Monday, August 15, 2016

Let's Talk About Faith Part 11: Leadership

Previously on Let's Talk About Faith: Introduction / Pre-Church / Confirmation / Saved / Jump / Healing / Mission / Prayer / TheOnly / Work /

From as far back as my days at Lakeview United Methodist, I had helped out at church, leading in small ways.  I also helped with youth group and the Family Table events at my aunt and uncle’s church.  My CP was never cited as an issue.  I was always welcomed to help and viewed as capable.

Once I began attending The Edge, I eagerly accepted when I was asked to sing on the youth worship team and help lead the youth group with the other young adults in the absence of a youth pastor.  I was young and profoundly inexperienced, but enjoyed being a part of things.  After working four summers at Still Waters Bible Camp, though, I became more serious about leading as a part of different teams.  My experience working at camp had given me a lot of confidence, and I wanted to step up and help in various ways.


Though I participated in helping team-lead youth group, I found it difficult to forge a sense of unity in our commitment.  I was often looking at a situation from the complete opposite perspective as the other leaders.  Where camp was very focused on making sure we were all coming from the same place, youth group leadership meetings were not.  It also started impacting my friendships.  Again, unlike camp, which was a place where I seemed to be able to balance friendships and the job, now my friendships seemed to evaporate, leaving us as solely coworkers.

Small groups were something that the college-age kids helped lead, and they consisted of four to five high schoolers.  We did some fun projects, but I felt myself holding back from sharing anything of substance.  I was sure parents of these sheltered kids did not want them knowing about the long-term effects of trauma on a person.  I found I could connect well one-on-one with the kids, but I was stunned when, after I asked about them, they would reciprocate:

“How are you?” they asked so honestly it took me off guard.  They were nearly adults, but not quite, and their genuineness touched me.  I would open up a bit, and admit I was going through difficult times, but I didn’t feel it was appropriate to share with them.  I wondered, though, if it was in their best interest that I was present.

Their answer shocked me and warmed my heart:

“Tonia, I’m so glad you’re there.  Small group wouldn’t be the same without you.”

As it turns out, though, my real niche was with the worship team.

[Image is: A black and white picture of me getting my face painted by one of the girls in small group, in front of a giant painted sheet.  Photo credit: Rebekah Bye.]


Singing was something I had always enjoyed, and so joining the youth worship team in the fall of 2005 just felt natural.  Liam was the leader (and the eventual youth pastor).  We had a couple other girls from the youth group on piano, drums and vocals.  A woman named Lisa joined Liam and me on vocals.

I loved singing on the worship team.  I loved finding where my voice fit and complimented the other voices.  I loved being with them on Wednesday evenings for worship at youth group (and sometimes Sundays).  It felt so freeing to me.  One of my favorite things to do was to grab a spare moment with our pianist (then just a teenager in the youth group who I’ll call Madelyn) and sing in the empty sanctuary before church or youth group, while all the other kids were running around outside.

It felt special.  And sacred.

But it was a change from my early days on the youth worship team.  Specifically, Lisa had a hard time adjusting to my being there, and my need for accommodations.  This created a more difficult dynamic.

One afternoon, Lisa and I came into the sanctuary together.  She sang into her microphone.

“This doesn’t sound right,” she said.  Then, inexplicably, she took the microphone from in front of me (on the single easily-adjustable stand) and sang into it.  “Ooh!  This one sounds a lot better.”

I was a bit startled.

“Liam!”  Lisa called to the back of the sanctuary, where he stood in the sound booth.  “I sound so much better with this one!”  She turned to me.  “So, can I have it?”

“No,” I said.

“Well, mine doesn’t sound as good.  And when I was a part of the other worship team last night, I used that mic.  It was the perfect fit for my voice.  This one will never work…” she scowled, indicating her own inferior microphone.

“Lisa,” Liam called.  “It’s gonna be fine.  You sound fine.  Don’t worry about it.”  Then (thank goodness) he did some magic at the sound board that satisfied Lisa regarding her microphone, so we could begin to rehearse.


The following month, we again came into the sanctuary and prepared to rehearse.  Lisa walked ahead of me to the only chair and prepared to sit.

“Lisa,” I said.  “That’s actually--”

My voice was drowned out by instruments tuning and people talking.

