What they didn’t teach pastors-to-be at Perkins School of Theology, Joy came to discover, was that the head pastor of a large congregation must be a politician, an administrator, have stately grey hair, be somewhat of a rock star, and give uplifting sermons for the older generation that never exceed 18 minutes.
It’s a no-brainer — let the head pastor have center stage and work backstage on what’s equally important, but more fun. The youth pastor’s job is to keep the kids engaged so there’ll be a next generation of United Methodists. Less pay, but nobody goes to seminary for the earning potential.
The hiring of a youth pastor — one with seminary credentials, at least — doesn’t require all the institutional rigmarole. A congregation puts out the word, interested candidates apply, there’s a visit, and if the match seems right, it’s done.
Joy liked what she’d read about Trinity United Methodist, and there she was, giving — as even a youth-pastoral candidate must do — a Sunday sermon “so we’ll get to know you.” No problem, as Perkins produces preachers who can preach, and that’s with a capital P.
What almost made her lose her place in the 2,056-word sermon — pared last night from 2,645 — was looking from the pulpit and seeing Alex. It had been years, but no question about it; it was Alex. He’d looked just as startled at seeing her, but in the meet-and-greet in the foyer, there he was again, cool as a cucumber.
“Joy! What a surprise!” as he shook her hand. “This is my wife, Nora,” introducing her to a bright-eyed woman at his side, the pair seeming what a denomination having too-many members with bluish-white hair needs these days. They’d discussed the challenge a great deal at Perkins.
“Joy and I overlapped at Wesleyan,” he explained to his wife, and then back to Joy, “I didn’t catch it in the bulletin because your name’s different. We’re so pleased to have you,” the latter sounding to Joy a bit formal for the only guy she’d ever slept with, other than Phil. “Your sermon was great.”
Then there were more parishioners to meet, all of whom said her sermon was excellent.
Alex, after all these years, but now everything was different.
They’d “overlapped” at Wesleyan? They’d met at freshman orientation and within that same week lost their virginities. She’d been so unsure of herself and he was the first boy ever to ask her out. He’d never really dated either, he later admitted, but was determined to act like a college boy. She knew it wasn’t about love, of course — them having just met — but maybe it would develop. Freshman optimism.
They’d gone to the choir room in the music building and done it on a piano cover.
She’d never before touched a penis, but when she realized that he didn’t understand how the rubber was rolled, she’d taken over. She’d been somewhat relieved how quickly he’d done it, it being rather uncomfortable.
But then for a while, things got better.
She could remember all the places they’d discovered — not really discovered, as Wesleyan had no locations unknown to couples. They’d take a blanket behind the hedge by University Hall, whispering ahead in case the spot was already occupied. The first time she actually orgasmed was in the storeroom where he did his work-study. One late evening they’d gone to the top of the stadium. Another time they rented a canoe and found a bank with a currant bush. They’d done it 43 times, as she’d kept count. She still remembered the number.
She remembered the relief when her period would come, as she’d heard about boys pinpricking their rubbers to get you pregnant. Except for her roommate Bets, who didn’t return the next year for perhaps that reason, none of the others knew that she was having sex. That was good, as a story that follows you can derail your chances in ministry.
But by the time she was a sophomore, she was involved with Agape House and Alex would have canceled why she was involved with Agape. Why not be better, she’d told herself, but it was more related to just not knowing what to do.
And now here at Trinity UMC, Alex!
A new life, she’d promised herself her first day at Perkins School of Theology. Preparing for one’s calling was how you were supposed to think of it, but the way she saw it, a career helping Methodist youth discern theirs might be more realistic.
Perkins was how she’d met Phil, not a seminarian like herself, but he worked in the bank where she had her account. Friendly guy. Smart. Methodist, even, though SMU.
“Great seminary you’re at, Perkins. You went to Wesleyan, though?” with a dramatic grimace, Methodist academic rivalries being lively.
“Didn’t your SMU get arrested for cheating at football or something?”
“That coach wasn’t a Methodist.”
She’d laughed and said her Battling Bishops could demolish SMU’s horse any day in trivial pursuits, to which he said what category?
This looked like a guy worth getting to know.
Dated just two guys — a bit of a drought between, perhaps — but she’d found the right one. The other being prehistory Phil didn’t need to know about.
As it might have seemed odd to Phil on her triumphant candidating return, her not mentioning that one of her to-be parishioners she’d known at Wesleyan, she mentioned it in passing before describing Trinity’s work with the homeless. Nothing about him being “an old friend,” nothing like that.
