What *Do* People Say to Ministers?

Author’s Note: I wrote this essay in January 2012 responding to a video produced by some people completing their seminary education. Those people have become treasured colleagues and effective leaders in the Church – they also decided to make that video private, so sharing the link won’t do anything.

I posted the original essay to Facebook. I’ve returned to it because the Memories feature drew it to my attention.

A video appeared in my News Feed ten years ago. 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 word was not “Stuff,” of course. It did begin with the letter “S.”

I’ve been an ordained minister for thirty-three years. And I’ve heard most of the questions asked in the video over that time (I’m particularly fond of a sequence of blank stares). OK, I haven’t been asked about being a nun, and I haven’t heard many of questions about the Mayan calendar. 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 dared to lay aside their ignorance and ask a question.

It wasn’t, and I know it isn’t, and so I commend the filmmakers, my colleagues and friends (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 did, indeed, 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 congregation leaders.

Ordained ministry comes with a huge load of cultural expectations, some of which 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?

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 the laying on of hands.” The cultural expectation, however muddled and confused, follows right along. Ordained 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 not acceptable.

That’s not unique – many of the other helping professions come with the same expectation – but I recall the degree of shock and even some outrage which greeted Lillian 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. There may have been wisdom she hasn’t heard.

Perhaps she should. Perhaps there was.

But if she was a therapist with years of study in her field and twenty 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 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. Not impossible, but very, very hard.

Full credit to these, my now-and-future colleagues in this puzzling, precious calling. They’ve dared to ask the questions, because they’ll be faced with them as they live their lives: lives set apart by the laying on of hands.

Self-portrait by Eric Anderson.

2 thoughts on “What *Do* People Say to Ministers?

  1. What a wonderful post, real today as 2012 … but of course we still preach from really old texts. And here is my favorite question addressed … picture ecclesiastical council 1980 after passionate libration theology paper read (I was a student of Jim cone and Gustavo Gutierrez) FIRST question … “What does your husband think of you becoming a minister?” Chuck Harper Assoc Conference Minister in Mass said, “You didn’t hit him so we’ll ordain you.”

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