As Time Goes By

There are fundamental rules that apply as time goes by, in churches and other corporate or communal entities as well as in love.  And one of the rules is that if a long time has gone by since you’ve been around, it’s not very helpful to assume that everyone should immediately remember you when you pop up again randomly.

That’s putting the situation a bit flippantly.
I received a voice mail this past week from a “long-time former member” of our congregation.  She gave her name, indicating that her parents and grandparents had been members, she had helped the congregation move to its current location 40+ years ago and had taught Sunday school and was very active.  The family wanted to use our congregational hall for an after-funeral reception, as her brother’s wife had just died.  She had a specific time and date less than a week away in mind.
She didn’t ask if the pastor would be willing to conduct the funeral or the memorial.  No explanation was given of the death, circumstances, religious affiliations or other things that a church might reasonably be curious about before allowing a group to come in and use their facility.  She just stated that she wanted to use our parish hall for the reception.  
With a lot on my plate this week, I didn’t get back to her right away.  I didn’t have time to peer through the role books to try and determine if she was in there, since she had given no definitive time frame for any event (birth/baptism, confirmation, marriage, etc.) that might have caused her name to be noted specifically roughly 40-45 years ago.  She didn’t give me the names of her parents or grandparents so I couldn’t look them up, either.  I asked some long-time members if her name rang a bell and they said it didn’t.  That didn’t mean anything one way or another – a lot of people can come and go in a congregation over time, and if the congregation is big enough, even if they’re very involved they might not be well known by everyone.  
I called her back the other day and got her voice mail, and tried to leave a nice message declining her request.  After all, I have no idea who she is.  The most recent association with the congregation she mentioned was over 40 years ago.  Who knows what has happened in the last 40 years with her and her family?  They could have converted to Buddhism.  They could have been removed from church membership for some reason.  Or, like many other people, they simply could have quit coming one day.  Moved away.  Transferred to another congregation.  Over the ensuing 40 years, the people that might have known them very well might have moved away as well.  Or died.  Or – as unpleasant as it may sound – even have forgotten them.  At least forgotten to the extent that the name didn’t immediately elicit a recognition.   I had no idea what relation her brother or his deceased wife had with the congregation regardless of her connection or their parents connection.  
But it’s hard to leave a nice message.  I indicated that we don’t generally rent our facilities out to outsiders or non-members for a variety of reasons.  I offered my condolences to her family and indicated that if there was some other way I could be of assistance I would be happy to. I was as kind as I could be, but I still knew that it wasn’t a message that was likely to elicit warm fuzzies on the other end.  
Sure enough, it didn’t.  She left a voice mail back by the end of the day, indicating her acceptance of the fact that we “didn’t want to help” her family, and taking offense at the idea that they were non-members or outsiders.  After all, she repeated, she had taught Sunday School and been married there and her parents and grandparents had been members.  Again, no further identifying information that would help me figure out who she might be and whether we could actually be of help to her.  The assumption seemed to be that after 40 years, people – including the pastor – ought to know who she was and be ready to leap to her fulfill her request.  Anything less than immediate gratification of her request based on nothing more than her name was unsatisfactory and deeply hurtful. 
So some quick tips when contacting your old congregation/company/high school/whatever:
  1. Don’t assume that whomever is going to be answering the phone is someone that was there the last time you were.
  2. Don’t assume that the person responsible to respond to your request was there the last time you were.
  3. Don’t assume that if you haven’t been around for forty years, everyone (or even anyone) is going to remember you right away.  
  4. Don’t assume that whatever relationship you had to this institution forty years ago entitles you to special privileges today.
  5. Even if you have reasons for assuming that you should have special privileges today, don’t assume that those special privileges can be immediately verified and activated in order for you to arrange for things in less than a week’s time.
  6. Try to be understanding if your initial experience or contact isn’t everything you think it should be.  
I will call this lady back again, hopefully getting her instead of her machine, and attempt to explain things.  I don’t imagine, based on her initial request and response, that my explanations will be desired or even listened to.  But, hope springs eternal for an optimist like me, right?  Perhaps there will be a chance to have an actual conversation where she might understand why her initial request didn’t elicit the immediate response she had hoped for.  Maybe she will recognize that a lot changes in 40 years, and that a little bit of grace and/or patience can go a long way.  Maybe she’ll appreciate the irony in taking offense for me not recognizing her relationship to this place, when she has no interest (at least no expressed or implied interest) in any relationship beyond a free or cheap or convenient place to hold a reception.  
I don’t fault her for asking.  And given reasonable information I’m happy to try and be charitable and accommodating.  But it doesn’t always work out that way, and it may not be simply because I’m an awful person who cares nothing for her or her family.  
At least, I like to think that’s not the reason.  

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