Anglican Watch

On bad experiences and church: why churches need to care how they treat people

Red Lobster and church—one bad experience ends it all

Growing up near the South Jersey shore, my summers (and even winters) featured many idyllic hours on Long Beach Island. Those days were marked by the stiff ocean waves, the fun of exploring ancient wrecks at low tides, and trips to the wharves for fresh seafood. As a result, my craving for seafood continues to this day.

And in all of this, there is a lesson for churches. It’s not an obvious one, but I’ll try to explain.

For many years, my solution to my seafood craving was a trip to Red Lobster, often while on business. The food’s a far cry from the food of South Jersey, where you could still taste the sweet, briny taste of the ocean. 

But Red Lobsters are ubiquitous when traveling for work, the food isn’t awful, and they are usually quiet, allowing me to regroup after a long day. And there’s the advantage that Mom and my grandmother, the latter affectionately known as “G,” (as is “gee whiz, did she REALLY just say that?”), loved the chain, so going there was a chance to share the joy.

One day, I’d just gotten a large bonus at work, the weather was excellent, and as I passed the local Red Lobster, the parking lot didn’t appear too jammed. So I wandered in. Time for a little splurge after 20 days straight of 15-hour days and a very successful, highly confidential project. Plus my employer had paid for an extra night at the hotel, and a late flight home the next day. And I wasn’t driving, so I could just relax and enjoy myself.

The interior was dark, pleasantly cool, and featured the usual kitsch of fishing nets, plastic swordfish, so-called “witch’s eye” glass floats, and the predictable ship’s wheel.

The staff was friendly, and my seat was in a pleasantly quiet restaurant section — a welcome relief after being “on” all day.

With money to burn in my expense account and a bonus in hand, a full-on pig-out was in order. So, I sipped a cold glass of wine, had some cheese biscuits, and ordered enough high-end seafood to feed a family of four for several days.

And waited, and waited, and waited.

My concern grew when the tables around me, all seated much later than me, got their orders. 

Still, everyone has a bad day, so I thought the person preparing my order was probably running behind.

And having managed restaurants, I know many depend on illegal labor. Legal or not, most work two full-time jobs to make ends meet. As a result, they often are visibly exhausted.

So yes, we like to complain about illegals, but much of what we take for granted is the result of their back-breaking work, including fresh produce, comfortable hotels, and reasonably priced restaurants. In other words, a little kindness is in order.

But when an hour had passed, I asked the manager if she had an ETA on my order. Saying she’d check on it, she returned a few minutes later, saying, “Your order would take longer than you would want to wait.”

“Did someone forget to enter the order? If they did, it’s okay. Stuff happens,” was my response.

“It would take longer than you’d want to wait,” she replied.

That really left me in the dark. Had someone forgotten to defrost a needed item? Neglected to enter my order on the computer? Run out of something? Didn’t like employees of my company? And why no apology?

I said, “You know, I’m okay with things, but I really dislike the fact you don’t respect me enough to give me a straight answer. Would you please get me a check and I’ll pay for the glass of wine and the cheese biscuits?”

She looked at me blankly and brought me the check.

So, I paid the check and left, never to return. And yes, I tipped the server because whatever happened, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t her fault, as she was young, eager, and enthusiastic. 

No point in making her day any worse. And if it was her fault, I might as well kill ’em with kindness.

And more than 20 years later, I’ve never been back to a Red Lobster. Yes, she was a young manager, but I do not want to support any company that puts someone in place as a manager with so few customer relations skills. And so little respect for customers.

Nor am I angry about it. I don’t hold a grudge. I just can’t be bothered.

And for many, the same rule applies to churches.

Some time ago, I ran into a former member of my previous parish, Grace Episcopal in Alexandria. A delightful older woman, she told me of her many happy years at the church, bragged about her grandchildren and showed me their pictures, and showed me photos of her stunning gardens.

“Where do you go to church now?” I asked.

Her face was sad as she said, “I don’t.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked.

She smiled and said, “Sure, but I guess we need some coffee.”

So we wandered over to a nearby Starbucks, got some drinks, and sat on a bench in a nearby park under the shade of a majestic oak tree.

She recounted that she and her late husband had been very active in the parish over the years, including serving as wardens, numerous stints on the vestry, gardening, choir, and the altar guild. And she loved social events.

Indeed, they were so fond of the place that, when they did their estate planning, they set up a trust for each grandchild and one for the church. And the funds involved were substantial.

But things came crashing down one day when she arrived late for an event due to a minor accident on her way to the church — one that wasn’t even her fault. 

