I’m Normal, I Swear!
A common conversation topic among clergy is whether or not we tell strangers what we do for a living. Air travel, for instance, poses a particularly stark dilemma. Nobody wants to be trapped in a potentially awkward and halting conversation with a stranger for hours on end much less be a captive audience to somebody’s existential crisis, complaints about institutional religion or — truly the worst situation for me — to be on the receiving end of a whole litany of fervently conservative convictions about Christianity, which progressive clergy like myself try to distance ourselves from. There is a time for honest and open dialogue, just as there is a time to quietly sip a Diet Coke with only the sounds of Top Chef in my earbuds. In situations like these, ministers are most tempted to lie about their chosen career — or at least be vague enough to forestall further discussion.
But more often than not, when I am upfront about what I do, the response is more awkward avoidance than curious engagement, especially from those who have not had any real personal contact with ministers. American society is increasingly secularized, especially in the relatively liberal coastal towns and cities I have lived in. Many people have no real familiarity with the diverse breadth of American Christianity and hold to stereotypes of religious leaders and believers as judgmental, close-minded and fundamentally strange others. If my identity as a full-time minister is out in the open, I run the risk of being viewed with suspicion or even avoided in mixed social settings. As such, a natural sub-topic within the aforementioned common conversation topic among fellow clergy is how my single colleagues navigate this situation in the mainstream dating world where individual identities are so quickly reduced to the minimalist swipe left/swipe right dossiers of apps and profiles. No amount of careful crafting seems to say, “Yes, but I’m not that kind of minister.”
This awkward response from non-religious people has never bothered me until now. That’s because it has only been until now that I’ve had to make new friends. As a United Methodist pastor, I am part of what we call an itinerant system. This means that clergy are appointed to churches by our bishop and reappointed every few years during our careers. Most of the time, we don’t have much say in terms of where we are appointed although the bishop and cabinet do the best they can to appoint us to churches that correspond with our skill sets and interests.
I was appointed to a church in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia. As a young mom with few ties to this immediate area, I did the customary modern thing, looking to join mommy groups and playdates through Facebook and Meetup. At my first visit to one of these gatherings, I made what later seemed to be a mistake: I was truthful about what I did for a living. At first, I thought I got off easy as no one’s demeanor or attitude visibly shifted. However, I should have known this revelation would not go unnoticed or uninterrogated. I later heard from one of my friends in the group that at their next gathering, other moms asked if I was “normal.”
It surprised me that I was hurt by their suspicion and surprised by why this felt so new. I realized that as a young minister, nearly all of my friends up to this point had either befriended me before I became a minister, were colleagues or otherwise had some personal connection to Christianity. The experience of trying to make friends as a minister with people who might have only the most tenuous notion of what that means was in fact very new to me. And I didn’t like it.
A basic part of my job is being emotionally resilient and maintaining a critical distance from those I minister to precisely so that I can be that comforting voice and willing ear for those who need it. But that doesn’t change the simple fact that, like everybody else, I long to belong, to be accepted without suspicion or reservation. And like it or not, at some level, this means being seen as “normal” by others.
For what it’s worth, I feel profoundly normal most of the time. I got married at 27 to a guy I met in graduate school and had a son a few years later. I like to have a nice glass of wine after a long day of phone calls and meetings. I eat too many sweets and try fad diets if and when I have the motivation. I watch The Bachelor (with a twinge of shame), catch SNL on Youtube and probably use my smartphone more than I should. I worry about money and living in an area with good schools for my son and one day affording a down payment for a house where real estate is too expensive. I am not an ascetic or a die-hard homeschooling advocate. I don’t have fantasies about the rapture or the second coming of Christ or plagues of locusts and divine vengeance. Most all of my colleagues in ministry have similarly mundane (dare I say “normal”) worries, preferences and desires. Perhaps I could say all this out loud. But that would certainly be protesting too much.
And yet, I do admit that there are many ways in which my vocation makes me feel profoundly not normal. The role of the Christian minister is to be a go-between for God and humanity. This is why we distribute communion, why we pray for others, why we preach and why we officiate memorial services and weddings. There are many days when I feel intimated, burdened and humbled by my role, especially when I am ministering to someone three times my own age. I have learned that as a go-between, I must continually nourish my own soul so that I am not drawing from an empty well. And also because I want to do right by this 90-year-old woman who trusts me with her own soul.
But why would me being a minister make me less normal than the person next to me, who like me, has been called to her unique vocation that I cannot do. A childhood friend is a special education teacher and I am in awe of what she does because I could never do what she does. It is her gift. And she feels the exact same way about me and my profession. So it is that every single one of us in this world have our own unique callings based on our unique life experiences and skill sets, which nobody else can replicate. In this way, nobody is normal. Or maybe, precisely because of this, we’re all normal.