The Widowmaker Repents
"Every church has conflict and differences of opinion. I understand that," Joudry said. "It can be a healthy, cleansing thing. But this was not that kind of conflict. Where it should have been open, this was covert. Where it should have been discussed, this was hidden."
Its secret nature made it nearly impossible to call out. And as pastor after pastor was chewed up and spit out by a growing pattern of hostility, the church began to have a reputation in the community as a "widowmaker" for ministers.
"This systemic problem became the corporate identity of the church." Joudry told The Madison Courier, in an article the community paper published on the service. "The reputation was national, and the reputation was bad."
You're the pastor … as long as we like you
On the phone, I asked him to tell me more.
"Key lay leaders saw pastors as just chaplains for the church, not leaders. In their view, a pastor was supposed to preach, to supervise worship, to marry and bury. Ultimately, he was just an employee, and his value was tied to their satisfaction with his services. His performance had to meet their stringent personal requirements for style and comfort. Step out of line, by going against the grain, or by taking true directional leadership of the congregation, and you'd be warned. Step out again, and you'd be gone.
"Really, there were always two congregations: one led by the pastor, and one led by a quiet lay competitor who was uninterested in the title but obsessed with things going his way. He was well intentioned, I'm sure, but power hungry, angry, and dangerous if crossed. And it was his way or the highway. For decades."
Every church experiences conflict. It's a natural part of worshiping in a community with other people. "But it is one thing to have shallow conflict and deep unity," said Joudry. "It's another to have shallow unity—surface pleasantness most of the time—and deep conflict. Our brokenness was at our most basic levels of organization."
Pastors were not merely replaced, they were driven out, he said, and for "offenses" that were far from deserving of such treatment. Sermons that were too short. Or too long. Or small misbehaviors from the pastor's children. Criticism would start with small, passive-aggressive digs, then bloom cruelly. It impacted not just the ministers, but their entire families.
"One pastor's wife, like me, was a little rotund rather than the petite, thin pastor's wife that these people thought she should be," Joudry said. "They would invite him places but conspicuously leave her out or ignore her because of her appearance. At Christmastime they backhandedly gave her a membership to a gym—a 'gift' that was a cruel jab at her struggle with her weight. When I first came, I didn't believe that passive-aggressive horror stories like this really happened. But they did. Ministry qualification was all about image."