To whom it may concern:
What follows is a summary of what I perceive to be a major administration issue at the Presbyterian Church of the Moriches. Although I first identified these problems when I was on Session five years ago, at the beginning of our Interim period, my intent is neither to recommend action nor to assign blame. I recognize that what has been intolerable to me and a growing number of long-time members of the congregation is either not evident or not believed by others. With that in mind, I view my purpose in writing this as merely to document what I experienced. The only thing I expect to gain is the closure from revisiting it.
Who am I?
I have spent my whole life in the Presbyterian Church of the Moriches, and my grandchildren mark the 5th generation in it. I'm anything but impulsive and dismissive of my congregation and my traditions, particularly as we greet newcomers to our fold. We have always viewed the congregation as family... sometimes literally. One of my daughters refers to an unrelated elder as "grandpa," and Sunday School classmates are like relatives to both of them. The congregation was there for us before we adopted our children, throughout their lives, as well as through periods when severe psychopathology struck our family.
I'm a neuroscientist working on psychopathology at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons in Manhattan. I've used this expertise serving my congregation as an Elder on Session, as chair of the Church and Society Committee, and as a Sunday School teacher. I served on the Presbytery's Council on Education and the Young Adults Work Group. I was a core member of Honoring All Voices (HAV), a partnership of congregations of the Presbytery of Long Island that began after 9/11 to host events focused on war, sexuality and Presbyterian polity. The first of these events, Open to Dissent: A History and a Calling , established our aims and capacities. The second event, Whose Bible is it Anyway When We Talk About Sex and War?, included Ron Stone as a speaker. Following his unfortunate misstep with the media, Peter Sulyok and his family found themselves on Long Island. I felt, as did many in the presbytery, that we owed them for their misfortune in the cause of peace in our denomination.
My experience in the presbytery has made me well aware of the variation in worship styles, as well as differences in the strengths and weaknesses of leadership dynamics. However, my own direct experience with the workings of Presbyterian polity at the congregational level was restricted to my our own.
The Rev. Gordon Letizia served us for quite a while, even amid unrest and division that arose primarily out of fiscal concerns. Members were lost, but even most of the critics in my parent's generation noted that it's our church, and it will be here long after any minister's term. In later years, whenever a board member complained about something that wasn't done or was done wrong, it was clear that the buck stopped with us. We worked with our pastor for the benefit of our congregation, our worship, our mission, our ministry. The minister, in turn, empowered our congregation in all of these things by viewing us as a functional unit working for a common good. As members of Session, we relied on the moderator for his unique training and background as a Teaching Elder, and yes, often micromanaged too many things. Conversely, we all knew that we had a voice, and that the moderator was there to help. We were aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the minister and each other, making us a strong congregation.
At the time our previous minister retired, the congregation had long been a tight-knit group of hard-working individuals with different talents and skills. We had no trouble surviving in the months before the Interim pastor arrived, divvying up the duties and continuing our worship and our traditions as we always had. Among these traditions was our collective intent to include dissenting opinions whenever possible. We knew quite a bit about who we were, what we held important, what our strengths and weaknesses were, and what our likely directions for continued growth might be. We also knew that we had to continue to adapt and grow in our faith and fellowship. The success of our food pantry was already quite impressive, and we saw becoming even more important in the mission of the church.
We had a short list of needs for an Interim. We needed someone who would respect our congregation's identity and traditions, and help us grow to face new concerns. Since we had many long-standing traditions, it was important to start on the same page as us. Because we valued our political diversity, we kept hot-button issues out of the pulpit, but then provided opportunities to respectfully discuss them from our different perspectives. We also knew that we needed someone who was "good with kids," which the previous minister was not.
Another prerequisite was an ability to sustain our small but diverse Bible study group composed of people of faith with an academic bent. This study began when an M.D. from our choir asked Gordon a number of basic questions, like where the Bible came from, who wrote what, and for what purposes. It quickly led into tangential issues that occurred to the members of the group based on their own areas of interest and expertise: science, medicine, theater, culture, history, but always with a tie-in to our shared faith. The group was well established by the time I began attending, but I learned quite a bit from it. I looked at it as an ongoing discussion group that was anchored to a "seminary school 101" level Bible study. We'd often find ourselves saying things like , "We need a physicist for this question," and then looking to a doctoral student for an interpretation. However, we clearly needed the expertise of a Teaching Elder for it to work.
