Archive for June, 2011

The parish picnic

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

We just had our parish picnic, and I’m feeling a need to process. No drama, just subtle dynamics I’m still trying to sort out. (I feel like I need to do a Critical Incident Report, for the CPE survivors out there.) So I’m gonna blog about it. This may be a long one, but if you’ve got the time to read it, I’d welcome your thoughts.

So there’s a woman in my parish – let’s call her Alice. She’s probably in her late 60s. Active churchwoman, active in diocesan life, past deputy to General Convention – a deeply committed and deeply involved Episcopalian. And I was warned about her before I even came to this parish. I was warned that she was controlling – that she ran the parish like her kingdom – that she sabotaged ideas she didn’t like – that she had made the lives of previous clergy very difficult.

I still don’t know how fair any of that is. Those warnings mostly came from folks at the diocesan office. I have since learned that Alice put up a stiff fight a few years back when the diocese was selling its campground, which Alice’s family is very attached to. She seems to have a bit of a reputation as a troublemaker, at the diocesan level. At the parish level…. I’ve heard a lot of stories about Alice. But the common thread of those stories is, “I do coffee hour/ushering/parish life/….. because Alice told me to, fifteen years ago.” And not infrequently, the coda is, “And now I’m tired of it, and I quit.” (I am working hard and, I think, largely successfully to be a non-anxious presence as all those stories unfold. Anybody who’s been doing the same ministry for 15+ years deserves to quit without being hassled about it. Any really essential roles will eventually get filled, one way or another.) So I’ve heard a lot of stories about Alice strongarming people into doing what she thought needed done – or, to look at it another way, about Alice holding the parish together through sheer force of will, during some rocky years. As challenging as it is to recover from Alice’s domination, who knows where the parish would be if she hadn’t done what she did? And I haven’t yet heard a story about Alice being unkind or unethical. Maybe those stories exist and nobody’s told them to me yet. We’ll see.

At any rate: As far as I can tell, Alice and I are doing OK. We have sort of a tentative friendship. She decided before I arrived that she was going to step back from nearly all of her ministry roles in the parish and take a “sabbatical” – she even quit choir. Now and then – sometimes at my request, sometimes unprompted – she sends me an email that says something like, “This is what we’ve done at Shrove Tuesday in the past….” The phrasing is never “This is what you should do,” or “This is how it has to be” – it’s “This is how we’ve done it.” She’s a very smart woman, and I think she’s honestly trying to be helpful. I think that she would very much like it if things kept being the way they have always been, but she also realizes she can’t keep running it all forever, & that in letting it go, some change will happen. So… I would say Alice and I are finding our way, bit by bit.

What I’m finding much more difficult than dealing with Alice, is dealing with the hole Alice leaves by stepping back from her former central role. There’s a lot of what I would almost label learned helplessness around here. If Alice doesn’t make it happen, people just stumble around in confusion. My first experience of this was the Shrove Tuesday pancake supper. One of the gentlemen of the church asked me, “Will we have a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper?” I said, “I don’t know. Will we?” It took a little while for me to understand that his question was really a question about the Alice-vacuum – “Will this happen if Alice doesn’t make it happen?” Very much to his credit, that gentleman stepped up and organized Shrove Tuesday, which went very well.

But it keeps happening – the Alice-vacuum – in things great & small. Sometimes, for smaller things, she just shows up & does it – like their Mother’s Day observance. Sometimes she communicates with me about what needs doing, and who might be willing to do it…

Which brings us to the parish picnic. I asked for, & she sent, a long document about the food, the set-up, the games. She suggested a sign-up sheet for various roles – set-up, grill, clean-up, etc. I created a sign-up sheet, & made announcements about it for a couple of weeks, including an invitation for someone to take on the role of Picnic Point Person & make sure all the roles are covered. (During these weeks, I had this inner dialogue with myself repeatedly: “IT IS NOT MY JOB TO RUN THE PARISH PICNIC AND I MUST NOT LET IT BECOME MY JOB. BUT it’s important for there to be a parish picnic…. So I’ll just post a signup sheet/buy a few prizes/help organize the grocery shopping *this year* ….”)