By now, Lisa looked quite comfortable in the chair I used to save my stamina.  Standing still was more physically taxing for me than walking, and it would only be a matter of several minutes before my legs would be shaking with the effort of keeping my balance, trying not to trip over cords and managing my microphone.  There was no way I could last for a two-hour rehearsal.

I tried again to get her attention, but to no avail.  Finally, Liam approached her:

“That chair is actually set up for Tonia,” he said uncomfortably.

Her mouth dropped open, indignant.  “Well, it was mine yesterday!” she exclaimed (lest anyone forget that she sang at church Tuesday nights as well, apparently, while occupying that specific chair.)   I arrived at the front and  waited for her to vacate the chair and I sat.  Then, I explained.

“If you need a chair, you can move one.  But I can’t, and that’s why there’s one set up for me.”

Eventually, Lisa did relent and got herself a chair to use, setting it directly beside mine.  Liam handed out the music we were going to go over, and upon seeing one song in particular, I spoke up happily:

“Oh, awesome!  A song I know!  I’m so excited!”

From beside me came Lisa’s voice, imperious and unmistakable:

“Oh, get over it…”

“What?” I asked, shocked.

An ironic statement, I thought, as she was clearly still bitter about my needing the chair she claimed for herself.

“Lisa, that was kind of rude…” Liam admonished lightly.

“Oh, I say that to everyone!”

But she didn’t, and we knew it.  Still we all did our best to move forward and focus on God, practicing the songs for later that evening.


Lisa and I never really did get along, and while there were definitely other contributing factors, I believe that ableism played a role.  There is no denying that our personalities clashed.  What sets these instances apart from an average difference of opinion, though, is that accommodations I needed in order to participate were being asked for, and eventually actually taken by someone else.

I can only speak from my experience of the situation, when I say that I suspect Lisa did this, first and foremost, because she felt she could.  The culture in the church, and the leadership in place allowed her to feel entitled to my accommodations.  Lisa asked for my microphone, took my chair and snapped at me in a derisive tone because she felt superior to me as an able-bodied woman.  She used these tactics to essentially “keep me in my place.”

Though I did not have much experience in outside churches, my experience at Lakeview had been altogether different.  This was, I believe, due to Pastor Sarah and how she led.  Everyone respected her, and we respected one another.  She carried herself with a quiet dignity, always speaking softly and kindly.  She did not tolerate disrespect.  Pastor Sarah cared about her parishioners.  She was invested in our lives.  She connected to each one of us and let us know we mattered.  Though there were mostly adults and elderly in Lakeview’s congregation, Pastor Sarah taught confirmation classes for the teenagers, and called the kids up for children’s time during the service to read them a Bible story.

Sarah showed love to everyone, regardless of color, gender, or ability.   She never drew attention to my CP.  No one else did, either.  But I feel sure, if they had, she would have instantly put a stop to it.

Conversely, at The Edge, the constantly rotating pastors were men.  Women were not allowed in leadership positions (such as pastors or church elders.)  Women were not respected as men were, and leadership never put a firm stop to discrimination when it occurred.  As stated above, there was a half-hearted correction, if any at all.

Lisa did not like me, and she made sure I knew it.  While ableism was not the reason for her dislike, ableism was a ready weapon she could use to enforce it.

My eventual discomfort around the worship team did not solely stem from my interactions with Lisa, but they certainly did not help me feel as if I belonged.  There were times we got along fine, even really connected.  There were times I felt like she truly “got” me.  But there were other times that played out as described above.

In the end, it was less about a specific person and more about an undetectable shift in the energy and focus of the church that caused me to feel displaced, even on the worship team.  It felt different there than it had early on, when I was drawn to the warm energy, the openness, the joy in the people inside.  Now it seemed all were focused on something else.  They were all unified in their goal, and I never quite got on board with it.

I started attending church less and less frequently.  To be honest, I didn’t miss it.  But I did miss singing.  I missed using my gift to praise something bigger than myself.  Something that loved me, saw me, and valued me, even if most of the people I went to church with did not.

In the years since, there have been moments when Madelyn (the pianist on the youth worship team, and also a co-leader of our small group) and I would worship together again.  In those moments, it truly is like coming home.  And though it’s been several years now, I have the fondest memories of worshipping with Madelyn.