Leadership Style of the Interim Minister
The Interim minister, Jeannine Frenzel-Sulyok, was selected by our interim search committee primarily for her aptitude for working with kids, which she later demonstrated by promoting the work of the Sunday School staff. I was on session when the she began her term. As the acting webmaster, I contacted her well in advance in order to greet her and add her information to the church website. She ignored my introductory e-mail, and after I introduced myself to her in person, she continued to either ignore them or to attend to only one part of a carefully constructed letter. She began during Holy Week, at which time a number of us went over our traditions with her, beginning with our Maundy Thursday communion service. We all made ourselves available to facilitate a smooth transition that would accomplish the Interim goals in a way that accurately reflected the diversity and needs of our membership.
It's one thing for the Session to micromanage everything that goes on in the church, but it's quite another for the Session to be left out of the loop altogether. For an entire church season, every one of our monthly communion services was handled so badly that those raised to think it was sacred cringed. Our particular traditions were ignored without comment or feedback. Each communion service became more and more disconnected, with no effort to work with us to make it work. At one point, she somehow found herself standing in front a confused congregation saying, "aren't there supposed to be elders here or something?" This was to become the new leadership style of the Interim minister of my church.
The first Session meeting was also a disaster, with hurt feelings all around. At a time when those of us who had been working tirelessly to this end felt that we needed a break to be refreshed and renewed, it would only make sense for the first order of business to be the introduction, orientation and welcoming of the newly elected elders to their unfamiliar roles on session. Then, as we greeted the new officers and minister, it would only make sense to look back at a job well-done, to our progress along the way, and to reorient ourselves for the next step in our growth. This is not what happened.
What the Interim presented instead was the unspoken theme of "Everything must change." It wasn't a call to discipleship, or openness to the Spirit, or to new ideas, or thinking outside the box, or even to critical self-examination, but rather a time to exaggerate the magnitudes of our weaknesses and failures. Even before our committees were assigned, we were loudly decrying our inability to even do what we have been doing, let alone do it better. Everyone's job seemed to be Monday-morning-quarterbacked with sufficient recommendations along the way to discourage those who are doing things. We were also urged to immediately reorganize those personal monetary contributions applied to things like the newsletter and the website to show all of the costs, regardless of the feelings of those who had donated them on an ongoing basis. My immediate impression was that our church would have died long ago - and deservedly so - if members were actively discouraged from giving what was needed when it was needed, whether in money, talent, time, or other resources. We all understood that most things of importance cannot, and should not, be "put in the plate."
The Bible group turned out to be a dismal failure. She either lacked the ability or the self-confidence to follow up on questions or comments based on her basic seminary training. She never spontaneously got out a Bible, a commentary or a textbook to flesh out the simplest answers. As a member of the laity, I did my best to bridge the gaps by alluding to Biblical or theological information that I knew from our past sessions with Gordon, but she never added significantly more information than I began with. The result for the other participants was that instead of having an open discussion, it was just the two of us talking over everyone's head. After a while, she stopped coming to the sessions altogether, only contributing study guide suggestions that proved to run counter to the free-flowing nature of the group. [As an aside, I must note that her husband Peter seems to be quite good at this, and we always use his skills when he attends our breakfast and discussion group.]
Following this disappointing experience, I later came to learn another of her eccentricities that was of fundamental importance: we now had a new and extremely efficient rumor mill that asserted that it was the Bible group and its failure were mine.
Another example of the leadership style during the Interim period: it was quite routine for the minister to arbitrarily assigned people near to her to do jobs that others had been doing for many years, resulting in unnecessary hard feelings. However, the problems didn't stop with the reassignment of voluntary duties: In what had been a transparent congregation, the rumor mill began to cast doubt on the dedication, ability or sanity of people who had been standards or "go-to" people before she arrived. From my own experience as webmaster and the person who previously prepared the visitors welcoming flyer, the website was consistently misidentified due to typing errors and omissions in the bulletin or newsletter, even after the minister had seized universal control over all content. Moreover, while the welcoming flyer was revised with my blessings, it also contained a mistyped web address.
Other examples include individuals who always served as our newspaper contact, as well as the elder who prepared the existing newsletter, whose husband, a past Trustee, now asserts that e-mails to her from the minister were "just plain nasty." To me, the most disturbing thing was the way she quickly identified an older pillar of the congregation as someone who was "losing it." This man was always the first person anyone met. He effectively lived at the church, and did whatever was needed out of dedication and love. He was a person of strong faith and character, and probably the most humble person I ever met. He was also one of those people who seemed to actually feel pain when he heard profanity, as I cautioned my growing children. In conversation and discussions, he also tended to be overly deferential, which at times led him to express himself a bit awkwardly. After the Interim period began, people were following him around checking up on everything he was doing. Quite coincidentally, he became ill with a disease that affected his immune system, faded out of the daily life of the church, and died a few years later. The words the Interim minister spoke at his funeral made it clear that she had no notion of his life and ministry. Luckily other voices rose to the occasion.