All now here they were at Trinity, doing what she’d trained to do. Phil stepped right in as loan officer at a branch. Next step, manager. Double incomes, no kids — not for a few years anyway — and then she could go half-time,
Once Phil met Alex and Nora, he’d told Joy that she should recruit them for Methodist Youth Fellowship sponsors. “They’re fun and our future’s with our kids.”
“They’re in the choir and they play bridge,” Phil noted, “and get this — she’s SMU!”
Phil would sit with Alex and Nora during the service — Joy being upfront — and she’d find them at coffee, afterward. The first time Alex, unasked, brought her two Splendas, no cream, — How’d he remember? — she hoped no one would ask how he knew, but it slipped by.
That Phil didn’t associate Alex with her days at Wesleyan — she appreciated AAlex’svagueness regarding which years he was there — was for the best, but should Phil ever make the connection, she could always remind him she’d told him when reporting on her candidacy visit.
It wasn’t often that she and Alex might exchange a recollection about Wesleyan — Phil and Nora had SMU to look back on — but not regarding their particular relationship. Prehistory.
It was impossible, though, not to remember the rest. Two of them looking at Wesleyan’s recruitment poster in Trinity’s foyer, she’s counted the ways they’d done it — four.
His foot bumping hers under the table at Trinity’s Game Night was surely accidental, but for some reason it brought to mind the time she’d come twice. Probably a fluke, but so what?
In loading the chair carts, he’d brushed against her, but accidentally? Perhaps she shouldn’t have been so close. Perhaps he, too, was remembering things.
She was just being silly, her undone button at the Christmas Festival, no one but Alex seeing. He’d grinned.
He was just being silly, himself, the mistletoe, again nobody seeing. Had he actually touched her breast, or had she imagined it? It had been so fast.
Trinity’s youth would have voted to have the MYF conference be in Orlando or San Diego, but the UMC high-ups who weigh budgets selected Oklahoma City. The convention center would be air-conditioned, their promise.
The event would include a concert by SonRise, now riding the Christian charts with “You’re my Rock.” Joy had their CDs so she could identify with the kids.
Trinity had the budget to send Nora and Alex as MYF sponsors, and Joy because of her job. As Phil four could fit in the car and Joy’s room cost the same, single or double, he’d help out.
Their MYFers were a good bunch, all things considered. They’d meet the group for breakfast, go over the day’s schedule, and check that they were back in their rooms by curfew. The kids grimaced, but they’d be ready to hit the sack. Sponsors could sit in on the activities, but had their own workshop opportunities, “Inclusiveness as Outclusiveness” being a possibility.
Joy discovered the center’s unlocked backstage room while helping set up “Welcoming the Stranger.” Papers on the folding chair rack related to some prior event, a couch where performers perhaps waited for cues behind it.
Some MYFers had already found the place, it seemed, by the SonRise flier on the floor. She did indeed intend to see them, though maybe not among a horde of arms-heavenward MYFers. The MYFers who’d found this place, on the other hand, had probably their arms otherwise, as evidenced by the spent condom.
Beside the sofa lay a piano cover, the piano who knows where? They should have taken the cover with it, she thought. I was some sort of plasticized fabric, whereas the one on which she’d lost her virginity had been of scratchy canvas. She’d taken off her blouse, not realizing it.
She shouldn’t be thinking of it, of course, it being long ago, but the more she decided she shouldn’t be thinking of it, the more it came back. At least she’d remembered to pick up the rubber.
This area should be locked up, she thought, but maybe the custodial staff thinks the event staff is looking after it, the event staff thinks that security is doing it, and so on. Things can fall through the cracks.
Phil ducked the SonRise concert to catch up on some reading, as after all — he pointed out — he wasn’t official, and Alex had taken both her and Nora’s elbows to steer them where the decibels were only in the double digits. SonRise was great — “awesome,” what the kids said — though overused “just” in the lyrics. Not Nora’s cup of tea, though, and she headed back.
On the way out, Joy hung onto Alex. Maybe she was pushed against him a time or two, but it didn’t matter, and she’d given him a little peck in the cheek when he left her at her door, Phil already asleep when she went in.
When she’d showered, it looked like hairs not hers or Phil’s on the drain, but it was difficult to tell. You can blame Housekeeping when they pay them nothing, she thought.
The next morning, Phil begged out of the Perkins alumni coffee. “It’s all Greek to me,” his Perkins joke.
