Monday morning. My secretary buzzed me and told me that Janice was on line one. Janice had called to express her displeasure at some new liturgical innovation I had instituted in worship on Sunday. The passing of the peace leading up to communion, apparently, disrupted her eucharistic solitude.
The Tuesday prior to Janice’s call, September 11, 2001, had been a fairly momentous day. Heading into worship that Sunday, we decided as a staff to do something liturgically that would suggest a different path than the violent one we were certain was about to consume us as a nation. So, we decided to pass the peace on the way to the table of grace. Janice, who opposed the kind of noisy intrusion on her quiet time of meditation presented by the passing of the peace, was not amused.
Janice told me that she expected me “not to do that again.” I told her that I appreciated her concerns and the time and effort it had taken her to bring them to me, but that we were going to continue to pass the peace, at least until we were on the other side of the violence I was sure was in our near future.
She said, “I’m really opposed to this.”
“I can hear that, Janice.”
“No. I mean I’m really, really opposed to this.”
Annoyed at this point, I said, “Yes, I understand, Janice. But simply adding more ‘reallys’ doesn’t make your argument more compelling.”
Janice said, “If you continue to do this, then you’ll understand what I’m doing when I get up and walk out. And if I walk out, I’m never coming back.”
I told her that I would be sorry to see her go, but that I certainly understood why she might feel the need to do so.
True to her word, the following Sunday as we passed the peace leading up to communion, Janice put her hymnal into the rack on the back of the pew, excused her way through the throng, walked up the center aisle and out the front door. She never came back.
Upon hearing of my insensitivity, the largest donor in the church came to my office and asked me to reconsider my position on the passing of the peace. Didn’t I see that Janice really felt strongly?
Yes, I saw that.
Sensing that I was finally seeing logic, my rich parishioner said, “Good. So you’ll stop the passing of the peace?”
“No. First of all, I think it’s an appropriate theological and liturgical gesture, especially in light of what’s happened at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Second, and only a little less importantly, if I caved every time someonereally disagreed with a decision I’d made, I’d be begging for more ecclesiastical blackmail.”
“But she feels, really REALLY strongly.” (Again with the extra “reallys.”)
“I understand, but again, no.”
Nonplussed, she said, “How did you ever get to be a minister without realizing that your job depends on keeping church members happy?”
That episode came to mind the other day as I was reading an article by Alexander Kjerulf, Top 5 Reasons Why ‘The Customer Is Always Right’ Is Wrong. In the article Kjerulf argues that the now famous saying from 1909 by Harry Gordon Selfridge, “The customer is always right,” is bad for everybody.
And while I don’t want too easily to equate “customers” and “church members” (i.e., the church is not a business, selling a commodity to be consumed by customers), there’s enough similarity that I thought I might mess around with his “top 5 reasons,” and see how they worked as bit of wisdom for congregations.