Saturday, February 20, 2016

Perfect Pitch

I don't usually post these, but I realize not everybody reads the News & Observer, where my columns appear once a month on Sundays. So here it is. It appears in the Feb. 21 edition of the Arts & Living section. 

Perfect Pitch

Though I began my career slugging out words in a newsroom, for more than 20 years I worked from home. I loved the freelance life, leaving the office long enough to search for a story or meet with writing students, but I also loved that by the end of the day I was home and ready to collect whatever jewels my children chose to share when they came home from school.

Then college happened, and my husband looked at me and said: It’s time you got out  of the house.

Just about that time, my church called a new priest, a man so young I could have been his babysitter. (After hours, he plays bass in an indie rock band.)
He set to work, and his youth brought a new energy to our congregation, and soon he began to build a team to help him lead our parish through what would be a time of tremendous growth.

Some of these wonderful folks already worked there. Others, like me, he found within the pews. When he approached me about joining the staff for communications, I was reticent. I cherished my freelance work (and my flexibility). I liked attending church and volunteering, and though I loved the people, working where I worship? I wasn’t so sure. 

Then he took me to lunch and talked about that “call” thing, and well, that got me.

In those first weeks I sat in a tiny office filled with somebody else's filing cabinets, trying to invent a job no one had had before me. But soon I was sharing space with my friend Lee, who had a similar lunch and was now leading our newcomer program. Then came Charlotte for endowment and Abby for youth — the Episcopal logo tattooed on her wrist long before she ever thought about working for a church.

Today we are a baker’s dozen — working in music and finance, youth and children’s ministry, administration, preaching and teaching, forging deep friendships as we go, doing what I now know is God’s work.

I think too often when people hear the word “ministry,” at least in the Episcopal Church, they think of hands folded, voices low, lots of fancy language and all that kneeling.

There is that, of course, but there is so much more.

Our weekly staff meetings begin with prayer, surely, and with sharing plans of how our work will help bring our people closer to God. But sometimes our spiritual conversations morph into how popular culture competes with Church, and to mask our frustration, my boss might ask us about our favorite characters in stories as diverse as “House of Cards” and “Star Wars” to “Mary Tyler Moore.” 

The Mary Tyler Moore thing grew from a discussion about the preaching rotation (or ROTA), which morphed into “Rhoda,” and of course for most of us, there is only one Rhoda. The entire staff broke out with the theme song, and as it ended, our newest priest, with us only a few months, tossed his collar into the air like Mary did her hat. (No irreverence intended, of course.)

Who does this at work?

Everybody, I wish.

We often leave our meetings laughing, ready to take on the sadness our parishioners sometimes share with us. We’re here for specific jobs — taking care of the building, planning the Sunday anthem, counting pledges — but we listen, too, as we make copies, share lunch and conversation, hearing our people out, even when they think we are not doing our jobs.

A few weeks ago, the collar-tossing priest answered a new call, and we’re heartbroken. He pulled our circle in even tighter, and we will never forget his ministry to and with us.

When we heard he was leaving, the boss opened our staff meeting by saying a friend had asked him what it was like to work with us. 

“You know the last episode of Mary Tyler Moore, when they all gather for that group hug? That’s what it’s like,” he said. Later Charlotte posted that image on our Facebook page, and we all wept a little.

Yes, at my office, love is all around, and on most days we try not to waste it, knowing this perfect pitch may be tossed our way again.

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Susan Byrum Rountree is director of communications for St. Michael's Episcopal Church.  

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