Throughout the first year on Session during the Interim period, I found that every time I voiced a concern or noted a potential problem, the moderator invariably invoked "Interim Rules," by which was meant that unitary control by the Interim pastor would take precedence over standard protocol and practice. Although increasingly uneasy, I let it slide as an interim experiment, quite aware that according to protocol, the experiment would be finished and evaluated before a new minister was called. However, when Session was charged to submit anonymous critiques of the Interim pastor's performance to presbytery, I noted that her abrupt, authoritarian approach might pose a problem for a longterm position. In the end, the reports were never submitted to COM. The Interim moderator then identified the questionnaire as an in-house worksheet, and I was advised that my comments had been completely discounted by the COM liaison.
Over time, Session meetings became rubber stamps for the moderator, with any dissent being extremely uncomfortable for everyone. In later years, Roberts Rules were used tactically to prevent the introduction of issues that session members wanted or needed to discuss. At the same time, more and more items of session business effectively became classified, in that they were not to be discussed outside of session meetings. When a member of the congregation had something to discuss at a session meeting, they were now told not to talk to members of session, but to direct all business exclusively to the moderator. As someone who always took pride in Presbyterian polity, I was deeply offended by the changes.
Throughout my life, I had been accustomed to discussing, critiquing or reviewing sermon or worship-related material with the minister following the service. The Interim minister was never amenable to this kind of interaction, so I dropped it altogether. However, one week toward the beginning of the Interim period, the bulletin identified a reading from the Apocrypha as a scripture reading, and I felt obligated to let her know that since the Apocrypha are not in our canon, the source of the reading should have been identified. At this point she screamed at me in front of the organist (no exaggeration!), "I don't care if it's Mickey Mouse! I'll have anything I want in my service!"
Even apart from her inappropriate outburst, there were a few disturbing things that I took from the interaction: 1) valid concerns about the worship service by the ruling elders of the church would not be considered my the Interim minister; 2) I had been sadly mistaken to think that our worship service was in any way "ours." It was hers, and hers alone; 3) the reason she ignored our instruction on our communion traditions was that they weren't important enough for her to be concerned about; 4) There was no longer a need or an interest for the membership to lead or significantly contribute to any worship service in the church.
At the end of the first Interim year, I was quite glad to go off session, and for the first time I had no interest in returning. Despite my personal trials, I continued to do whatever I could for my church. I accepted a position on the Nominating Committee, one I'd later come to regret (see below). We kept at the Bible group long after it was clear to everyone that it was quite dead. I continued to work with anyone who was willing to update the website. Most of all, I stayed out of anything that had to do with worship. However, despite these efforts I heard a secondhand rumor about additional things that were " my fault " from someone I'd worked with and respected all of my life. The irreconcilable part of this was that the putative source of the rumor was a relative of mine who was very close to, and thoroughly uncritical of, the minister. Being unfamiliar with this kind of problem, I tried to defend myself rationally, offering complete sequences all of my e-mail correspondence to unambiguously vindicate me. These efforts only made me look petty without erasing the false blots on my name.
One by one, our local traditions were being replaced, not by growth or plan, but rather in the same manner as our communion traditions had changed: they were bungled until they slowly morphed into something that recovered some kind of function. I will only note a couple of additional examples of our new traditions.
Over many decades, we had hosted a somber Tennebrae service on Good Friday. For those who regularly attended it, it was arguably the most spiritually moving event of the year. The service had originally been an ecumenical service a number of decades back, but we clearly came to treasure it as our own. The silence and darkness spoke to us as saliently as the words interspersed among them. In the first year of the Interim, the candles were gratuitously placed where we expected to see them, but with no one was there to deal with them or the house lights. Year by year this shifted until it has now become a youth event that's a prelude to a sleepover. The kids do the readings, and candles either are or aren't lit or extinguished, depending on what the Sunday School Administrator is doing at the time. The reason is plainly stated by the minister: "That's not my job. I don't do candles."
