What do people say to ministers?

by Eric Anderson

Not long ago, a video appeared in my Facebook News Feed. I watched it. I recognized one of the actors. I chortled. I laughed out loud. And, being somewhat cautious in the language I use in public, I hesitated to re-Share it on my own Wall. It was, after all titled “[Stuff] people say to ministers.”

The video, with its unbowdlerized title and content, is below.

I’ve been an ordained minister for twenty-three years. And I’ve heard most of the questions asked in the video below over that time (I’m particularly fond of the sequence of blank stares). OK, I haven’t heard the question about being a nun, and I haven’t heard many of the Mayan calendar questions. I suspect that’s just chance. But I’ve certainly been asked what I do when it’s not Sunday, and people clearly stop before telling me certain jokes.

I watched it. I recognized the people being played by the actors. I chortled. I laughed out loud.

And I hesitated before sharing it on my own Wall, because I knew that this light, playful, slightly wistful mirror on the life of an ordained minister, which had been created by four people still in the early days of that life, could so easily be seen and heard as a dismissal of those earnest, honest people who dare to lay aside their ignorance and ask a question.

It isn’t, and I know it isn’t, and so I commend the filmmakers, my colleagues and friends (alums and soon-to-be alums of my own seminary), for their gentle humor, their earnest wrestling with the new shape of their lives, and their courageous honesty. I offer them my sympathy for the misunderstandings that I fear will come their way.

There are so many ways in which members of the clergy share the experience of other professionals, other “experts” in a field of study. We are sought out for what we know and what we know how to do – for exposition of texts treasured by communities for thousands of years, for comforting the bereaved in the midst of shock and loss, for expressing the needs and longings of a community to powers beyond us – and we are also subject to being dismissed for filling those expectations. The therapist frustrated by the client who rejects the advice “that sounds like something a psychologist would say” and the safety consultant dismissed for being “over-cautious” will recognize the experience of the preacher whose warnings about selfishness go unheeded because that, after all, is “what ministers always say.”

Like these other professionals, ministers may be discounted if they seem to step outside their field. The auto mechanic is unlikely to be taken seriously when giving stock advice, and the securities trader may be ignored when suggesting a remedy for car trouble. The minister faces this problem in the week-to-week exercise of the profession, however, attending to the management of a physical plant and to the oversight of financial resources. Not all ministers are good at these things. I, for example, am far better at recognizing plumbing problems than fixing them. Those who are highly skilled, however, may find it difficult to have their skills recognized by other leaders around them.

The video touches upon a basic characteristic of ordained ministry: it comes with a huge load of cultural expectations, some of which (listen to the questions) have been confused amidst the shifts of culture, some of which have combined expectations from disparate traditions, and some of which have been muddled by imperfect transmission of the traditions. In a society increasingly disconnected from a common religious heritage, this puzzling welter of expectations is likely to only get more scattered.

As I said, I’ve been asked what I do when it’s not Sunday. It’s not really a bad question. Very few people prepare a new public presentation every week, so it’s difficult to appreciate the planning time required for a sermon (and indeed, the entire worship service). One hundred years ago, the pastor’s house-to-house visits which kept the community aware of its members’ needs were easily visible down the street or across the fields. Today, the pastor’s car blends in with the rest, and in cities and suburbs the pastoral visit is a rare event since families are only briefly together at the close of day. Planning meetings, hospital visits, and convalescent home calls are mostly invisible. It’s Sunday morning that can be seen.

But some of the questions reveal the power – and the constraints – placed upon clergy by others’ expectations. “Oh, so you’re a minister? I used to sleep around a lot in college.” It’s funny; it’s also a statement of profound honesty that I can’t imagine being addressed to a member of very many other professions. The mere mention of the vocation’s name invited a memory and a moral reflection. It’s an invitation (potentially, anyway) to a deeper conversation. The same is true of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and “Can you lead us in grace?”

How many people, walking into a room, communicate the compassion of a community, and of a Power greater than any community, simply by their presence? It’s an extraordinary privilege.

Likewise the constraints: the questions about musical tastes, and sexuality, and drinking, and swearing. “It’s so great that the church lets you out.” Oh, yes, and my favorite, the puzzled stares. Those are real. There’s a line in the ordination service which is so true it’s nearly universally ignored: “Set apart by prayer and the laying on of hands.” The cultural expectation, however muddled and confused, follows right along. These people are, in some way we may not entirely understand, different. Set apart. Subject to a different set of expectations. Accountable in entirely different ways.

The best example I can come up with is the expectation about, well, dumb questions. Every professional, every worker in a trade, gets them. Few will be surprised at the occasional annoyed outburst. Hurt, perhaps, but not surprised.

From clergy, it’s surprising. It’s more than surprising: it’s not acceptable.

That’s not unique – many of the other helping professions come with a similar expectation – but I recall the degree of shock and even some outrage which greeted my friend Lillain Daniel’s exasperated (though considered) response to one-too-many casual “I’m spiritual, but not religious” conversations with strangers. She should have listened to the person, I read. He may have possessed wisdom she hadn’t heard.

Perhaps she should. Perhaps he did.

But if she was a therapist with years of study in her field and 20 years of counseling practice, would we so easily endorse a questioner’s statement, “I don’t need therapy for my failings. I’ve got my own resources.”

Perhaps we should. Perhaps he has.

But perhaps he doesn’t.

What do people say to ministers? They accept the invitation of the calling and the office to go places they might not go with anyone else in the world, powerful places of self-examination and spiritual exploration. They project upon the minister, the rabbi, the nun, the priest, the monk, all the power of spiritual community and spiritual Power, and reaching through that projection, they sometimes find the real thing.

And what do people say to ministers? They may also project their mistaken understandings of the office and the calling, and stumble into conversations that will take huge effort to end up somewhere good. Sometimes they’re innocuous and humorous – for Protestants, at least, that describes the questions about sex – but sometimes they’re not.

“Well, I don’t believe that the world was created in seven days, so I don’t believe in God.” That’s a place it’s hard to move on from. It places definitions of faith and ministry on the table that may, but probably don’t, apply. The very statement announces a closed door. Opening it is not impossible, but it’s very, very hard.

Full credit to these, my now-and-future colleagues in this puzzling, precious calling. They’ve dared to ask the questions. They’ll need to find the answers, and some of them must be rediscovered every single time they hear the question.

They’ll face these questions and more because they will live set apart by prayer and the laying on of hands.

Here’s the link to the video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBf0etzXfP8

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