Sarah Hyden-Smith was usually a cheerful, confident woman. Lennox Valley Methodist Church was her third appointment, having served as an associate pastor at two larger churches since graduating from a fine seminary in central Ohio five years earlier.
Sarah, however, was no longer in central Ohio, and today was a day of two firsts: It was the first time she stood in front of the congregation as “the” pastor and the first time she faced a congregation following a column in the local paper suggesting that she and the Valley’s other young single pastor, Jacob Gehrig at Lennox Valley Lutheran Church, might create sparks not seen since the previous Fourth of July celebration.
The good Methodist folks of the Valley had burned the phone lines for weeks, sharing their thoughts concerning a supposedly single female with a hyphenated name. Was she divorced? A widow? Does she have a husband in some far off place, waiting to join her in their lovely village?
When she met with the parish committee a few weeks earlier, she never mentioned her marital status. And since Marvin Walsh had used up his question when he asked about Sarah’s stance on the Federal Reserve System, there was no one left in the room with the courage to approach Sarah concerning the subject.
Wearing nothing on her ring finger, and since Sarah hadn’t brought up the subject of a spouse, everyone assumed she was single, or divorced or a widow. And now that Maxine Miller had pretty much announced to the entire community in her column, “Rumor Has It,” that sparks might fly between the two young pastors in town, it was assumed by everyone that Sarah Hyden-Smith was a single woman with a hyphenated name.
It was appropriate that the opening hymn, “O, For a Thousand Tongues,” was perhaps the all-time Methodist favorite. They love that song the way Lutherans love “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Sure, it may not carry the emotional baggage of the Baptist favorite, “Just As I Am,” but there was no doubt you were in a Methodist church when the Charles Wesley favorite started ringing from the pipe organ.
As Sarah faced the congregation, her right hand shook just a little as she placed it on the pulpit. Her opening prayer seemed to go smoothly, and she could feel the congregation’s eerie quietness as they seemingly waited for angels to appear or lightning to strike as the first female pastor in the history of Lennox Valley took the stage.
Due to the fact that it was the first Sunday with a new minister, coupled with that minister being a woman, the sanctuary of the old Methodist church was as full as it had been since a brief charismatic period following the release of “The Cross and the Switchblade” back in 1970. Smiles filled the congregation as 22 children came forward for the children’s sermon, which took place following the prayer. Sarah had been told that there were normally eight or 10 children in attendance, so she was a little surprised when she saw the throng approaching.
Sarah’s plan was to have them each take a place along a rope, holding on as their pastor led them on a walk around the sanctuary. The idea behind the “rope walk” was that if anyone were to fall, someone would be right behind them to pick them up. Everything seemed to be going well as the new female pastor led the 3- to 8-year-olds around the sanctuary, with smiling adults watching and listening as their children and grandchildren starred in the show. Sarah was surprised, however, as she led the parade back to the altar area, when she saw young Brad and Elizabeth Albright sitting on the steps, just in front of the pulpit.
Sarah turned to Brad, the older of the two, and innocently asked, “Why didn’t you join us on our walk around the sanctuary?”
Brad’s response brought down the house and guaranteed that Sarah Hyden-Smith’s first day as pastor was a success: “Because our daddy told us if we got up and walked around during children’s sermon one more time, he was going to beat our butts.”
No one remembered very much about Sarah’s first sermon, but her first children’s sermon was a huge success.
Oh, for the record, no one mentioned seeing angels or lightning at Lennox Valley Methodist Church on that Sunday in late June of 1998.
Each week, “The Good Folks of Lennox Valley” chronicles the happenings of a fictional American small town.