The same thing happened with our annual contingent to World Day of Prayer. The first year the minister delegated someone completely unfamiliar with the task to handle it, which led to considerable chaos. Curiously, the usual contact person was someone the minister clearly didn't like, and was not inclined to ask to do her usual self-appointed job. Ultimately, this tradition shifted over the Interim period, so that this year we actually had no presence at the event at all. Again, the minister just wasn't interested.
Another change also occurred during the Interim period. Our annual Country Fair had been our major fundraiser, and was discontinued because those who usually organized it felt they could no longer do it. Now we have an annual fund drive called the "Unfair," where members are urged to contribute what they would have to the fair. Although many members of the congregation noticed that she rarely came to any of the usual fundraisers, the Interim minister does not appear to have been involved in this decision. I include it as an example of the shift from work to cash in the mindset of the congregation.
The Impact of "Interim Rules" on Me
Within the first season, I was already in grief over the growing loss of my church, my congregation and my traditions. I picked up a series of respiratory infections, and completely dropped out of the daily life of the church for a couple of months, waiting until I could ignore "the drama" that had replaced my solace and strength for so many years. I realized that to have such a deep tie to my church was itself idolatrous, but I knew I needed the spiritual support. I thought about talking to someone I knew from presbytery, but presbytery itself was going through major changes. Then I'd come across someone who greeted me with comments about "the good things" happening at my church. I thought about talking to the stated supply for East Moriches, with whom I'd developed a rapport when she moderated our session meetings before the Interim, but learned she'd moved out of the presbytery. I was left with a secular psychotherapist who clearly couldn't relate to the emotional significance of a multigenerational family church.
One clear problem that grew out of proportion over the Interim period: A lack of transparency and accountability for church decisions. For me, the prime example of this was the handling of our long-time organist. One day, completely without warning, the congregation learned that she had been abruptly fired, without even having a replacement in line. When the organist decided to attend the church service the next week, the minister immediately appointed a reluctant Session member to escort her out. I e-mailed the current members of session to ask what could have happened to lead to such abrupt and harsh treatment, something that was totally out of character for our congregation. I was quite surprised to receive an immediate reply from the moderator, demanding that all dealings with session go exclusively through her. Since the clerk was a recent Lutheran convert, I readdressed the question to my colleagues and reminded them of the distinct duties of the moderator and the members of session. For another few e-mail cycles, the moderator kept insisting that it was out of order for a member of the congregation to directly talk to session members about church decisions.
I then provided additional evidence that the culture of our congregation was becoming closed and unforgiving. I observed that when I was on the Nominating Committee a name was withheld from the vote following a comment from the minister that the person was "difficult to work with." Curiously, this "difficult" individual was the contact person for a long-standing women's group that was the direct descendent of the sewing group attended by the oldest members, and a group that continued to raise money at church fairs selling crafts. During the Interim period, there were numerous "mistakes and omissions" in bulletins and newsletters for this group... along with the rise of a new women's group formed with the Interim minster's blessings.
This was clearly a confession on my part. Since I caved in to pressure, I shared the blame. However, by the grace of God, my plea did not fall on deaf ears. At least two additional elders voiced their concurrence, and when an opening appeared on session, the withheld name filled it. Unfortunately, there are now two more faithful, hardworking members on the "difficult" list, who, like me, will never again subject themselves to serving on our session.
Another place that I caved was in not contesting the inclusion of the Interim minister among the candidates considered by our PNC. For some reason, possibly just that the Interim should not be called to the same church, I had allowed myself to believe that it would not happen. I also had a hard time believing that the PNC did not even acknowledge the existence of the issues I'd identified. And so, after they nominated the Interim minister to be called to our congregation, I felt obligated to cast an opposing vote to register the lack of unanimity by the congregation (None of the other dissenting members cast a vote). That afternoon, I was contacted because my opposition had accidentally been missed when the vote was tallied, and if I had really meant to have my opposition reported. I explained my opinion that the Jeannine would be fine for a congregation with more than one minister, but that she should have administrative duties.
I've since come to realize that neither my own experience nor the Book of Order are relevant to the actual workings of any particular Session or congregation. The accessibility or secrecy with which it acts, the way that authority is shared or exerted between the moderator and the members of Session, and the importance or casualness with which order and authority are exerted throughout the congregation can all be changed by consensus or coercion.
1) Now it so happens that my sister is not in the Jeannine's "difficult" group, but the minister does seem to be inexplicably annoyed with her much of the time. She generally ignores or looks through my sister after services, even following major medical problems that kept her from attending services. This includes a Sunday School Christmas pageant, where she sat only two tables away. Surprisingly the minister's core group, which includes a few of our relatives, don't notice at all, since they are always gushed over.