The loss of someplace to worship each week - to sing - has been the hardest to come to terms with.  I have found sporadic peace in worshipping with Madelyn at a friend’s home, or at my own apartment.  We can let our guards down.  We have fun.  We know we are accepted and loved fully by one another.

Both of us have been hurt by organized religion in some way, but we have a safe place with each other.  In the privacy of our own home, we have worshipped with just a keyboard and lyrics from the computer.  Once upon a time, Madelyn, Tara and I even wrote our own worship song and sang it together.

I may not have felt a sense of belonging on the worship team at church anymore, but thankfully, I will always belong with my people.

And I have never stopped singing.


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  1. Oh wow -- as always, Tonia, your posts leave me with (royal[l]y) complicated FEELINGS.

    FIRST - I love the geniune "how are you's" from the high schoolers and that they let you know how needed you were. (And the picture!!!!!! <3 <3 )

    NEXT - LISA. Ask;dfjdds - I would say that I can't believe how she acted toward you but as I was reading, I was thinking to myself, "Why is it that Lisa sounds so familiar (other than the fact that I'd heard snippets of this story from you in the past)?"

    I KNEW A LISA TOO, TONIA. I mean, her name wasn't Lisa, but I don't think your Lisa's name was actually Lisa either. ;) But MY Lisa was a "friend" that I had in high school who also happened to be in my precalculus class in eleventh grade...and as part of my accommodations, I was given an extra set of textbooks for the classroom so that I didn't have to lug mine back and forth from home to school to class to home every single day. (I'm sure you get it, haha - but the reasoning for the accommodation was because the extra weight threw off my balance, messed with my stamina, and made me fall harder if I did happen to trip. Staying upright through crowded hallways was enough of a feat without a twenty pound backpack on my back!) Anyway, oftentimes in class, the teacher would ask us to take out our books, and I would go to the front of the room, grab the extra textbook she set aside for me, and all was fine. UNTIL *my* Lisa started taking my textbook!! She could walk faster than me so she'd jump up, run to the front of the room, and just TAKE it as if it were hers.

    I tried approaching her about it. ("Hey, Lisa? That's actually a textbook that the teacher set aside for me because I have trouble bringing my books back and forth. We can share it if you'd like though.") I thought she'd be understanding but instead -- like YOUR Lisa during the chair incident, she said, "Oh, well actually I need it because of back problems, so..." and then she continued using it! I was so shocked that I didn't know what to say. I mean, I get that people have invisible disabilities, and it's not my place to judge her back issues - but if she needed that accommodation too, she needed to go through the process of getting it herself - don't just take my accommodation and leave me in the dust! What's more - sometimes at the end of class, the teacher would ask us to work on problems, and my "friend" would grab my textbook and use it...and when I asked her if I could look on with her (IN *MY* TEXTBOOK) so that I could work on the problems too, she said NO.

    I was so shocked and uncomfortable that I never really stood up for myself to her or the teacher beyond that initial confrontation. I think our teacher felt similarly uncomfortable with it, because she never said anything either, but we all knew what was happening.

    Ugh - so I get it, friend. Your Lisa sounds so entitled and rude (seriously?? Trying to take your microphone AND your chair and then telling you to "get over it" after you make an innocent, cheerful comment???)

    I love the ending of this post, though. So awesome that you still had Madelyn - and you've got a beautiful voice, so I'm very glad you are still using that gift and that - through everything - you've never stopped singing. <3

  2. One of my favorite things about sharing these stories is hearing that I am not alone in going through a certain odd situation. While I am so sorry that similar things happened to you, it makes me kind of, breathe a sigh of relief?

    I had a spare set of books as well in HS for the same reason you did. Mine were usually kept at a table at the back of the class (which I sometimes sat at, depending on the desk situation.) I remember once in 9th grade, we were doing Spanish vocabulary words with flashcards. The kid at the front of the row walked to my desk, and checked out my flashcard which happened to have an easier to pronounce word while his was more difficult. So he TOOK MINE AND RAN BACK TO HIS SEAT, LEAVING ME WITH HIS. He knew I couldn't go after him! So rude!

    Needless to say, I understand (to a point) what you're talking about. (I hope you got a textbook! Gosh!) And I wish your teacher had stood up for you.

    I am so glad I have "Madelyn" too, she is lovely <3

    Thanks, as always, for your awesome comments <3