The head of the hospitality committee yelled at her in front of others, “You were supposed to be here 20 minutes ago! You need to be on time!”

Feeling tears welling up, she didn’t bother to pack the various cakes and brownies she had made for the event. Instead, without saying a word, she turned around, walked to the elevator, went down to the first floor, out into the parking lot, got in her car, and left, never to return.

When she got home, she was sobbing and told her husband, “I don’t ever want to go back,” to which he replied, “Then we won’t.”

The couple never requested a letter of transfer as they didn’t want people at Grace Church to know where they were. And they didn’t want to give the bully any possible pleasure.

She recounted that she and her husband attended an ECLA church in the area for a while. Folks there were delightful, but after her previous experiences, something always felt off.

Later she and her husband tried several other denominations, including the Unitarian Universalist Association, which she kiddingly calls the “Wheel of Fortune.” As in, “And the ball stops on Buddha, so we’ll talk about him this week!” Not her cup of tea.

Finally, she and her husband concluded that while they followed Christ, they couldn’t call themselves Christians. “Looking back, I realized how often I’d watched petty little power games at the vestry, the choir, the altar guild and even gardening. I’d never paid much attention, because I don’t play those games, but then I realized that in every case, there was someone on the receiving end. Someone who, like me, probably went home in tears at some point,” she said. “And I was part of the problem because I was ignoring it. So I love Christ and try to follow him, but don’t insult me by calling me a Christian,” she concluded.

“So where are you now with things?” I asked.

“Well, when my husband was in his final days at hospice, someone tried to call an Episcopal priest, and he and I both said no. I wanted his last moments to be happy—and they were. I’ll explain.

“Over the years, we formed a like-minded group of people who followed Christ. Neighbors probably thought we had the strangest garden parties,” she laughed. “There was a long-haired skateboarder; a cross-dresser, Sister Ring Mybell; several homeless folks, a former Lutheran pastor and his boyfriend, a few people mentally ill, several college students, and a smattering of us hanging out in God’s waiting room waiting for our number to be called — all church rejects. 

”But we love each other and usually meet at my place, only because I have enough room. We read the Bible, have dinner, sit outside, admire the night sky, have a few drinks, tell dirty jokes, go on trips together, do service projects, and more.

”We only have two unofficial rules—love each other and don’t call our group a church. Plus, I love cooking for other people, so I really enjoy the privilege of hosting. And we do have communion for those who want it.

“Theology-wise, we all follow Jesus. Beyond that, things really are a free for all. And we embrace that. No one ever said we all can or should think alike. But I think we’ve probably rejected the Cranmerian notion of a heaven ‘up there,’ and a hell ‘down there.’

“And last time hell came up in conversation, most of us seemed to think it was the happy-clappy in churches. You know—the nonsense where some dolt priest stands up and says, ‘The church burned down last night, and that is a blessing. Now we get a NEW, energy-efficient church.’ And everyone is gobsmacked, gives him the side-eye and thinks, ‘Who are you trying to kid? It’s a pain in the ass, is what it is. And how dare you think I’m stupid enough to fall for your obnoxious lie?’

“Besides, all the work that goes into rebuilding will fall to laity, while the rector is out playing golf. Then when the damned place is rebuilt, he’ll wander by and say, “We really did a great job,” she said grinning.

“And when my husband was dying, we came and held his hand. We sang his favorite songs, and Sister Ring Mybell, the drag queen, sang ‘Looking for a City.’

“It was so funny my husband howled with laughter and said, ‘If I’d known it was this much fun, I would have died long ago.’ 

“Not at all the reaction he would have had if an Episcopal priest showed up, did a grip-and-grin, said a few words, and gone back to golfing. Plus, I think we scared the hospice staff,” she added, a twinkle in her eye.

“At the same time, he clearly knew God’s presence and love in those final hours,” she said. “And no, not one single person from Grace Church came to visit him. Not one.”

Turning serious momentarily, my newly found friend said, “The only sad thing is that it took just one awful experience to end church for me, and I loved that place. Tellingly, we’ve never had that experience in my new circle of Christ-followers. 

”Sure, we’ve disagreed plenty of times, but we love each other and find a way to reach a consensus that makes everyone happy. We have a deep respect for each other.

“But Grace church, and others, think their God-product is so special they don’t need to care about how they treat you.

“And you know, when we left, not one person ever called or visited to ask what happened. Nor did the person who yelled at me apologize—I guess they figured there was nothing wrong with that behavior.”

