by Judy Mitchell Rich
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 242 pages
Reviewed by Houston Hodges
Is “covert witness” a contradiction in terms? If so, that’s “Like a Fox,” Judy Mitchell Rich’s second novel about the life and work of Presbyterian pastor Suzanne Hawkins in 1980s Kansas. Her first book, “Like Sheep,” detailed her struggles with a smaller congregation, Harvest Church. Under cover of a good adventure tale, there’s a lot to learn about church family systems, conflict response and maybe even marriage communication. It would be excellent for a congregational discussion/study to be enjoyed over several sessions.
Suzanne hears so much about Covenant Church before her first visit that it compounds her problems: the word is it’s abusive and drives off pastors. Her natural inclination is to “listen and learn,” but from day one she’s on guard. Does her very stance contribute to the difficulties? She expects the problems to show up shouting loudly; she finds they’re trickier than that and sometimes arrive in the guise of “adoration” accompanied by a box of chocolates.
Difficulties? Sourpuss Tommy tithes 60 percent of the budget and thinks that’s a purchase. Regular “comers-by” spend too much time at the church and sow discord with reports about “what someone said.” There is mistrust of the presbytery and a great deal of blame assigned to previous pastors; the wall with their photos is as much rogues’ gallery as tribute. A question about using the church coffeepot echoes with authenticity. When added to the vanilla extract kerfuffle — one-third alcohol! — we learn that Suzanne’s parish is one where anything can happen!
Soon, Suzanne comes under fire herself, since the parish has practiced the sport of preacher-bashing long enough to be pretty good at it. The issue is another good discussion topic: her collegial friendship with the local funeral director. There’s nothing improper, but rumor soon reaches and influences her family life. Even Suzanne’s supportive husband, Bell, shows signs of doubt and stress.
The relationship with Bell is particularly interesting since it raises deeper questions about women pastors than the iconic stricture about “keeping silence in church.” Judy Rich asks us about the real differences in the approach of women pastors, which are subtler than that. Bell reaches for the “confrontation” card, whereas Suzanne tends to favor collaboration. Sadie Ross, a bright and thoughtful presbytery staffer, recommends an openhearted catch-as-catch-can meeting of the congregation to air the issues. Will that help or just blow the thing wide open?
Another thread worth provocative discussion concerns Suzanne and Bell’s children and the care and feeding of “clergy kids.” Julie is 13, Peter 12 and in pre-teen rebellion (a revolting teen?). We could wish Rich gave more help in rearing today’s manse-dwelling teens; her best advice here seems to be “wait.”
Such learning modules surface out of Suzanne’s newest trying pastorate; Judy Rich promises more to come. Here’s the perfect book for a lively class on “Church Problems and How to Face Them.” While we plan this, we’re also looking forward to this author’s promised next pastoral hegira. We wonder what lessons it will incorporate … and which biblical image it will be like.
Houston Hodges is a retired Presbyterian minister and parish associate at the Big Cove Presbyterian Church in the Hampton Cove area of Huntsville, Alabama.