Incorporation: A Novel
As he jogged the familiar though risky route from the church office—cheerfully dodging the ever demanding faithful—down the hall to the sanctuary, hymnal in hand, not five minutes before the beginning of the service (he could already hear hints of the portentous prelude), Stephen instinctively gave his cincture a final, reassuring jerk and tugged the button on the neck of his alb. Behind him flapped the ends of his purple stole. Having vested so often for sacred service, he could make such adjustments even while moving hastily, having no need of a mirror.
He smiled as parishioners passed.
“Stephen, please, please don’t forget to remind them about the Youth Car Wash for Haiti,” an aqua-pantsuited parishioner said. “Remember, you forgot last Sunday. Next Saturday. It’s important. OK?”
“Sure,” he said, suppressing his resentment with a subtlety gained through years of practice.
“Pastor Steve,” a high-pitched, tiny voice peeped from his back. He stopped and turned to find a little girl just behind him. “Can I ask a question?” she said, her plain face brightening into a smile.
“Sure you can.” He mused at the inopportuneness of questions, even when asked by “the least of these,” to someone in his line of work at this hour, in this place. He knelt down next to her.
“When did you choose to be a preacher?” she asked. “Like in the ministry.”
Her innocence in asking so huge a question momentarily transfixed him.
He looked into her little face and knew that she knew not what she had asked. Memories rose to his mind that would take a long time to tell and, in any case, could not be told to her, despite Jesus’ “for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”
“Sometime let’s talk,” he said as he gently patted her back, then rose. “I didn’t choose it; it chose me.”
Seeing she was puzzled, he explained, “It’s kinda complicated.”
As a young cleric spiraling upward, all that Simon had asked for was the opportunity to have a church that appreciated his talent and, through his exercise of his personal gifts, to make someone’s sad life happier and the world a bit better. In the day’s cheerful spring sunlight, his ecclesiastical accomplishments arrayed before him, Simon could say with the psalmist, “my lines have fallen in pleasant places.” He was at a golden age, attained by few ecclesiastics, when he could take pleasure in what he had produced. A visionary transformer more than mere manager, an energetic enabler more than cautious caregiver, content and satisfied, his cup overflowed.
Simon’s car was sleek, dark blue, clean, German. (He had leased the car in expectation of a long sought car allowance. Though the perquisite had been slow to materialize, he wouldn’t allow the board’s sluggishness to detract from his enjoyment of the perfect car.) The church lawn fit Simon’s spirit—grand, green, and manicured. He had an Easter sermon in the oven for presentation the day after tomorrow. The new four and a half million mission/education/fellowship/inspiration wing caused him particular pride. True, he had hoped to chip away more progressively on the building’s debt, but with less than two million to go, the church’s indebtedness could not diminish his triumph. What a morning.
The German sedan showed Simon’s adoration—to the point of preoccupation—for efficiency, whether in cars, coffeemakers, or churches. When interviewed recently by the drab denominational monthly and asked, “What is the key thing you have done to put Hope Church where it is?” Simon responded, “Excellence. I have stressed excellence in all that we do. Too often churches content themselves with second best, average. I’m not much interested in what is traditionally called ‘sin,’ but ‘sin’ in my book is mediocrity. ‘Excellence’ is our management mantra.”
A solitary Unitarian/Universalist-like Saab greeted Simon in the lot, probably someone fussing with Easter flowers. His spirit rose; the Saab was solid evidence of an ever so slight leftward lean of the congregation in recent years, the fruit of his prophetic preaching.
How many pastors of his rank would report for work on a holiday Friday, he wondered, even by noon? Not many, particularly after his leadership of the previous weeks’ exhausting Lenten ecclesiastical lollapaloozas.
He congratulated himself on decisively terminating Good Friday worship rather than allowing the sparsely attended liturgical relic to die a slow death. Now on the verge of Hope’s grand Easter crescendo, the depressing forty days of Lent almost at an end, he was spirit-pumped.
As Simon sped up the walk, he was annoyed to see a hunched over old man shuffling toward the office door. No doubt this mendicant hoped for charity amid the Holy Week zeal that was bubbling up from the faithful. What self-respecting church could deny a urine-saturated indigent on Good Friday? Simon begrudgingly admired the determination required by someone in his condition to crawl all the way to Hope, even for an affluent, suburban handout.
“May I help you?” Simon called out politely.
“No,” muttered the man, undeterred in his shuffling, forward movement, barely looking over his shoulder.
“Hello? Seeking assistance?”
“Only Jesus can help.”
“Unfortunately, this is not the door for such inquiries,” said Simon, positioning himself defensively between the inerloper and the church’s entrance. Gesturing with his free hand that held his keys, he directed, “Please go right back down this sidewalk. Then take a right, straight to the end, then left. Sign by the door says Hopeful Hands and Hearts. Got that? I’m sure that a volunteer can help you there.”
The old man’s mention of Jesus reminded Simon that because it was Good Friday, every do-gooder at Hopeful Hands and Hearts was on holiday. Still, the man would be off his hands (to say nothing of his heart), wandering in more distant parts of the Hope campus where, providentially, all the doors would be locked.
“Good day,” said Simon, approaching the outside door to his suite. “Straight to the end, then left.”
Having done his bit for charity, Simon entered a dark, oak-paneled, tomb-like side entrance hall into the administrative suite. Eight portraits greeted him—Hope’s dead pastors preserved, some in clericals, others in business suits. Simon acknowledged them with a snort; he had passed by this Sanhedrin-like welcome committee nearly every day for twenty years. Each past pastor posed smugly, looking pious before bookshelves. One held a Bible. All await Simon one day to join them.
Will Willimon is an American theologian and bishop in the United Methodist Church, currently serving in the North Alabama Conference. He is former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University and is considered by many as one of America’s best-known and most influential preachers.