The Preacher, the Pulpit & the People

Leaders: Is this how you want to go out?

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

Recently, a small group gathered at my childhood community church to honor the pastor of my early childhood and celebrate his retirement. “Rev X” founded the church in Nineteen Fifty-THREE, y’all. This man is NINETY-ONE years old. He started in a small tent, labored for years and literally helped build the small red brick church with his own hands. I remember walking “cat-a-corner” across the street from my house to the building with the glowing inset glass brick cross. I hunted Easter eggs, recited Christmas poems and learned the Bible there. I looked up to the strapping man with the powerful stride, jet-black hair and gold-toothed grin. My childhood upbringing was idyllic until my mother announced we were leaving and moved our membership to the other major neighborhood church across the tracks. Mother never set foot in the church again and never said why. I faithfully returned every few years for the annual “homecoming,” for fond reunions and a fellowship meal.

Church members came and went, babies were born, elders died or moved away. A young (now middle-aged) man was enlisted as assistant pastor to serve the dwindling but faithful congregation. Rev X had now been the founder and ONLY pastor for more than 66 years. A touch of dementia had set in.

A retirement was finally announced. Rev. X’s remaining flock invited former members to come to celebrate. I was asked to pay tribute and deliver a speech. I was honored to do so and noted five key moments from my childhood as a topic. A program was drafted to honor his contribution to the church and community. A program was drafted, and a bountiful buffet was prepared.

Except – Rev X steadfastly refused to retire. The program called for the heir apparent (now a grandfather) to stand and speak words of gratitude to Rev. X for (officially) entrusting the church to his leadership. Instead, Rev X stood up to ask, no demand, what the heck is this on the program? “It says “Appreciation of Retirement” – retirement FOR what? Am I the donkey who was worked to death all day and left to fend for himself? I’m not retiring until I’m stretched out across this church (in a casket)!”

Stunned silence. If that weren’t enough, he proceeded to guilt-trip (some of) us into repeating that he was the pastor until death. Former members picked up their purses and stomped out. He kept going, cycling into deeper and deeper rings of rage, as we tried in vain to soothe him, to emphasize the “appreciation” part of the service. Nothing worked.

Eventually, someone had the courage to challenge Rev. X. Apparently, the service was in response to Rev ‘s OWN announcement weeks prior that he was stepping down. He had asked the congregation to receive the heir apparent. But when the time came, he could not – would not – let go. He unloaded with both barrels, reminding (us) of his promise (threat?) to see his life’s work through until death and essentially, we were ungrateful and wrong to suggest that he step down a second before then. He reminded us of all he had done for us. Since I was sitting on the front row, his angry face and words were directed at me.

My inner child was so shocked, hurt and disappointed that she/I couldn’t find the words to respond. I tried, along with the others, to emphasize the “but, but we came to HONOR you” part of the program. No avail.

Servant leader or slave driver?

I stood up to deliver my speech. Since Rev. X had delivered a laundry list of his offenses; all the people he had married, buried and baptized, I thought I might open by saying yes, he had indeed baptized me as well. About that time, dementia kicked in again and he responded, “I wish I’d left you under the water a little longer!” (I can’t make this up.) My mouth flew open, but no words came out. My second mom, who has never ever raised her voice to me, had to yell at me to sit down as I strangled my inner child and prepared to unleash a few words of my own.

But wait – before you sit there smugly, thinking things like, that’s why I don’t go to church, or how were stupid to sit through this, answer this: How many leaders act like this in the workplace?

Are you what you do?

Retire for what???

I don’t believe in retirement, but I do believe in recalibrating. I may want to lead a team virtually. Maybe focus more on speaking, writing, consulting and training. But I am no less a leader. I can impact so many more people by shifting my focus. Sadly, like Rev. X, so many leaders only see themselves in the exact or an expanded variation of the role they started in or made their name in. They may change titles in a never-ending quest for power masked as “leadership opportunities.” They may think, if I’m not team lead, Manager, Director, VP, SVP, EVP, President, CEO…if I’m not the boss of somebody, then who am I? Do you think of yourself as what you do, even for the 8-10, 12 hours a day you’re doing it? Do use your position to intimidate instead of inspire? Do you, like Rev. X, use your anger as a weapon?

Share the stage

Leadership is based on inspiration, not domination; on cooperation, not intimidation. – William Arthur Wood

It was dark by now. I finally ventured out into the now-empty sanctuary. Rev X stood there, alone, grey suit swamping him, thinning grey head, missing teeth, hunched over the empty pulpit. Visionary, yes. Leader, yes. But in the end, just a man. I quietly approached Rev. X and said, God bless you, Pastor. His voice, once blustering and angry, was now weak and soft as he responded,

“Thank you, baby. You come back again soon, okay?”

Leaders: don’t let this be you.