Nobody signed up. Well, almost nobody. Someone signed up to run the grill; someone signed up to buy the cake; someone eventually signed up to bring prizes for the games (though she did NOT want to run the games, due in part to past dynamics with Alice, as far as I can tell). Nobody signed up for setup or cleanup. I had no idea whether anyone would show up. I spend way too much time worrying about whether this picnic would happen.

I wanted the picnic to happen. Alice has other ideas – like a summer outing to the theater – that I can take or leave. But there’s something pretty archetypal about the end-of-the-year parish picnic. And it sounded like it was important to people! – the food, the games, the blankets spread on the grass, kids playing bubbles and drawing with chalk on the sidewalks, the lounging around in the sun together…. It sounded like a keystone fellowship event. I wasn’t going to take on responsibility for making it happen RIGHT, but I felt an obligation to make sure it happened at all…

I contacted Alice early last week to touch base about the lack of volunteers, and she offered to do the shopping, and said that she and her husband could do set-up if nobody else did it. I was relieved to have her help – and I thought, Well, I appreciate her stepping back from leadership roles in many areas, but it would be just fine with me if Alice ran the parish picnic for another decade; that’s a perfectly appropriate role for a long-serving matron of the church!…

The picnic was today. And it was OK, fine, lovely…. but. It felt unstructured. Nobody seemed to know when go to outside. Nobody knew when to start the games. We eventually pulled a couple of games together and played them. I think exactly three people got involved with the games who were not either my family, or Alice’s family. Maybe ten people played in both games, total. Maybe forty or fifty people stayed for lunch (out of 70 at church). But they started trickling away pretty soon. There were maybe 25 there when we started the games. I don’t know, it’s hard to put a finger on. People like to sit and eat together, that’s fine, but it didn’t feel rollicking. It didn’t feel like it had a life of its own.

A telling moment: Early in the event, while people were still milling around trying to figure out how to transition from coffee hour to picnic, I found myself standing briefly with two other women of the parish, who were trying to figure out who was in charge. Maybe John, who’s running the grill? No, John says Alice is in charge. But Alice says she’s leaving (no idea what that’s about; she was there before the event and after it, so if she left, it was to sit in her car during the picnic itself…). So if Alice isn’t in charge, who can tell us what to do? The question, it transpired, was whether it was OK to bring out the side dishes and put them on the outside table yet. I suggested that they could make their own decision based on what made sense to them. They looked at each other, looked at me, shrugged. One of them said, “OK, I guess we’ll bring them out.” And they did. And of course, that was fine.

That’s the moment that brought the phrase “learned helplessness” to mind. I truly don’t think Alice meant to do it, but she has these folks believing that they need her permission to bring the side dishes from the kitchen to the picnic table. That’s… not good.

So… the picnic, as a whole, felt flat to me. Underwhelming. OK, but not a rollicking good time. And I don’t know why not. I fretted a little, vaguely, about whether I could or should have done anything differently (before reminding myself for the umpteenth time that organizing the parish picnic is NOT MY JOB). Did the picnic underwhelm because Alice would have done more to round people up, organize and bully people into being there and doing stuff and playing the games and having a good time?

Or is it the opposite: is the picnic stale and under-attended because people are a little weary of these events that were Alice’s signature events?… I think especially of those games. My husband and my son and I, making a good show of being gung-ho; and Alice’s two teenage grandkids; and three other people. Something tells me we’re not meeting a widely-felt need, there.

Which all means that maybe it *isn’t* OK after all if Alice runs the church picnic for another decade. Maybe people around here are just weary with anything that has the faintest echo of Alice’s past bossiness around it.

So… *does* the parish picnic matter? Is this an outworn paradigm? Does this event have Alice’s fingerprints on it too much to be salvageable? – should we try something entirely different next year? ….

Your insights, reflections, further questions I should be pondering, are always welcome….