Paying the Rent, and the Cost: A United Church Primer

It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody … - Negro spiritual

He was all things to all people, naturally, being a successful clergyman. Perhaps that’s why I disliked him from the start. But there was something particularly wrong about Jim Sinclair that words can’t describe: a quality that would one day catapault him into what passes for ultimate authority within the United Church of Canada, namely the post of National Moderator.

That was a title that finally did justice to the guy, actually. “Reverend” never sat easily as a prefix to Jim Sinclair, for so spiritual a connotation might have caused division or offense somewhere. And that was something he just couldn’t countenance, being more of a waiter than anything.

Jim loved to moderate, everything and everyone, starting with himself: a fact he disclosed the very first time we met in his North Bay church office, just before I discovered that he lacked a soul.

I was there as the official intern from 1988 to 1989, during my earnest attempt to serve both God and Mammon through ordination as a United Church clergyman. I had all the external equipment for such a grand purpose: marriage, a child on the way, a desire to see the best in people. My big flaw, of course, was an uneasiness with it all that wouldn’t let go of me, plus that annoying Annett trait of questioning anything that moves.

Jim spotted that quirk in me right away, and he reacted like a mole wincing from the dawn’s early light. Maybe that’s why I got his Banality 101 lecture right off the bat, with something he entitled, “Paying the Rent”.

“What’s that?” I asked him after he used the term during our first little chat about United Church ministry.

“Well, you can’t live in a home if you don’t pay the rent …” he began avuncularly, until I interrupted,

“Unless you’re squatting”

Never having been homeless, Jim blinked, confused, and then flashed me a placid grimace the locals mistook for a smile.

“Oh, yeah. But seriously, Kevin, it’s a core value you need to learn in the ministry, paying the rent …”

Later on in life, I would have come back immediately with a wry quip about it being pointless to pay the rent on a condemned building, or something like that. But I was still young and stupid back then, and I even put money in the collection plate.

“A core value?” I replied.

“Yes” he continued, more confidently. He sat back and grimaced at me again, his eyes bland and busy.

“If you want to do anything you love in the ministry, to follow any kind of calling, you first have to learn how to pay the rent …”

“To who?” I asked.

“Well, to your congregation, for starters …”

“To who in the congregation?”

I could tell my questions were bothering him, but of course he didn’t show his irritation. Jim never let his feelings get in the way, of anything.

“I’d say to everyone …”

“How does that work, exactly?”

I wasn’t trying to be a pain in the ass. I was genuinely curious how one could be all things to all people.

“Okay, well, it’s not simple. Paying the rent, it’s just a phrase. I guess it means, doing what you need to do to keep the structure of the church home intact, like here, at St. Andrew’s.”

As he spoke, an unexpected sensation began to churn up in the pit of my guts. I felt a deep revulsion, but much more: as if something winged within me had to flee from that room and never come back.

I actually shuddered.

Jim, or whatever ran him, noticed. His eyes narrowed suspiciously, but he grimaced again and carried on.

“There are movers and shakers in any congregation. I call them my level one players. Like Willard and Doreen Davidson …”

I nodded, against every impulse in me. Instead of vomiting or running for my life, I feigned interest.

Willard and Doreen: I had met them, unfortunately. They were a lot like Jim, wealthy but retired, always polite, and terribly vacant. The two of them were “associates” at the church and besides fussing over the older congregational ladies and doing church teas, they got to dispense occasional food vouchers to those they considered “deserving” enough to be fed, from among the steady stream of men and women and children who wandered into St. Andrew’s from off the street.

Jim droned on for awhile about the details of how to be an efficient whore, although he called it being “pastorally competent”, or some such thing. I’m sure he was right, in his world. But it took a series of blows to my guts over the years for me to realize that it wasn’t my world, nor one to which I could ever adjust.

But nevertheless, I tried at first. I really did.

Maybe I attempted the impossible at that time and place because of the looming birth of my first daughter Clare, born to Anne and I just six months later amidst the depth of winter and my own spiritual suffocation at St. Andrew’s.

Becoming a parent makes most of us frightened idiots, after all is said and done. I was no different. And being frightened, I sought a rotten compromise. I figured I could honor what was growing in me as well as become an employee of the thing that was making me sick in Jim Sinclair’s tidy office. I thought I owed it to my new child to become such a divided man, when all I was doing was avoiding a choice involving the cost of my own soul.