The church always displayed the hand-painted, ceramic nativity set my sister made 36 yrs ago, and given in memory of her deceased husband. Over the Interim years, the minister began to act strangely about the creche, a disaffection that loosely paralleled damage to one or more pieces of it. A mere two weeks after the aforementioned Sunday School Pageant, my sister made certain that she had placed the creche in its usual place the night before the service. Immediately after the service the next morning, she was told that she would have to be moved, at which point she packed up the set. It seems that another member had been instructed to put a floral arrangement on the same table that morning, before my sister had arrived. The latter member was particularly upset because she had to leave before the service that week. When the minister noticed that my sister was upset, she immediately blamed the member who had made the floral arrangement.
It was later claimed that the worship committee simply decided to change things this year. In keeping with the new minister's administration, no one bothered to coordinate or inform anyone. To make matters worse, the minister began telling everyone that my sister had an argument with two people that day and threatened her (the minister). Both of these assertions were patently false, and one of them completely verifiable since one of the people my sister was supposed to have argued with wasn't even in church at the same time my sister was. To this day, the new rumor mill, our relatives included, can't believe that the minister lied or confabulated details about the encounter. My sister was categorically smeared, and can no longer find peace at her own church.
Now it also so happens that my sister has been a Sunday School teacher and a Deacon, as well as a reliable contributor to the church fair fundraiser. In fact, the last two years, she's had a line item in the budget for her pickles, even though the fair has been terminated. Moreover, when my mother's house was sold, she took it upon herself to donate an additional $6,000 to the church earmarked for an air conditioning unit for the sanctuary, in memory of our mother.
2) This year we belatedly heard that the Moriches Bay Choral Society was not doing "The Messiah" in our church because we had tripled their rental fee (Note: we didn't hear this from "difficult" people, but from other people what had reason to know about the church's finances). By one account, the actual decision was made in a two-person conversation between the minister and the new president of the Trustees, a new member and part of the minister's in-group. Now the Messiah has been a staple at our church since the late 1930s. They got to use our pipe organ, and we got to support the community in a spiritually uplifting way. Over the years, we'd begun to charge them to heat and clean the building. Every year we complained about the way they handled the setup and takedown, but many of us happily attended as well. The session used to agonize over it every year, weighing not just the finances, but the spiritual and social aspects of the decision as well. As an aside, it seems that the new minister was never particularly impressed by it.
3) During the service the week before Christmas, it was clearly noted that the budget was $16,000 in the hole. My sister was tired of being marginalized and abused in her own church, but was also concerned that there were no checks and balances in effect to keep the $6,000 she had donated from being misallocated to general funds. To deal with this, I asked the clerk of session to add me to the docket for a brief, but urgent conversation about communication priorities in our church, adding that it also involved $6,000. When I later e-mailed the clerk to see what time it had been scheduled for, it was (surprise, surprise) the moderator who immediately responded by saying that she might add it to the docket in February or March, after the congregational meeting. I responded by clarifying that the request deals with:
"the way disagreements are currently being resolved and decisions are being made by our congregation, and who bears responsibility for decisions ranging from candles and creches to our long-time relationship with the Choral Society. Since this topic also involves $6,000 of funds that should either be used for an A/C in the sanctuary or returned to the giver, it needs to be dealt with by the Session before the Congregational Meeting."
To this I got a reply from the moderator indicating that she won't add it to the docket, but that she suspected that it had to do with my sister. She then went on to assert that she "knew" my sister had been in one or more arguments with two people before or after the service. This was untrue, because my sister had no arguments, and the minister herself was the only one who interacted with my her, at which time Jeannine promptly blamed other people and left.
I pled directly to the individual members of session to get my concern added to the docket, and was told flat by the moderator that nothing would be discussed without her approval, and that she would not give it. For me, the final straw was when my cousin was upset with me for suggesting that money could ever be misallocated.
4) When I took my sister to worship at Old South Haven, we were met by an "expat" Elder and a Trustee from Center Moriches, as well as the banished organist. I felt more connected to the worship service than I had since the week before the Interim pastor arrived. On the "Grief" scale, I think I've finally reached "Acceptance."
I have no reason to believe that this will change anything. I do believe that it was worth communicating, and I feel better for having done it.
Yours in Christ's Service
Craig Tenke, Elder
Presbyterian Church of the Moriches