My wife, Stacey, and I have a game we like to play at parties. We will get into a conversation with someone we don't know, as normal, and we will wait until the conversation begins to run its course. Once we're ready to get out of the conversation, we direct the line of discussion towards work, and the person we're talking to will inevitably ask us what we do.
"We're ministers," we say, and then we see how long it takes the conversation to completely shut down. On average, it is less than a minute.
Oh, the person will stammer, say something about how they usually go to church, and if it is Saturday night, and they've already talked about their plans to stay out late and sleep in the next morning, they'll say something like, "Well, I usually go on Sunday evening" which, of course, is neither true nor a particularly good lie. I would prefer something along the lines of, "Well, I would go to church, but I think it is stupid." Or "Why on earth would you want to be a minister?" Or "Church? Like the chicken place?"
Inevitably, the person with whom we're talking says, "Oh, that's cool," and the conversation just ends. Nobody knows how to engage after that. And there's no turning back from that kind of roadblock. You can't talk about last week's Mad Men when you've thrown that kind of news on somebody. A minister? At a party? . . . I think I will go talk to someone else.
When I first started telling people what I do, I was really surprised by the response I got. I mean, this is my reality. Ministry is normal to me because it is the life I live. My wife lives it, too, so it is not unusual for us to talk about theological minutiae at the dinner table, or about who is driving us crazy this week, or about our hopes for the future in ministry. Ministry is what I do, and a minister is who I am (in the strongest sense of "am"). I do not look in the mirror and think anything other than "I need a haircut."
But for others, particularly those who are not active in the church, meeting a minister must be like meeting a martian. Meeting a young minister must be like meeting a giant martian, and meeting a young minister at a party must be like, well, you understand.
I suppose part of the surprise is because of my age. I am twenty-seven, and while historically ministers started out much younger than me, the average clergyperson these days is pushing ninety.
I kid, I kid. But you get the picture. Not only are there fewer young clergy, but my generation does not seem to get church. Especially because many of my friends are single and without children, they do not see a need for church. That is fine, I suppose. I mean, I am a fan of church, at least when it is done well. But I understand the apprehension. There have been days when church did not sound so great to me, either.
I understand the hesitation with church, but I wonder if even more than the shock at my profession in general, and my age in particular, it seems shocking to people that they would go to a party and end up talking to a minister. Ministers just do not go to parties, you understand.
Actually, this is probably fair. You tend not to see many ministers at parties. I suppose we are busy with church potlucks and Bible studies and such.
I worry that clergy are an insular bunch. Actually, I know they are an insular bunch, and I worry about what that does both to clergy and to everybody else.
Some of my closest friends are clergy, and for good reason. We share struggles, we understand unique pressures, and we have similar interests. Plus, those of us who are young United Methodist clergy will be colleagues for the next 30 to 40 years. We might as well get along.
Being friends with clergy, though, is not enough. There are plenty of great, non-clergy (and non-church!) folk who make perfectly good friends, I am here to tell you. Miss out on those folks, and you are missing out on some good people.
Now, I am not someone who thinks it is all that great when pastors go hang out in bars "to meet the regular people." That is a little overdone, and I am a little tired of hearing the same old "well, Jesus hung out with sinners" line. When you've labeled them sinners like that, you've already created enough of a barrier that jumping over it is probably out of the question.
I do think, though, that pastors should be intentional--there's that word again--about not limiting themselves to church life. Not only is it not productive to hang out with church people all the time, in terms of my own faith development, but I am pretty sure it is not healthy to conflate my professional life with each and every one of my personal relationships.
That does not mean I am not always a minister. I am. Mine is not a 9-5 calling, and I am Rev. Rushing when I am in the shower and when I am on vacation and when I am at a party, just as much as I am Rev. Rushing when I am wearing a robe or visiting the hospital. But always being a minister does not mean I am only allowed to hang out with people who feel the need for church. Most people, you ought not be shocked to learn, do not feel the need for church. I am missing out on a lot of fine folks if I limit my friends to church people. And I am not doing myself justice if all I do is church-related.
So I will keep going to parties, and I am not going to choose all my friends with a church-attendance litmus test in my back pocket. I hope my clergy friends do the same. It is good, I think, to be in an environment when I am just another somebody in the room. It reminds me that while the call of God is good, it does not make me so special. I need to hear that sometimes.
Plus, if more clergy would bridge those divides, and these kinds of relationships were more commonplace, it would make conversations at parties a little less awkward. So there's that.