People relate to ministers, or clergymen, in such strange ways. I’m sure this applies to priests, rabbis and imams as well.
On the one hand, they may walk into my office and tell me things that they tell nobody else. Even though I assure them I am not a psychologist or social worker, they still unburden, so I try to listen carefully, point out alternatives and use what skills I have in counseling. Then, if needed, I refer them to a trained professional.
Many times all they need is just a listener. I remember one man who barged into my office on a Monday morning to declare, “Pastor, I have a terrible problem and I have to make a crucial decision. I don’t know what to do!”
I had hardly opened my mouth to ask, “Can I help?” when he continued, “If I do this, (such and such) will happen. But if I do that, (other consequences will occur).” He looked distressed, and then said, “Well, I have to do the first thing. That’s the only choice I have.” He stepped forward, pumped my hand and said, “Thank you so much for helping me.”
I hadn’t done anything, but I was glad to receive his appreciation.
Sometimes people tell you things that surprise you. The ideal family sometimes turns out to have the deepest problems.
On the other hand, people will try to shield your innocent ears from things they think you shouldn’t hear. People will swear and then apologize. I assure them I’ve heard those words before.
One person hid his beer can under his chair rather than offer me one.
I know a developer who had big plans for restoring and expanding an old building. From his point of view, the governmental officials were giving him a hard time about it and wanted modifications in his plan that he didn’t want to make. In exasperation he said to me, “You know what I should do? I’ve learned you can always restore a building to its earlier historic use, so I think I’ll …” He stopped abruptly. “Oh, Reverend, I’m sorry. I can’t talk about this to you.”
“Sure you can,” I said. “I’m curious now. Tell me.”
“Well,” he said, “it used to be a brothel.”
Now why couldn’t he have said that to me? So I said, “Will you offer a clergy discount?”
That delighted him. He promised me that I could visit free.
Guess what? I was a boy and then a man long before I became a minister. I think I’ve heard it all. I may not use, or approve of, certain vocabulary but I can relate to the person who uses it without being judgmental. What I crave, and I think this is true of most religious professionals, is to be treated as a regular human being.
One minister told me he always wears his collar when traveling so people will know he is clergy in case they want to talk. I tell him I don’t wear a collar so that they’re more likely to talk!
If someone uses racist or abusive language, I hope I’ll always have the courage to object, but the skill to do so in a way that does not seem holier than thou. That’s in a different category from the point of this column. Clergy don’t need to be protected from everyday life, they need to be included and accepted. Once people give you permission to be human, then you can relate to them in positive, honest and helpful ways. Treat us as regular people and that gives us permission to do the same with you.