But the pledge card showed up like clockwork, complete with a letter reminding us how much Grace means to us.

“Ironically, the letter was helpful, but not in the way they planned,” she chuckled. 

“Although I’m getting up there pretty good, I don’t much think about dying. So the money was still sitting in that trust fund for Grace. Real quickly, I called my attorney and changed that, and gave the money to the grandkids. But I did leave a token of our love to the regulars in our little group—hopefully when I am gone, they’ll continue to be a family. And it’s a small reminder of our love for them.”

During my drive home that evening, I couldn’t help but compare my experience with Red Lobster to that of my friend. All it takes is one awful experience, and people leave, never to return. Indeed, the damage often is irreparable. 

And the opposite of love isn’t hate — it’s indifference. Or as my friend put it, “If Grace Church burned to the ground, I wouldn’t bother to read the newspaper article about it. I just don’t care. My only regret is that I wasted so much time and money on an empty illusion.”

I also can’t help but think that any organization would be lucky to have my friend, whether the organization is a for-profit, a non-profit, or a church. She’s sharp, funny, incisive, tactful, generous, honest, kind, a hard worker, and has a generous approach to the foibles of human nature. She’s also well-dressed, yet very down to earth.

That begs the question: why do we mistreat each other as Christians? Why are we so cavalier about others?

And why do clergy ignore situations like this?

Indeed, while this happened before her tenure, it would be a small matter for current Grace church rector Anne Turner to figure out who this person is, call and make amends. Chances are slim that my friend would ever return, but it’s never wrong to do right. Not to mention the gesture would not go unnoticed by the slew of friends who quietly left the church with her.

That said, don’t hold your breath. Anne’s a kind and decent person, but repentance is just Jesus-babble reserved for Sunday. That’s a shame—every week we hear from dozens of people who’ve left church after a bad experience. Overwhelmingly, these are the former stalwarts—the sort any church would welcome.

But when they leave, they are either quickly forgotten or demonized as some sort of enemy. Just like when dealing with a narcissist, once you’re no longer useful, you don’t exist.

And why don’t we repent when we make a mistake? If sin is both those things done and left undone, doesn’t ignoring our misconduct mean we’re sinning a second time?

I also can’t help but think that my friend Mary (not her real name) is kind, forgiving, and generous. As a result, I suspect that if just one person had called to apologize or dropped by, she would have forgotten entirely about the situation, offered them a slice of her delicious almond cake, and had a pleasant visit.

In other words, I wonder whether the real issue was being yelled at in front of others versus no one caring when she left. My suspicion is her pain emanates from the latter.

Nor would there have been anything wrong with the rector saying, “That really wasn’t helpful. I’m going to call her and apologize, and you [the person on the hospitality committee] should do the same.” 

And if that person didn’t apologize, it might be a good time for them to consider mowing the grass or another activity less likely to harm others.

To add insult to injury, the church had the gall when she didn’t pledge the following year to call to remind her to send in her pledge card. That’s pretty rich, as she hadn’t set foot in the place in almost 15 months. Uncharacteristically for a very kind and sweet older lady, she sharply replied, “That isn’t fucking going to happen. Don’t call again.” 

That right there should have resulted in a letter or other attempt at outreach by the rector. But, of course, nothing happened. And let’s not just point fingers at the rector—any church member could take the time to reach out to her to make amends or act as her advocate with the vestry.

Of course, any apology now likely would be viewed as based on obligation, versus love for a charming and delightful human being. Sadly, that’s Grace’s loss, not hers. In fact, she seems to be doing just fine without the Episcopal church.

Or, as she says with a sly wink, “the money I used to give the church pays for a lot of meals for our little group.”

Not to mention I’ve heard from others that she’s been remarkably generous in anonymously paying college tuition for students in need.

But it’s just not in the Episcopal church’s DNA to actually repent.

You’ll be greated with open armsAnd in case you’re wondering, the same modus operandi still applies are Grace Church, along with every other Episcopal church I’ve ever attended. Yes, the front door is wide open, as Leslie Steffensen likes to point out. And yes, you’d be welcomed with open arms—but you’ll be ignored when issues like Steffensen’s lies cause you to leave via the backdoor, which is open far wider than the front door.

And forget about apologies or accountability—those are beneath the dignity of narcissists like Steffensen. Or most other Episcopal priests for that matter.

And so another one bites the dust.

By the way, if your church routinely reaches out to former members to try to learn what went wrong and make amends, please comment.

We’d love to hear about churches that actually make an effort to retain members.

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