture, or ethnic background, or religion, is oppression.
But then, Jesus wasn’t a white, married, middle-age man.