Willing to Learn

"If I say, 'I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,' then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot." 

Jeremiah 20:9

Much of my attention of late has revolved around the hiring and nurturing of new staff. Transitions are never easy, especially when necessitated by illness or injury; when our BELOVED music director, Elaine Gradowski, had a stroke on World Communion Sunday (October 3), it was devastating. Knowing she had been lying on the floor for hours—precious hours when she could have been receiving treatment—made the ordeal harder for all of us. I was amazed when, following emergency brain surgery, she asked John to call and let me know she would have to miss Monday’s staff meeting!  That was a moment of great hope that she would regain full functionality and return to us to resume her role, a role that expanded greatly during the past two years of pandemic.

When our sanctuary became a television studio, Elaine became the choir and primary accompanist/song leader for all the hymns. Usually she would take a summer hiatus along with the choir, but as COVID kept us worshiping remotely, she was there every week. When we worshiped outside, she even brought her own keyboard! She had always joked that she would retire “when God knocks me off the piano bench.” Finding her on the floor shook me to my core; five years earlier on another World Communion Sunday (October 2, 2016), I returned from church to find my husband on the floor. He died the following Sunday. I continue to thank God that we still have Elaine with us; even though she can no longer play the piano, she volunteers her time to continue as our handbell director. That is devotion!

My heart was heavy when we finally placed an advertisement for a new music director.  Six months to the day after Elaine’s stroke, we hired Lambert Corcoran—not to “replace” her, but to build on the foundation laid decades before by Epworth’s first musicians, just as Elaine had done. And then there’s Sylvia Schulze, our BELOVED organist who, with great love, willingly passed on the mantle to Lambert. When she heard him play, she felt that she could retire (at 84, she is entitled) because she knew we were in good hands. Sweet Sylvia has even offered to help Lambert learn the organ, as has Oronde Short, who has accepted the organist’s position two Sundays each month (though he understandably continues seeking a position in a church with a pipe organ).

Lambert and Oronde are not the only new staff members: Kristiina Washington has come onboard as our Coordinator of Ministries with Children, in addition to accepting a teaching position in our Children’s Center. Both she and Lambert continue to express their surprise, delight, and praise to God that we were willing to hire them. In fact, both have repeatedly said the only reason they decided to apply was the wording in our advertisements that caught their eye: “experience with…or willingness to learn” and “paid or volunteer experience.” All three of our new staff have extensive volunteer experience. Even Oronde, who has the most professional experience, started playing in church as a child.  And, for all  three, their work is an expression of their deep and abiding faith.

We are blessed that they are sharing their Spirit-breathed gifts with us. I’ve shared with you that long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away (aka 1981 in Lutherville), St. John’s UMC took a chance on me, hiring me as Youth Director without a moment’s professional experience. I had been the volunteer youth leader at the Texas Charge since 1976 and the volunteer Youth Coordinator for the (then) Baltimore North District of the (then) Baltimore Conference since 1980—both before answering my call to ordained ministry and beginning seminary studies. Was I well-equipped for the job when hired? That would be what is known as a hard “no.” Was I the most-qualified candidate? Hard to say. My salary was a whopping $5.00/hour (a pittance then as well as now).

Several folks in our congregation remarked (jokingly?) that they were willing to “put a few more bucks in the offering if we can keep them” when they heard our new musicians in action. From your lips to God’s ears! When I began in ministry, many church organists, pianists, and choir directors were volunteers (or hired at salaries rivaling mine in 1981). As fewer people studied music, even smaller churches began hiring musicians. And as more and more congregants became busier and busier with less and less free time, once-volunteer positions became professionally staffed: secretaries, janitors, lawn care workers—most of these jobs had been done by the laity or pastor.

We have a great staff here at Epworth—all underpaid. I say that in all seriousness; even our “willing to learn” staffers are not compensated adequately. I’m not saying this to bring on guilt. I am not saying this about my own compensation (I am appointed, not staff) which I feel blessed to receive and about which I never complain.  I am telling you this so you appreciate the hard work and devotion of those who serve in our midst. While I am not suggesting that anyone in the congregation begin organ lessons or clean the restrooms, I am asking if you are “willing to learn.” Willing to volunteer.

Our congregation, like so many others, is facing a crisis of leadership.  The Church Universal, the Body of Christ, is facing challenges like never before. Kristiina, as she grows in skill and confidence, will help to shape our ministries with children, but we did not hire her to teach Sunday School! That is the job of the laity which has fallen upon too few workers. We need people who are willing to work with children, youth, and adults as small group and study leaders. We need singers and ringers for our choirs. We need you! Christ needs you.

The best—if not the only—way to learn anything completely is to have to teach it to someone else. Even our very talented music staff started with lessons and practicing scales. If you learned to drive you remember, no doubt, the initial terror of being behind the wheel. If you taught your teen to drive, you remember, no doubt, the initial terror of…. Get my drift? The number one reason people turn down the invitation to teach Sunday School or a bible study? “I don’t know enough about Scripture to teach it!” Maybe not, but are you willing to learn?

Be patient with our new (and not so new) staff. If you find yourself fussing, stop and decide if your criticism is valid. If so, voice it to the appropriate person (if you don’t, you’re just griping and likely to be more hurtful than helpful). Remember when you were newly employed and unsure of yourself. And, by all means, pray for our staff and your pastor. I have it on good authority that she prays for you every day!