March 2005
Conflict and Controversy

Skeletons in the Sacristy

Skeletons in the sacristy? We have one — figuratively, at least — in our church. We don’t talk about it much; most parishioners haven’t even known about it. But like in all family systems, and the church is one, not talking about things isn’t always the best option, either. 

Our music director says he hears footsteps, or sometimes the laughter of children, behind closed doors late at night. Other staff have heard the same noises when alone in the building. And then, upon comparing stories, we find ourselves thinking: It’s Mrs. Camp.

Official vs. nonofficial history
As in most churches, our official history focuses on the positive. In 1888, the local bishop challenged a small group of summer residents of Lake Minnetonka, some 20 miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota, to bring God into their leisure time by building a church.

Responding to that call was George Camp, a lumber baron, and his wife, Lucy. They built a summer chapel and then donated it to the Diocese of Minnesota as a memorial for their three youngest children, who had died in childhood, and for the impending wedding of their only remaining child, also named Lucy. Written accounts detail the glory of that wedding — what the bride wore, how the church was decorated, etc. 

Lingering in the oral history of the parish, however, is this: Mrs. Camp was evidently unable to come to terms with the loss of her three children. Three years after the church was built, she drowned herself across the road in Lake Minnetonka after tying several flatirons around her neck.

While probably not so dramatic, many churches have a range of both joys and tragedies in their past. Most of the happy ones are celebrated, remembered, perhaps embellished. But sad or tragic events may be buried, collectively altered, and pushed aside due to both pain at the time and uncertainty in knowing how to deal with them. 

“Most parishes do have stuff in their closets,” says Speed Leas of the Alban Institute and a specialist in parish conflict. “Some have worked through it, and had substantial growth. But if you have a place that calls a lot of rectors and just runs through them, or clergy say ‘that’s a tough place,’ then you have a place that needs some attention.” 

Which begs the question: How do skeletons rumbling around in a church affect current-day life and what do vestries do about them? 

“The purpose of looking at the past is not to dwell there, but to see how the past affects the present,” says family systems analyst Peggy Treadwell, director of the Counseling Center at St. Columba’s Church in Washington, D.C. “There’s an old saying, ‘anybody can take the truth, but the secrets can kill you.’”

Secrets can kill you 
Such secrets, she says, may influence congregational life without parishioners even knowing it. “It’s uncanny,” she says, “but people will often repeat the same behavior when they don’t know the truth. When we know the truth, we have a choice.”

Getting at that truth isn’t always easy, but the process is essential, adds Bishop Clay Matthews, executive director of the Office of Pastoral Development for the Presiding Bishop. “It makes a tremendous difference, especially with incidents of misconduct, whether they be boundary violations or sexual misconduct or financial misconduct. Should the issues remain in the closet, those are the ones that will come back and affect the health of congregations.” 

Matthews stresses, however, that the unmasking of skeletons be done carefully, and that getting a trained consultant is helpful. He cautions vestries to be aware of potential litigation, especially if legal agreements have been reached. It may be best to review general developments, rather than pinpoint all the details.

At the front door
So, speaking of skeletons, what about Mrs. Camp and the unresolved grief that she so literally laid at our church’s front door? 

Although her path to the lake was one of inner torture and ultimate isolation, I hope now that she is going from strength to strength in God’s kingdom. I believe that she is there with us at the altar rail each Sunday, like so many others. We stand there, none of us perfect, all of us sinners, yet still connected, still one with each other, some visible, others not seen. 

And perhaps, through her, God is speaking another message for those of us now at St. Martin’s about sharing seemingly unbearable grief. We’ll never know. But I pray that we reach out a little more, are more aware of each other’s troubles, and are more willing to share our own.

(Additional sources consulted for this article were retired Bishop Claude Payne from the Diocese of Texas and Peggy Herman, a sociologist, professional mediator, and member of St. Gregory’s Church in Athens, Georgia.)

The Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman edits Vestry Papers and is priest associate at St. Martin’s-by-the-Lake in Minnetonka Beach, Minnesota

This article is part of the March 2005 Vestry Papers issue on Conflict and Controversy