119: Coffee with Sarah Langford Berger

Let’s go now to our Real World Correspondent, Sarah Langford Berger! Sarah is a hospice nurse with Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care. She has her Bachelor of Science from National American University. She’s married to Chris Berger with two gorgeous kiddos. Make sure you listen to hear who Sarah met unexpectedly when she went to church!

This show notes page is going to be more of a prequel to meeting Sarah. It will tell you about Sarah by telling you what kind of Jay McNeal she and her friends let in. If we do another episode together then it should include the story of the first night we actually met. But, for now, let’s start before the beginning.

We were both poor young adults living in one of the wealthiest counties in America when I showed up. I was doing my best to fit in when I arrived in the midwest but Sarah and her friends cared about more important things than conforming.

I was a peculiar outcast when our paths crossed. I was, literally, working at Blockbuster Video after having resigned, burned out from my full time youth ministry job nearby. I was divorced, bankrupt, and failed at the ministry I left everything to serve.  In the podcast you will hear what our common time was like to Sarah. For myself I remember many great joys, every youth I served and almost every adult but I also know how destructive a few of those adult church members were before I met Sarah. I was so naive.

I do not have much of a theology of sin, evil, or the devil. Well, I do but I don’t think they’re worth much of my time or brain power. Learning to love and be kind consume all of my time and will consume all of my life, knowing that mastery is never in the cards. So why waste life teaching people about sin? People are good. People need love. Talk to them about the beauty, magnificence, courage, and other virtues that make them up! Find their joy and gifts and massage those into the raging fire they can become. But with that said, the same way Sarah cannot deny the truth of her wonderful church experience, I had an experience with my Kansas church staff that included the opposite of love.

In the church I served I may have experienced something like the devil and certainly something of evil. The senior pastor kept his distance from my youth ministry. The associate pastor supervised me and we met weekly one-on-one. Let’s call him Steve. The meetings were always positive and productive. The ministry was certainly an enormous beast. I will always be the first to say it was a huge job with a notable learning curve, with exactly one staff person – me. What I know in hindsight was that some of the youth parents gossiped about me when the plans for a youth evening fell through because of a funeral. Those voices funneled their criticism to one adult volunteer I’ll call Victor. Volunteer Victor spent another three months attending every youth activity and building his case to have me fired. Then he brought his case to the associate pastor. My first discovery that there was a major problem was a meeting in a classroom in the basement with Victor and Steve where Victor read three full pages of single-spaced, 10-point font, bullet points about how I was incompetent. The only other time in my life I had received anything but high praise was was when I was a student teacher to 3rd graders. (I truly cannot communicate with 3rd graders.) While I’d have preferred earlier, more constructive communication, I was elated (after 24 hours of privately taking it personally) to have such thorough feedback. I took the information and made changes to my priorities in the youth ministry to deliver more of what they had been looking for (more administration and less pastoral care, more visible leadership and less letting others have the spotlight).

In the classroom I said virtually nothing. Steve (associate) did not add anything or come to my defense. I simply heard and received the information. I was absolutely stunned. It was vicious and malicious. I don’t know if he’s proud of his accomplishment but he really had to want it. I had trusted him and welcomed him into every youth event and activity. There was nothing bad to hide and everything good to witness. While I provided for his comfort, he was sharpening his blade. The next meeting they brought me into was in Steve’s office. This time, however, the devil was sitting behind the desk. Victor’s presentation was predictably composed again but he was clearly out of control with the content of his spoken words now and written words before. Regardless of his professional execution, the entire situation was not insurmountable with appropriate response from our church leadership (myself included). Certainly, Steve would hear Victor politely and then kindly set the record straight.

I may as well have not been in the room for what happened next. Steve mirrored Victor’s play and increased the showmanship. Steve began whole-heartedly agreeing with Victor as if this had been Steve’s exact feeling since I had been hired. Steve agreed with Victor and made up complete fiction that Steve had been telling me the same things for many months in our weekly meetings. I thought I was in the Twilight Zone. I was staring at Steve as this experienced pastor spilled bold-face lies about the content of dozens of meetings. These were not subtle misunderstandings or differences of perception; these we donald trump, throw-him-under-the-bus style lies.

Because I loved the youth and I loved the church I’ve never told this story publicly. I did not fight to stay at the church. I left depressed and confused. They barely knew me and did not know how pure my heart was, how honestly I was bearing the love I knew through Jesus Christ to them. I did nothing to protect myself. I didn’t keep contemporaneous notes like James Comey. I didn’t make a big stink and try to stay, even though I’d seen other staff members treated badly also. I had no leverage. I had no power. I had no money. And, in the long view, I was still very young in my career in ministry. I had no resources, internally or externally, to fight their resources. And what would “winning” look like? I knew who my successor would be and I had set her up to be very successful with the youth that I loved. For them and their next leader, ugly as it was behind the scenes, I had to go.

I ended up in the hospital being treated for depression. It was there that I wrote my letter giving two weeks notification to the church. I believe it was there that the senior pastor described Victor as a “lightning rod for negativity.” The youth would never know this despicable story. They would always think of me with suspicion. Their next leader would get to tell them more about Jesus, and that was what it was suppose to be about – knowing Him and living into who we are called to be.

One last unforgettable detail, my last day was a Sunday about ten days after I got out of the hospital. I was in our fellowship hall stationed behind a table for something. Victor came up and handed me a store-bought greeting card, which I opened with reluctance and trepidation. He had simply signed his name to the pre-printed message, “I see Jesus in you.”

Christians, this is a problem. You cannot do evil, you cannot kill Jesus, and then make it all better with a Hallmark card or a compliment. The two do not offset one another.

The last thing I’ll say is that I love that church. I did know many amazing adults. Two adult friends, Lara and Angela, will always stand out. Everyone deserves friends like them.

Sarah’s Grandpa (here) is the subject of a very telling story shared by Sarah herself.

I love that church because Victor and Steve aren’t the whole church. Because of gossip I don’t know which other parents fueled Victor’s mission. How can one love and serve a congregation with secret enemies shaking your hand after the sermon?  Whether you are a lay member or a staff person, if anyone gossips to you then it is your responsibility to direct the speaker to the person they are talking about! Never get in the middle. Never make a triangle. Communicate your own experience, opinions and observations to the source first. Do not start with a supervisor, senior pastor, other parent, or lightning rod for negativity. If you are intimidated, bring an observer. Church staff are real people with real lives. We have real families and real life expenses. Conflict itself is healthy, good, and normal but only when it is handled maturity and grace. Please stop undermining the church and its leadership.

Well, before I go, senior pastors, that goes double for you. Send the gossipers, even if they’re staff, to the person they have conflict with. Don’t provide secret cover. You cannot deliver their feedback as accurately as they can. Hold people accountable, follow up, but do not deliver their messages.

As one might imagine, my next phase of being in the midwest was a very dark time after the hospital and resignation. The dark season was mostly internal; it was emotional and spiritual. I didn’t know Christians could be like this. Although this is when I met Sarah, Mike (her boyfriend), and Scott, they were the light.


Sponsor: United Faith Leaders

Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care

National American University