Afterward, Joy headed to the Wesleyan booth to pass out tote bags, but they were out when she got there. Alex was there, too, likewise superfluous, and suggested a cup of coffee — organic and fair-trade, the sign said — and she didn’t tell him she’d had her quota at the Perkins gathering.
She shouldn’t be doing what she was doing, undoing her top button when he wasn’t looking.
Approaching the barista — this would be expensive coffee –, Alex put his hand on her back like he’d done back when they’d walked to classes. What if he pulled the squeeze trick here and she had to find somewhere to fix it before anyone noticed?
They found a spot. She’d no idea that Steve and Brenda Heyerly were separated, but from what she’d learned in Pastoral Counseling, it was probably related to lack of communication.
Joy pretended not to notice his knee against hers and remembered the freshman ice cream social. She could have pulled back, but didn’t.
She remembered how they’d bunched together at Wesleyan library orientation. They’d been given library cards afterward.
When a throng of hyped-MYFers pushed into the elevator behind them, she let them push her against his chest, but not like what the MYFers were up to.
As nobody knew them when they parted ways, she gave Alex what she hoped looked like a casual kiss between marrieds. He’d looked around, too, and given her one back.
When Joy returned to her room, a “Hi, I’m Nora” name tag was by the TV. Asked why, Phil looked at it for a minute and explained that he’d found it in the convention hall and was going to give it to her when he saw her. “Small world, me coming across a name tag of someone I know.”
As Phil liked to construct things and as Nora said she needed some exercise, the two had volunteered for a shift at the Habitat house. Joy signed up for a curricula workshop and Alex was off to something about church insurance. They’d be busy.
But after the Habitat duo headed for the bus, Alex decided that the insurance presentation would be gobbledygook and Joy decided that the curriculum was likely the same as last year’s, anyway. She and Alex deserved a break from Methodism, they agreed. Maybe just walk around.
They rechecked out the Wesleyan recruitment booth. Impressive. SMU’s was about football. They looked at a poster about Caring for Creation.
When they passed the table where Methodist women sold Methodist pies to support Methodist missionaries they split a slice of currant pie.
They stood in the queue to the new publication display, her against his arm, hoping nobody she knew would come upon them.
“My back says I’m getting old,” he joked when they abandoned the wait.
“Need a backrub?”
“I know where.”
“Follow me. Just don’t look like you’re doing it,”
Alex asked no questions as she led him to the backstage door.
“The light’s not that good,” she warned. The EXIT signs gave a green hue to the several podiums, the plastic fence, and the bins of unknowns.
She shouldn’t be doing this, but it wouldn’t happen again.
They headed for the back.
“Oh my God!” Phil and Nora, there on the sofa, clothes asunder!
For a moment, there was just the shock of it.
It was Phil who broke the silence, “Ah, oh, hi,” as if a greeting might get them past one another.
“Aren’t you two supposed to be building a house or something?” all Joy could think to say.
“What are YOU doing here?” Phil’s counter as he was looking for his pants.
Nora stepped in. “Same as us, you know, taking a break,” trying to keep an arm across her chest while pulling on her panties, but unsuccessful at both.
“Till you butted in,” Phil seeming to think the issue was about their arrival.
“He or she who is without sin among you,” added Nora, “cast the first stone,” impressing Joy that someone from SMU would know anything about the Bible.
“Except we haven’t done it.” Joy’s defense.
“Do not covet thy neighbor’s spouse,” Nora — by now at least better covered — again impressing the theologian.
Joy thought for a moment. Might as well put it on the table. “Alex and I maybe dated some as freshmen.”
Phil looked surprised. “At Wesleyan?”
Again it was Nora “I never knew that. We dated, too, Phil and me. We were in the matching band together.” while addressing her buttons.
Joy knew that they’d each played, flute and baritone, just not that at the same games.
What if Phil and gotten Nora pregnant after a rehearsal? Maybe in a practice room. The SMU alumni office would have sent their kid one of those dumb little SMU t-shirts with the numbers zero. What if Alex had gotten her that way? Wesleyan would do the same.
The four looked at each other.
“Small world, us Methodists,” Phil’s thought. “You date somebody in college, marry the other one, come to Oklahoma City and catch up.”
“We have to be careful,” Alex’s solution. “They find out and Joy’s out of a job and we can’t be youth sponsors. You two stay on the couch and we’ll use the piano cover. We used one at Wesleyan.”
Phil thought otherwise. “Maybe we go to our rooms where the MYFers can’t barge in on us.”
That made more sense, as sooner or later someone at Trinity would overhear the MYFers talking.