My attempt didn’t work, fortunately. But it took years for it not to work, as I tried to learn as a clergyman how to “pay the rent” when I was quite destitute, kept empty by some mystery, and thereby, becoming a continual stumbling block to all the church goers and god-experts around me.

Jim Sinclair only let me preach once a month in his church after he and the St. Andrew’s crowd heard my first homily and saw me in action.

“It’s fine to take on a personal calling to poverty if you’re a monk, Kevin. But you can’t expect people in the pews to follow such a life and give away all that they have”

“Why not?” I replied.

He blinked, surprised. He couldn’t find any words to answer me, which was unusual for him.

“I was just quoting Jesus, last Sunday” I explained.

“Sure, that’s what the Gospels say …” said Jim awkwardly, with a decided emphasis.

The pregnant pause that followed his words said it all, in hindsight, but I carried on.

“I don’t think we should look to the government to bring about justice for the poor when that’s our job. It’s what love commands, to share everything, like in the early Jesus communities, in the book of Acts …”

Jim nodded at my words as if he agreed with me, but he was good at that. Then he said sternly,

“Willard didn’t appreciate your offertory prayer”

During the previous Sunday’s service, I had said aloud to God, since the poor deity is obviously stone deaf,

“Loving Creator, you desire not the things of this world or our money offerings, but our hearts and lives, given wholly to you …”

“That offended Willard, did it?” I replied.

“And many other people” Jim intoned, like someone had just died.

“Why?”

Jim shook his head, like I was very stupid.

“Their money keeps this church alive, Kevin”

“Well, it pays the rent, at least” I replied.

“Yes it does”

“But God doesn’t deal in cash. That’s all I was saying”

I figure at that point, a big alarm bell went off somewhere in the United Church head office. If Jim Sinclair and the bureauracy had have had any smarts about them, they’d have figured me out by then and tossed me in the trash heap. But like most denominations, the United Church is hard up for clergy, and I guess they figured I’d eventually come around.

I was a small fry, anyway, and Jim Sinclair had bigger fish in the skillet. During my year in his church, the guy was already a big deal in the local Manitou Presbytery, and years later, after I’d been filleted and finally tossed out of the church, Jim fulfilled his lifelong dream, I suppose, by getting elected the Top Banality in the United Church of Canada, otherwise known as the National Moderator.

Of course, Jim’s only notable achievement during his two year blip as Head Honcho was to publicly oppose a unionization drive among United Church clergy with the remark,

“It’s just not a fit, for ministers to be in a union … Joining a trade union implies a lack of Christian love and faith”.

No, Jim, it actually indicates the highest level of stress leave, personal burnout, unfair job dismissal and forced overtime facing any professional group in the country. But I get it. Human and labor rights are great outside the church, but not inside. Hell, we’re Canadians, after all.

Jim’s ridiculous remarks didn’t surprise me, after my tenure at his church in North Bay, Ontario – and in the wake of my own excommunication, years later. For both Jim and his wife Donna – the long-time editor of the United Church’s glossy magazine The Observer - went out of their way to pretend they didn’t know me, after I hit the headlines with evidence of murdered Indian children in United Church schools.

The ease with which both of them lied to reporters about me was astounding, even for church officials. Donna Sinclair actually told a Globe and Mail journalist that she’d never even met me, somehow, during my entire year in North Bay.

“But Reverend Annett saw you every week in church, didn’t he?” asked the undoubtedly amused reporter.

“And he says you were there soon after the birth of his eldest daughter. He often ate at your home …”

Apparently, Donna replied at that point,

“I don’t have anything further to say”

Jim had more tact, being a politician. He didn’t deny knowing me, which of course would have been absurd. But he did say to the same reporter, whose story was never printed, incidentally,

“Kevin had an unfortunate time with us at St. Andrew’s. He wasn’t at all pastorally competent and he alienated many people in our congregation”

Damn it. I guess I just imagined that glowing recommendation and A1 competence report Jim wrote about me at the end of our year together.

I guess it’s also true that I’ve never learned about Paying The Rent, or about who and what really holds the mortgage on the whole arrangement. I’ll never cut the mustard in the church world, I suppose: not like Jim Sinclair, the United Church leader, par excellence.